In East Jerusalem, a Trip to the Israeli Unemployment Office Is a Long, Hot, Crowded Ordeal

A member of a workers' group in the Arab east of the city had to wait nearly four hours before seeing a clerk. In the Jewish west, the visit was finished in an hour and 40 minutes

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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East Jerusalem.
East Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Enduring long lines and registration stands that provide documents only in Hebrew while standing in crowds for hours in the heat is the lot of East Jerusalemites who need to visit the local branch of the Israeli Employment Service.

A week ago, two researchers from the Maan workers’ organization visited two Employment Service offices in Jerusalem – one on Jaffa Road in the west of the city and one in the Wadi Joz neighborhood in the east. Researcher Erez Wagner went to the office in West Jerusalem, arriving at 8:41 A.M.

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Six minutes later he had registered and was waiting to be seen in an air-conditioned hall that had bathrooms and a water cooler. At 10:20, an hour and 40 minutes after arriving, he could leave, having met with a clerk.

That morning the second researcher, Razan Mashahara, visited the office in East Jerusalem. She approached the computerized registration stand that was outside the office to get a number. While the screen can be switched to Arabic, the note that it issued her was in Hebrew.

She then went to the security-check line and waited 35 minutes. After that she was ushered into an internal courtyard that is not air-conditioned and serves both the Employment Service and the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority.

Although everyone receives a note with a number, people who get out of line to get a drink – at a water cooler 10 meters away – or to go to the bathroom inside the building might lose their spot. This is because while the note assures entry on from the courtyard, reception is not strictly by number.

“The courtyard is divided by a metal fence that controls the queue. The line for the bureau was very crowded and people were standing right on top of each other. It was crowded and hot,” Mashahara said.

“There must have been hundreds of people stuffed in there. I didn’t see a single sign explaining about protection against the coronavirus, directing people to professional training or any explanatory signs at all. But there was a sign saying you couldn’t take pictures.”

After around 40 minutes waiting in the hot and crowded courtyard, Mashahara asked to go to the bathroom. “I called the guard and he said he could let me in but that he couldn’t save my place,” she said.

“I asked people to save my place for me, and luckily they agreed. I squeezed out of the line between the bars, and at the entrance [to the hall that leads to the bathrooms], the guard demanded my ID card to let me enter.” At about the same time, a woman who felt ill dropped out of the line.

After waiting two hours and 40 minutes in the courtyard, Mashahara was taken into a corridor, where she waited another half an hour. “The guard calls people by numbers, but not by a specific number but by hundreds,” she said.

“Everyone with a number between 600 and 699, for example, is supposed to wait for a specific clerk. Both guards only spoke Hebrew. People didn’t understand what was being said, so I translated for them.” At 12:30, nearly four hours after arriving, Mashahara was finally seen by a clerk.

This testimony joins many others on the conditions at the office in East Jerusalem. A., 45, stood in line for two and a half hours last week in the hot courtyard. “There were so many people that there wasn’t a centimeter of space between them,” he said.

“Some were wearing masks and some weren’t. I’m afraid of the coronavirus. I have children and a wife at home. I put on a mask, but because of the heat it was wet with sweat. People leaned on me and pushed me. I felt like a mackerel, or in a box of cucumbers.

“I sat at home for a year and a half without a job because of the coronavirus, and in the end they tell me to come to the employment office and put me right into the coronavirus.”

In theory, a resident of East Jerusalem who must report to the Employment Service can visit the West Jerusalem office. But if you make your first visit there, you have to stick with that office. Most East Jerusalemites prefer the East Jerusalem office; it’s closer and there’s the language issue.

A letter sent by Wagner and attorney Abir Joubran-Dakwar of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel to the Employment Service outlined the various problems with the East Jerusalem office. As they put it, not only do the long lines and unreasonable waiting times undermine the basic rights of East Jerusalem residents, “they have also turned the Employment Service office into fertile ground for the spread of the coronavirus.”

ACRI and Maan have two petitions pending at the High Court of Justice regarding the conditions at the office, one on language accessibility and one on the waiting and registration problems.

The coronavirus crisis dealt a harsh blow to employment in East Jerusalem and increased the pressure on the local Employment Service office. Many Palestinian workers in Jerusalem were furloughed and eventually fired because of the collapse of the tourism and restaurant sectors due to the travel restrictions and lockdowns. Jerusalem currently has 18,000 Palestinian job seekers, a huge increase over the pre-pandemic period.

The Employment Service said: “The legal mandate under which the Employment Service operates, during routine times and especially in times of crisis, is to effectively return job seekers to the labor force. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, the Employment Service has had to work under the guidelines of the Health Ministry and the coronavirus cabinet, to implement its mandate subject to the government guidelines in the struggle to bring down the infection rate.

“During the coronavirus year the Employment Service opened and closed its offices to the public in accordance with the government’s purple badge rules, while now, given the increase in morbidity rates, the service seeks to restrict the number of visitors to its offices to those who really require the service. Job seekers are often visiting the employment offices even though they are not required to report, which only adds to the pressure.

“Therefore, the service has taken several actions to regulate the load, including extending reception hours. Moreover, the Employment Service is sending messages to hundreds of thousands of registered job seekers suggesting that they update their employment status in a simple digital process, to reduce the number of people reporting to the offices and without undermining the efforts being made by the service to effectively return them to the workforce. The service is also considering additional tools that will get people back to work while doing the maximum to protect public health.”

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