In Israeli Arab City Where Streets Have No Name, Receiving Mail Is a Feat

In a city of more than 60,000, street names and addresses are lacking, so some people wait for delivery at the entrance to town

The Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, January 28, 2018.
rami shlosh

Mahmoud Mahajneh of Umm al-Fahm is standing at the entrance to the post office on the city’s main drag waiting for his turn to enter the building. Mahajneh, who describes himself as disabled and uses crutches, says he has been waiting for his disabled permit for three months and hopes it will be in the mail.

“They keep telling me that they’re sending it by mail, but the mail doesn’t arrive,” he says bitterly. “I have no post office box, and in Umm al-Fahm you can find hundreds of people with the same name as mine, so it’s possible they really are sending it, but without an exact address everything gets lost.”

Someone overhears Mahajneh; it’s Hisham Agbariyeh, also a resident of the city. Agbariyeh explains that the absence of addresses and post office boxes in Umm al-Fahm has been an unsolved issue for years. Why? Because in a city of more than 60,000 people there are still no street names and addresses.

“Do you know that people here sometimes pay multiple fines only because the first fine or demand for payment never arrived to that person’s address?” Agbariyeh says.

“There are people here who don’t drive on [toll road] Route 6 out of fear that the bill won’t reach the address and then they’ll double it again and again, and in the end you’ll find yourself with a file in the Bailiff’s Office and fines of thousands of shekels.”

Two Umm al-Fahm residents wait hopefully outside the city's post office, January 28, 2018.
rami shlosh

Mahajneh and Agbariyeh’s stories may be identical to that of thousands in Umm al-Fahm, the metropolis, as it were, of the Wadi Ara region southeast of Haifa. The families in the city and the region are divided among four main hamulas, extended families: Agbariyeh, Mahajneh, Mahamid and Jabarin.

Common names

Meanwhile, each hamula contains several thousand families, so there are hundreds or thousands of Mohammeds, Ahmeds and Mahmouds in each extended family. Thus, quite often, if other identifying details are lacking on a letter sent to a home without a proper address, the letter probably won’t get there.

“Ask, for example, for Mohammed Agbariyeh or Mohammed Mahajneh, and people will look at you like you were crazy; there are thousands here,” says Hisham Agbariyeh, who has suffered a Route 6 fine because the letter didn’t reach him at the right address.

“We can’t come with a complaint if there’s no address. People waiting for a delivery have to wait for the delivery man at the city’s entrance and get the package from him. How can you explain to a delivery man with a car when there’s no address and no street name and no number? Anyone who enters the city and gets stuck in all the alleys understands that it’s a mission impossible.”

As MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List), a city resident and a member of a large hamula, puts it, “It’s hard to accept that in a city like Umm al-Fahm in 2018, with more than 60,000 residents, there are no street names and no addresses and numbers.” He says that due to the absence of addresses, 30 percent of the mail that reaches the city gets tagged return to sender.

He says there are distribution centers in the city with about 4,200 post office boxes, but there is still a shortage of several thousand boxes. “It sounds funny, but my brothers and I and several family members are all partners in one post office box, so one family member takes the mail and distributes it to everyone.”

A city resident who requested anonymity says that next to the distribution centers you can sometimes find piles of letters with names on them, but no other detail. “Many people who realize that it’s not theirs simply throw them into the square,” he says. “Sometimes it’s things that cost people fines, or a letter you’re waiting months for and there’s no possibility you’ll get it.”

The Umm al-Fahm municipality says it has been aware of the problem for years and it’s working on a solution. But it says the Interior Ministry’s failure to approve street names is the main reason for the delay. “We’re aware of the residents’ suffering, but we started to take steps already in 2013,” says acting Mayor Bilal Daher.

He says the names committee that was established by the municipality and representatives of the public chose names for more than 300 streets around the city. As required, the list was sent in early 2014 to the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Interior Ministry, and the sides began talks that have continued for more than two years.

Rejected names

The municipality says there was unexplained foot-dragging by the Interior Ministry, but then in the middle of last year it approved 247 names. The ministry asked that 13 names be corrected for technical reasons and objected to 40 names.

The names to which there are objections include names of former local council heads and Umm al-Fahm mayors, and of villages uprooted in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. These include villages from which members of Umm al-Fahm hamulas originated. Other rejected names include Yasser Arafat, Falastin (Palestine), poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, and March 30, the Arab community’s Land Day, which marks the events of 1976 when the Israeli government announced plans to expropriate land.

Daher, the acting mayor, says his town doesn’t seek to irritate anyone. “These are names with historical implications and they exist in our memory and in our narrative. What’s the problem with the name of a former mayor or a world-renowned poet like Mahmoud Darwish, or even Yasser Arafat, who won the Nobel Peace Prize?” he says.

“And still we explained several times that if there’s a problem with some specific names we’ll go ack to the names committee and ask them to change them. Why does everything have to get stuck?”

Jabareen, the Joint List MK, agrees with Daher and says the objections have caused the entire file to be frozen by the Interior Ministry. He says he asked the minister a parliamentary question in November 2016, in which he said the municipality had given names and numbers to streets and sent the information on, and effort that was now stuck.

“It’s part of the deliberate policy of foot-dragging. If some of the names are unsuitable then the whole project gets stuck,” Jabareen says. “I’m not saying that there were no delays and maybe foot-dragging in the municipality at some point, but if a project like this began in 2013, then why is it that five years later there still aren’t names of streets in a city with a population of more than 60,000?”

The municipality says it prefers for the Interior Ministry to approve all the names in order to begin the implementation of the project, whose cost is estimated at 1.5 million shekels ($441,000). But at present the municipality is considering moving forward with the project based on the names that were approved; it would then take care of the other streets when final approval is received from the Interior Ministry.

The ministry responded that in 2017 it approved 241 names for streets in Umm al-Fahm for immediate use. “Additional names that were submitted to the ministry are still being checked and require further examination,” it said.

“The Interior Ministry operates according to the law and the instructions of the attorney general. Based on them, the ministry is allowed to examine, and in some cases even to intervene, in a decision by a local authority to decide on street names,” it added.

“As mentioned, the Interior Ministry has not refused the request by the Umm al-Fahm municipality. The requests are being checked by a committee according to the law and the attorney general’s instructions.”

For its part, Israel Post said: “Unfortunately, in Umm al-Fahm the streets have no names and many residents have identical names, which makes it difficult to find the addresses and distribute their mail. We are engaged in a dialogue with the municipality so that it will allot suitable areas for structures for mail distribution, and we welcome any step that will help make the distribution of mail to the residents more efficient.”