Gaza Strip – Eight-year-old Yousef al-Najjar sits quietly on the bus, his hands folded, eager to see his father for the first time. It is 4am, and Yousef’s mother has taken him to visit his father, who is serving a 23-year term in Rimon, a notorious Israeli military prison in Israel’s southern Negev Desert.
“I am yearning for a glimpse of my dad,” said the boy. Yousef’s father was detained in the occupied West Bank and convicted of having links with the Palestinian resistance groups.
Yousef hopes that the visit will be worth the weeks of restless nights he spent waiting for this day to arrive. “I want to have a long time, as I wish to let him know about all the important family moments when we missed him.”
Compared with his 14-year-old sister Arwa, Yousef is fortunate: The Israel authorities prohibited children aged 14 or older from visiting their imprisoned fathers. Families who manage to get the permits are allowed to visit once every three months.
Permits are granted only to parents, spouses and young children; other relatives such as siblings and cousins cannot visit.
Our harsh realities prompt us to wait more impatiently for the visit's date rather than the actual release of our sons. Never losing hope is a struggle in itself.
Following Hamas’ capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in June 2007 that family members of all Palestinian prisoners from Gaza would be banned from visiting, citing security reasons.
This ban lasted five years, and contradicted the International Human Rights Law to which Israel is legally bound. In April 2012, a massive hunger strike launched by the Palestinian prisoners from Gaza pressured the Israeli Prison Service to abolish this policy.
In practice, however, the visits were to take place every three months instead of two weeks; which is how often visits were permitted before the 2007 ruling.
Visitors are escorted to the prison by a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the sole organisation permitted to coordinate family visits with the Israeli authorities. To obtain permission to visit, families must undergo long procedures that usually take two months.
Many prisoners’ families are denied permission, often without explanation from Israeli authorities. The decisions to grant permits often appear arbitrary. For example, Jamal al-Dagma, 67, and his wife both applied for permits to visit their imprisoned son. He was granted the permit, but his wife was not.
The ICRC informed the couple that the wife was rejected based on security grounds – which Jamal dismissed as a baseless excuse.”They … go as far as they can in their malicious systematic process in tormenting us, along with our sons,” he said. “I left my poor wife in tears at home.”
The most difficult part of the family members’ journey to the prison is the Beit Hanoun (Erez) crossing, where they often complain of inhumane and degrading treatment.
Yousef’s mother, Suhair, has become accustomed to such procedure, but she had to warn her son about it before his first visit. “We are subjected to a lengthy body search by the Israeli female officers, who treat us contemptuously,” Suhair explained. Personal possessions are often confiscated during the meticulous inspection, and items intended to be given to the prisoner, such as a pair of glasses or a nebuliser, might be taken or broken before they reach their destination.
Suhair said that she twice tried to bring her husband warm clothes and blankets, but was not permitted to do so. Even books are often not allowed to be given to detainees.
Inside the prison’s visiting room, family members can only see their relatives through a layer of thick glass that separates them. Physical contact is generally prohibited, and they speak to each other using headphones, which are often damaged.
“My husband’s voice reaches me muffled through the lines,” said Suhair. “We endure all this agony from 4am to 7pm, for just 45 minutes spent on phones. That is particularly painful for all of us.”
Children under the age of eight are sometimes granted five minutes of physical contact, which is not long enough for Yousef to express all that he wishes to his father.
Um Awad al-Seidi, 64, recalled that during the visitation ban, she was “denied all means of communication with our sons, including visits, letters, and they even blocked the use of cell phones between us”. The use of cell phones is extremely restricted.
A prisoner is only allowed to speak with his family using a cell phone in a bereavement case (for a father or a brother) in his or her family.
Awad’s father died in distress without meeting his son. He passed away during the ban and was unable to visit his son, who has served 13 years of his 19-year sentence, for four years. His son was detained when he was attempting to cross the borderline between Gaza and Israel.
Bahha al-Madhoun, deputy minister of Gaza’s Prisoners and Ex-Prisoners Ministry, leads a gathering of the ministry’s staff and officials in front of the ICRC every Monday when a visit is held to support the families who are about to initiate their visit.
Madhoun, a former prisoner himself, said that 370 prisoners from Gaza are currently being held in Israeli prisons. He complained of Israeli intransigence regarding family visits. “The harrowing testimonies we collect from our families after the end of the visit should propel all sides to exert efforts to pressure the Israeli occupation to improve the visits’ conditions,” he said.
The official said the biggest complaints concern the humiliating strip searches and the permanent bans placed on certain families from visiting. But Madhoun noted that no progress is achieved in this regard owing to the lack of response at the Israeli side.
Meanwhile, prisoners’ family members continue to suffer. Um Awad fears that her health might deteriorate to the extent that she becomes unable to bear the long, tiring visitation process.
“Our harsh realities prompt us to wait more impatiently for the visit’s date rather than the actual release of our sons,” she said. “Never losing hope is a struggle in itself.”