The cheque is in the mail. But if you live in the West Bank, it might not get there for 8 years

Parcels, letters, even a wheelchair are waiting to be sorted by the Palestinian post office after Israeli authorities released more than 10 tonnes of mail that had been sitting in Jordan - in some cases up to eight years, writes Derek Stoffel.

Israel controls what enters the occupied West Bank, including international mail deliveries

Ramadan Ghazawi, who runs the Jericho mail-sorting facility, shows off paperwork for a TV that was supposed to be delivered six years ago. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

One Palestinian waited a year to receive his college diploma. Another has waited six years to get a flat-screen TV he ordered online from China. 

Tens of thousands of pieces of mail — containing everything from documents to clothing to a wheelchair — have been the subject of delayed delivery, and are now sitting on the floor of a warehouse in the West Bank city of Jericho.

Israel recently announced a one-time transfer of about 10 and a half tonnes of mail that had been held in Jordan, in some cases up to eight years. Now, that backlog of mail, which was sent between 2010 and this year, is being sorted and delivered to customers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

But because Palestine Post workers need to sift through so many letters and packages, delivery of all the items could take several weeks.

Employees of Palestine Post have been sorting through more than 10 tonnes of mail recently released by the Israeli authorities. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

According to Palestinian officials, the as-yet undelivered mail is another example of how Israel has tried to exert control over the Palestinian people.

"They don't [want us] to feel freedom, in any way — in our movement or even the movement of our postal items," said Ahmad Barghouthi, a senior official with Palestine Post.

Heavy reliance on mail

The post office remains an important institution for Palestinians, especially for e-commerce, as they face higher prices at local stores, particularly for electronics.

Also, with millions of Palestinian refugees living in other countries (such as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon), friends and relatives still rely heavily on mail services.

"Most people send gifts, send anything to their relatives inside Palestine, and also the people inside Palestine want to send postal items to their relatives outside of Palestine," said Barghouthi, who is the Palestine Post's head of international relations. "This is a good way to be in contact with our relatives outside."

But the flow of mail is complicated by the fact that Israel controls all access to the West Bank, and can block goods from entering or exiting the Palestinian territory. 

Ahmad Barghouthi, director of international relations for Palestine Post, at the company's administrative centre in Ramallah. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Ramadan Ghazawi, who runs the Palestine Post sorting centre in Jericho, said Israel "wouldn't allow anything to cross the border without their permission. They control everything."

Most postal items from countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel, including Canada, are transferred to the West Bank from Israel. But mail from countries that are at odds with Israel, such as Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, is shipped from Jordan.

Ghazawi says the Israelis are not abiding by a decade-old agreement with the Palestinians to receive postal items directly through Jordan. He says the Israeli refusal to allow mail shipments to cross from Jordan has led to this years-long backlog.

A spokesperson for COGAT, the Israeli Ministry of Defence agency responsible for civilian affairs in the occupied West Bank, wrote in a statement to CBC News that the release of more than 10 tonnes of mail was "gesture... in a step that went beyond the letter of the law."

Trying to improve cooperation

Israel agreed to give more autonomy to the Palestinians to run postal services a decade ago, but West Bank officials say in practice that has been slow to happen. A year ago, the two sides came to an in-principle agreement to improve cooperation, but COGAT stated "the memorandum of understanding has not yet resulted in a direct transfer" of the mail.

A wheelchair bound for the Gaza Strip is among the parcels that went undelivered for years. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

That's left many Palestinians feeling frustrated as they wait for letters and parcels to be delivered.

Saeb Jibren rushed into the main post office in Jericho this weekend, just minutes after receiving a call telling him a package had arrived. He smiled as he ripped open the envelope and pulled out a diploma he received from a college on the Greek island of Crete, where he earned a degree in economics.

Jibren graduated more than a year ago, and has been waiting for the letter ever since.

"This is my degree," he said, when asked why receiving the certificate was important. "This is my career. It means a lot for me. I spent one year apart from my family to get this."

Looking for workarounds

Jibren said Palestinians are sometimes advised to write "Israel" as their country to expedite the delivery of international mail — advice he said he will never follow.

Saeb Jibren waited more than a year for the economics diploma he received from a college on the Greek island of Crete. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"We are Palestinian and this is Palestine, so I have to put Palestine," he said. "This is my country."

Barghouthi said Palestinian officials believe that Israel deliberately blocks the delivery of postal items, citing unnamed security concerns.

"It's ordinary for the post to be checked also by them. But why did you to leave it in Jordan for eight years?" Barghouthi wondered aloud. "Check it and let us receive it."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.