24 May 2020, WAC-MAAN
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.