Where the Postman Rings Twice (A Week, if That)

The Supreme Court is hearing a case by a civil rights organization charging that Israel is failing in its duty to provide mail service to residents of East Jerusalem.

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Khader Abu Sbitan is the mukhtar of A-Tur, an East Jerusalem neighborhood of nearly 23,000 residents. There, the local post office is so tiny and crowded that on certain days of the month, when people need to pay bills or receive payments, the line stretches out the door and up the road. One service they don't receive is, well, mail delivery.

Instead, Abu Sbitan says, the postman comes to the neighborhood he heads once or twice a week and drops off stacks of mail at a few stores and the barbershop, leaving thousands of people to come and get it.

Abu Sbitan would like for the mail to come to his front door, as it does for people in West Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. But that service doesn’t exist in his or most other East Jerusalem neighborhoods, because the vast majority of streets have no names or numbers. Since the mail isn’t delivered to his house, he’s officially entitled to a free postal box.

But good luck getting one of those. He pays NIS 200 a year for a coveted box in another neighborhood. With new boxes so hard to come by, he winds up receiving mail for himself – and about 30 relatives. Often, postal workers unsure of what to do with mail addressed to distant relations with the same last name will stuff their envelopes into his box as well.

“The worst part of all is the crowding,” explains Abu Sbitan. “On days when salaries are paid or state child support payments are sent, and everyone needs to go on the same day to pick up their payment or to pay certain bills, there can be a two-to-three-hour wait. The line goes up the hill and people have to wait out in the sun or in the cold. And our branch is even more crowded, because there’s no post office in Wadi Joz, so people there walk over to us in A-Tur instead.”

Abu Sbitan, who wears a grey suit and a friendly smile – both of them helpful in his job moderating local disputes and bringing the parties to a "sulha,"or "reconciliation" – chuckles at the irony of what has brought him all the way to the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court, where he is one of the petitioners in a legal battle being led by ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

“I pay the post office,” he mused as we waited for the hearing to start, “and I do their work.”

It sounds as low-tech as you can go: snail mail. Most of us take for granted that at least a few important monthly bills, personal mail and magazines get delivered to our mailboxes, whether at the front door, in the lobby of our buildings or at a nearby post office if we choose. But in a world where not everyone has a home computer to receive bills at an e-mail address, mail delivery remains a crucial public service. Those East Jerusalemites who do ask for their bills via e-mail find that they need to then print them out and bring them to a post office to pay them. (Some people avoid credit cards and others are ineligible to get them.)

Many, it seems, find themselves taking long walks to Jewish neighborhoods with modern post offices and quicker service, or driving to them and incurring further costs.

“Why should I spend an hour driving around to get my mail, paying for parking, when other people get it for free?” asks Mahmoud Qaraeen, a field worker for ACRI who lives in Silwan. “It’s a basic thing. I pay all of my city taxes just like everyone else, but we don’t get basic service. It just seems that they’re not interested in improving things in East Jerusalem.”

That was the crux of the argument made by ACRI at a Supreme Court hearing on Thursday. ACRI has been pursing legal action on the issue since 2010, and at each hearing, the courts have asked the responsible agencies – the Israel Postal Company, the Jerusalem municipality and the Communications Ministry – to make massive improvements and bring postal services in East Jerusalem into the 21st century.

Keren Tzafrir, the lead lawyer on the case for ACRI, said the improvements so far were miniscule and included the opening of one office in a small Christian neighborhood called Beit Faji as well as adding some postal boxes in Jabal Mukaber. But in some of the most problematic areas, she said, nothing has changed.

“We keep hearing of beautiful plans to improve, but in the last year and a half, there’s very little progress and almost nothing happening on the ground,” Tzafrir told the court.

The postal authorities have told ACRI and its petitioners they see no need to add post offices, despite the fact that there are nine in East Jerusalem – where a third of the city’s resident’s lives – and 42 in West Jerusalem. Beit Safafa, for example, has no post office, and its 11,200 residents have been told they can go to Gilo or some other nearby Jewish neighborhood. The same goes for Al-Issawiya – it has a distribution center but no post office, and people have been told they’re free to walk over to French Hill. Kafr 'Aqab in the northernmost tip of Jerusalem has neither a post office nor even a distribution center – the one that did exist was burned down about four years ago and never replaced. ACRI says the work of teenage vandals should not stop the authorities from putting in a new one. Lawyers for the defense suggest it’s indicative of a bigger problem.

“For our part, we’re doing everything we can,” said Zeev Zaitman, a lawyer representing the Postal Company. “There are neighborhoods where it’s hard to distribute the mail. And it must be said that we need cooperation from the residents.”

He denied that many neighborhoods only get mail delivery about twice a week, eliciting whispers of “liar” from some of interested parties in the back rows of the courtroom.

Judges Elyakim Rubinstein, Hanan Melcer and Uzi Vogelman grilled lawyers representing the three relevant bodies and blamed them for dragging their feet on the issue since it was first brought before the court in 2010.

“It’s our opinion that you need to get into a much more high-level process on the matter of delivering mail in eastern Jerusalem,” Rubinstein said.

Vogelman was even more pointed in his comments to the lawyers for the three authorities responsible for Jerusalem’s mail.

“It’s good that something is being done, maybe a little too late. But it seems you want to do the bare minimum,” he said. “In a developed country, there are rules about how to distribute the mail.”

Melcer added that if the Postal Company can’t find it’s way to improving the situation, “perhaps it's the Postal Company that needs to be changed.”

The judges gave the Postal Company, the Communications Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality four months to work out an improvement plan. When the court next meets on the issue, it could force the three authorities to take more concrete steps and possibly set a precedent for other places in the country.

In the meantime, one improvement has emerged as something of a byproduct of the battle of the mailbox. The municipality is working with resident of four East Jerusalem neighborhoods – Sur Baher, Issawiye, Beit Hanina and Shuafat – to create street names and numbers, thereby enabling mail delivery to individual homes and buildings.

“I would be really glad to have street names and numbers if that would make them start delivering mail to our homes,” said Mohammed Siyaj, a medical secretary who lives in the lower part Abu Tor. In the upper part of Abu Tor, which is Jewish, mail comes to each person’s mailbox.

“There’s more than one person named Mohamed Siyaj,” he grinned. “There are many people with this name, so they often get us confused, and I get someone else’s mail.”

Khader Abu Sbitan, who lives in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of A-tur, pays for a postal box - and picks up the mail for around 30 relatives.Credit: Ilene Prusher

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