WAC-MAAN: Hotline for East Jerusalem workers and jobless during the Coronavirus shutdown

In light of the Coronavirus crisis and its harm to East Jerusalem residents, WAC MAAN launched an Arabic-language emergency hotline, providing assistance and counseling to Corona victims regarding their employment […]

In light of the Coronavirus crisis and its harm to East Jerusalem residents, WAC MAAN launched an Arabic-language emergency hotline, providing assistance and counseling to Corona victims regarding their employment and Social Security. Additionally, in March WAC published, in both an online booklet and on its Facebook page, guidelines in Arabic on how to file unemployment claims. In order to operate the hotline, WAC opened a dedicated WhatsApp account to which it could send scanned documents. It recruited some 10 volunteers who were trained to assist WAC staff in helping hundreds of people to receive the necessary documentation from the Employment Service and submit them to Social Security.

The WAC office in Jerusalem was temporarily closed on March 12, and all work was conducted by staff and volunteers from their homes. For the past 20 years WAC’s office in East Jerusalem was an address for thousands of Palestinian residents on matters relating to workers’ rights and social benefits. On reception days the place was bustling with activity. Now the shutdown of the office was replaced by what Razan Mashahara, a WAC coordinator, described as “a tsunami” (!) of calls. Within a few days some 850 requests were received, some from Israel and others from the West Bank. The latter were referred to another department in the organization. Over six weeks beginning from mid March, WAC handled 429 cases, work on some of which continues to this day. 293 applications were submitted to the Employment Bureau and Social Security, including 277 unemployment benefit claims, 15 income insurance claims, claims for old age grants and more.

The Corona virus closure imposed by Israel has left the 350,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem facing major difficulties in claiming unemployment benefits or income support. The closure of the Employment Bureau and Social Security offices, together with the lack of online forms and information in Arabic which would have allowed any Palestinian resident to complete and submit them from home via a computer or smartphone, have become an existential problem. Tackling these and many other problems WAC office approached the authorities and it is worth noting that in many cases our office enjoyed positive cooperation from the Employment Bureau and Social Security, both of which invested considerable effort to assist during this crisis.

The difficulties grew for those living in neighborhoods situated beyond the separation barrier, such as the Shuafat refugee camp or Kufr Aqab, which are also blocked by checkpoints. For a long time already, WAC, the Association for Civil Rights, Hebrew University’s legal clinics and other organizations have demanded that the Employment Service and Social Security render forms in Arabic  accessible to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, but these demands have been only partially met. The fact that online forms, the ‘personal area’ of ​​the Social Security website, and registration with the Employment Service are only accessible in Hebrew causes great harm to Palestinian residents. Due to unremitting pressure from WAC and other organizations, an online document was just recently published in Arabic, yet only part of it can be completed in Arabic.

In East Jerusalem WAC is joined by additional organizations who are active in this field, such as the Atta Center, which assisted in responding to the numerous requests for help. Al-Bashaer, an organization of volunteer Arab students from Hebrew University’s unit for the advancement of science education among Arab youth, dedicated the time and efforts of its eight volunteers in the second half of March to helping with issues related to the Employment Bureau and Social Security. At the end of March, the volunteers transferred the files for which resolution was still pending to WAC. WAC provided the volunteers with training via Zoom, as well as ongoing personal counseling sessions, and the volunteers continue their dedicated work these days as well.

Those turning to the WAC’s hotline needed assistance not only in filling out forms and submitting them. In order to register and actually receive unemployment benefits, they had to send documents such as photo IDs, paychecks and employment certificates (employers often refused to cooperate or did not bother to respond). Many applicants had foreclosed bank accounts, while others did not have bank accounts at all. In order to receive the allowance, the latter had to open accounts with the Postal Bank, which was so busy it was almost impossible to do so. Advance coordination with post office managers was necessary. At times we encountered biometric IDs that had not been activated.  Some were employed by employers from the West Bank and did not receive compensation. There were those who worked only a few weeks and it was unclear to what they were entitled. Others had work accidents and had to obtain medical documents. Some submitted the applications themselves but did not know if they had been received. There were applicants who did not possess a settled residency status. Handling every request often required days of work and follow-up.

Lina Abu Sneina, an Al-Bashaer volunteer, lives in Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem. She is in her second year of studies in Biomedical Studies in the Hadassah Ein Karem hospital campus. She volunteered at Al-Bashaer until 31 March, and then continued to volunteer with WAC.

“It was an opportunity to meet people from many walks of life, to help them,” she says. “I met, for example, a man who needed to receive income benefits. We discovered that because he lived in the past in the West Bank, he had registered only two of his six children with the Interior Ministry in East Jerusalem and therefore the Authorities did not consider him a resident of East Jerusalem and did not want to recognize his rights. He had to provide numerous documents and couldn’t get them all. In the end we found pay slips and asked for unemployment benefits. Three teachers also came to me who taught via the Ministry of Education but did not receive pay slips. They could not contact the Social Security without them, and schools were closed. It was very frustrating, and we referred them to legal assistance from WAC. I came across a lot of employers who wanted to fire their employees instead of furloughing them. I managed to convince some, while for the others I demanded and received letters of termination of work. I’ll continue to volunteer with WAC until July because it is doing essential work, especially for employees who don’t know Hebrew or who don’t dare contact their employers.  I learned that Arab volunteers have a lot to do here.”

