Gaza families fight to visit relatives in Israeli prisons

Families of Gaza prisoners hold a weekly demonstration at the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Gaza office. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

Umm Faris Baroud of Shati refugee camp in western Gaza City wakes up early every Monday in the hope that she will be allowed to visit her son Faris, serving a life sentence in one of Israel’s prisons.

With poor knees and a stooped back, Umm Faris, aged 88, moved slowly as she welcomed us to her modest home.

“For the past two and a half years I have been unable to visit Faris,” she explained. “Every Monday, I participate in a weekly protest along with many other families including mothers, wives and children of detainees, at the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC]. We demand a fair right: seeing our beloved children.”

On her way to the ICRC office, located about two kilometers from Shati refugee camp, Umm Faris was joined by her neighbor Umm Mahmoud al-Rayis, who is also waiting to see her son Mahmoud, also sentenced for life.

The weekly ritual begins early each Monday as dozens of family members of the 950 detainees who originate from Gaza, chant slogans, meet ICRC officials and show solidarity with one another.

“I pray to God that I will see Faris before I pass away. Every time I come here I ask the ICRC to help, but no one is taking care of us,” Umm Faris said while waiting in the ICRC office’s reception hall after taking part in the weekly demonstration.

Umm Faris and many other detainees’ relatives are waiting for a glimpse of hope that they would eventually be able to visit their loved ones held in Israeli prisons and detention camps. For more than two and a half years, the ICRC has been in communication with Israel, but can still offer no such promise, as Israel has virtually forbidden family visits to prisons outside Gaza where Gaza detainees are being held. For the prisoners’ relatives, there is nothing to do but protest.

“The family visitation program has gone through various difficulties since 1995, but used to be renewed regularly,” said Iyad Nasir, spokesperson for the ICRC in Gaza. In June 2007, however, when Israel tightened its siege of Gaza, Israeli authorities blocked the program for Gaza detainees even while allowing families of West Bank detainees to continue to visit.

Nasir added that the ICRC’s efforts to guarantee communication between the families and their beloved ones inside the Israeli jails, have not borne fruit.

“Previously, in similar situations we have succeeded, but unfortunately this time we have failed. Recently, the ICRC has reiterated its demand to renew the family visitations for Gaza-based detainees’ families,” Nasir said.

Israeli authorities have not given a specific justification for their decision to deny Gaza families permission for prison visits, according to the ICRC spokesman, though he stressed that it was a humanitarian matter.

Palestinian human rights groups have demanded all relevant parties — particularly foreign states — to pressure the Israeli government to abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL), particularly the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel violates IHL by transferring detainees from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to prisons inside Israel, and Palestinian detainees are subjected to substandard conditions and inhuman treatment and torture.

In December, relatives of 14 Gaza prisoners went to the Israeli high court to seek an end to the ban on prison visits. The Israeli court rejected the lawsuit, filed on their behalf by HaMoked - the Center for the Defense of the Individual, and Adalah - the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights. In its decision, the court acknowledged that “It is true that the security prisoners are entitled to rights and these should not be withheld beyond what is necessary.” Nevertheless, the court upheld the Israeli government’s ban on prison visits and declared that such visits “are not a humanitarian need.”

Jaber Wishah (Rami Almeghari)

“We have tried repeatedly to call on those who ratified the international humanitarian conventions to pressure Israel to abide by its obligations,” Jaber Wishah, deputy-director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, told The Electronic Intifada. Wishah said that if Israel failed to meets its obligations, it should be treated in a similar way to the South African apartheid regime.

Wishah emphasized that families eager to see their loved ones inside Israeli prisons, have the right to do so, according to IHL including the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The issue of Palestinian detainees is one of the most contentious in Palestinian-Israeli relations. Since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been arrested and detained. Many detainees have been jailed for lengthy periods by Israeli military courts that have been condemned by international human rights groups for failing to uphold minimal standards of fairness. Many others are placed under “administrative detention” without charge or trial of any kind.

Currently, more than 7,500 Palestinians are detained by Israel, including 800 who are sentenced to life terms.

Meanwhile, mothers like Umm Faris can only wait while their sons remain behind bars.

“I still remember how kind he has been to me. He used to take care of me when I needed him. My only hope is to see him before I pass away,” she said.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.