Sarah  Ibrahim, lives in the Shuafat refugee camp, beyond the separation barrier. She happened to meet Dana Pomerantz, WAC’s legal coordinator at a “language exchange” meeting where Jews and Arabs talk to each other, and learned that WAC was looking for a new staff member. She began work on February 23, just days before the closure was imposed. She received instruction and guidance, and managed to handle during the crisis no less than 169 cases.

“I have to work to live, and it is better to work from home than not to work at all. Every day I learn something new. During the Corona virus crisis I mainly helped the unemployed. Some managed to receive money, while there were others for whom we continue to gather the necessary documents. Most of those requesting assistance from WAC were happy with our work and thanked us for helping them in this current crisis. Among the Palestinian employers there are many who try to cheat and not pay what is due to the workers. They did not want to provide a letter of termination or paid vacation, and then I had to talk to them. Some of them I managed to convince. Israeli employers do not always want to pay, but at least they know the labor laws.”

Sara: “As a resident of Shuafat Camp, I experience the difficulties of living on the other side of the wall every day. When there is no closure, I leave the house early and travel to work by bus. Although the distance between my home in the camp and WAC’s office in Salah A Din St. is not more than 5 km and should take no more than 20 minutes by bus, the trip is always a lot longer.  Sometimes we are stopped at the checkpoint, passengers are told to show their IDs, and this can delay me over an hour and a half on my way to work, depending on the mood of the soldiers.”

Carmel Hess, a volunteer at WAC, plans to study psychology and social work next year. She was participating in a program for activists last winter called “Midreshet Dror”, where she and her colleagues held a month of meetings with activist organizations to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this program she met WAC’s executive director, Assaf Adiv and decided to volunteer with the union. She didn’t know exactly how she will fit with the organization’s activity until the epidemic broke out.

“When the Coronavirus crisis began, I realized that instead of sitting at home, doing nothing, I can contribute to something significant, because there are people suddenly without work, and they can be tangibly helped in a short period of time. I also know a little Arabic. At first it was difficult. WAC team sent me phone numbers and documents from those turning to the hotline for assistance. I called them, introduced myself, and filed claims with the Employment Bureau and Social Security. For an organized person this is a simple process, while for those who do not save and file all their pay slips, it is more difficult. In one case, a woman contacted us who filed her claim alone, but when she entered her “personal area” on the Social Security website, there was a notification that her biometric ID had not been activated. It turned out that the ID had to be verified with a passport, including the issuance date of her very first passport, which she did not save, and each time there was yet another obstacle. It took a few days for us to resolve the issue.”

“Another typical case was of a person who had to prove his status as a permanent resident of Jerusalem. He was required to present endless documents: marriage certificate, electricity and water bills, apartment contracts, child allowances, school certificates. When all the documents were submitted, we discovered there was a discrepancy between the bank account number written on the pay slips, and the actual number in the Postal Bank, which took yet more time to sort out.  I handled over 30 cases, and it is still unclear to me what their status is. Many people received a down payment of NIS 2,000 for March until their claims are processed, and they may eventually have to pay money back to social security. In spite of all this, I was encouraged to know that Social Security provides a certain safety net to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem as well. We facea much more difficult situation in the West Bank and Gaza, where they have no assistance, even if they are working in Israel. I will be happy to continue my work with WAC even after the Coronavirus.”

Rezan Mashahara, from the neighborhood of Jabel Muqaber, began working at WAC in 2019. She has been working in different work places since the age of 19, including in Israel, which allowed her to learn Hebrew and support herself.

“From the beginning of the closure, we started to devote all our efforts to those harmed by the Coronavirus, postponing work on other issues. I receive at least 30 messages a day, sometimes also at night. I used to answer people so as to reduce their stress. I’ll give you an example of a person who had to open a bank account to receive unemployment benefits. He thought about having his money transferred to his foreman’s account, but Social Security requires every person to open a personal account, and I insisted on this. He lives in Anata near Shuafat refugee camp  and could not leave it without receiving a fine.  Finally he arrived at the post office on Salahadin Street in East Jerusalem, but there was an impossible line and he returned home. I made an appointment for him at the post office on Jaffa Street, in West Jerusalem but there it was too busy and he was not allowed in. I persuaded him not to give up. He looked for a recently opened post office branch in East Jerusalem, but couldn’t find it. He returned to the post office on Jaffa Street, but the police detained and threatened to fine him, and he returned home empty-handed. Eventually I sent him to the post office in the Jewish neighborhood  of the French Hill, where I made him an appointment, but they told him only Issawiya village  residents can open an account.  I explained to him how to calmly explain his situation to the branch manager, and finally an account was opened for him there. It took a month (!) to process his file. We submitted a claim, and he ended up receiving money for March and later for April, too.”

The picture that comes out of the stories told here by WAC workers and volunteers is one of a human tragedy due to the Corona crisis, with thousands of workers lacking papers or refused the rights to benefits because of claims on their residency in Jerusalem that usually are almost impossible to answer. So many people in need are not getting what they deserve and their social security net and due rights are violated, while the authorities responsible for their welfare and rights fail in providing them.  For example, the lack of accessible forms in Arabic is an issue that workers and human rights organizations such as WAC and others have repeatedly raised, and it is hoped that the current crisis will give the authorities the impetus to finally solve this problem. WAC’s work as a trade union is also expanding. There is a growing demand of Palestinian workers working in Israel and the settlements to organize, as a way to achieve their rights, but more about that in another article.

אודות Michal Schwarz