3 February 2011 | International Solidarity Movement
Ahmed Youssef Al Ahnan was but a child of 17 when he was arrested six years ago in his aunt’s house by the beach of Khan Younis. “I still don’t know why they took my boy. How is it possible that they can arrest a child just like that?”, asked his mother ragingly, clinging firmly onto her son’s picture. To this day, Ahmed is still imprisoned in Israel, while none of his relatives have been allowed to visit him during the six years he has spent in detention. “It even took four years before he was allowed to make his first phone call!”, his mother continued. “In the past years, he has been able to call more, but still I can’t see him.” When asked how her son is holding up in prison, she answers with an ambiguous sense of pride and sadness: “He’s a good boy, he doesn’t want me to worry over him and always says that he is doing fine, but he doesn’t sound like he is.”
Next to her sits five year old Fara Omar Shehda Al Bardawi, playfully hiding behind her father’s picture that she is holding up. He was arrested five years ago, just a month before she was born, orphaning her before birth. “He called us once, but after we haven’t heard of him anymore”, said the young girl. The image of this vivacious little girl is discontinuous with the drama that enfolds from her words. Fara has not only lost her father: her mother remarried and had to leave her with her father’s family. “All I want is my father to be back”, she utters finally with a halfhearted smile.
At the protest, about 100 people, the majority of them women, gathered outside the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza City, every one holding pictures of a family member who is detained in an Israeli prison. According to Addameer, a Palestinian human rights NGO, there are currently 5395 Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails, no less than 209 of them are children.
It is not coincidental that this weekly sit-in is held at ICRC’s headquarters; every Palestinian wishing to visit a family member imprisoned in Israel must receive an entry permit, which is submitted via the ICRC to the Israeli side. The visiting population is restricted by outrageous visiting criteria: 16 to 45 year old boys and men, for example, are automatically excluded. Hundreds of others are barred on so called “security grounds”, which results in hundreds of prisoners not receiving visits for extended periods that may reach a number of years.
Since June 2007, Israel has banned all Gazans from visiting their relatives incarcerated in Israel. The 684 Gazans that are currently imprisoned in Israel have therefore not received a single visitor for more than three-and-a-half years now. Addalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel states that the Gaza detainees, many of whom are held indefinitely without trial, have since been in virtual isolation, as they are generally not allowed to communicate through phone or over the internet, and are only occasionally allowed to send out a letter to their families.
The 55 year old Aysha Abu Yazen comes all the way from Rafah, in the south of the Strip, to Gaza City to attend the prisoners’ sit-in: “Eight years ago, Israelis raided our house, demolished it and took my 18 year old son, Ahmad Jimah Abu Yazen. He allegedly has another nine years of imprisonment ahead of him and so far, for eight years, we have not received a single phone call from him.”
Every demonstrator has a devastating story to tell that bears witness to the isolation and alienation of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. The family members of the imprisoned Ibrahim Majdoub for example say that Ibrahim was only allowed to call once throughout the year 2010.
And so these children, men and women come here every week – most of them for many years – to protest against and draw attention to Israel’s illegal conditions of imprisonment which are isolating their relatives and breaking up their families.
The ICRC is mandated, under the Geneva Conventions, to verify whether prisoners’ rights, under international law, are respected. Nonetheless, Gazans prisoners’ rights to receive visits are blatantly violated and people feel the ICRC is not putting the appropriate pressure on the Israeli authorities to respect the rights of the detainees.
Palestinian prisoners are defrauded of family visits, and also have restricted access to basic necessities in prison – such as clothing and money – as visits are often the prisoners’ sole means of contact for these items. Al Mezan Center for Human Rights notes that lawyers are prohibited by the Israeli Prison Service from transferring money to a prisoner. The IPS insists that only relatives may transfer money, which is obviously impossible as this would require a Gazan to be present in Israel.
Jameela Ahmed Salman holds up a poster of her bearded husband, Mahmoud Salman, who has been in prison for 17 years. “They took him when I was pregnant with my youngest son. For six years we haven’t been allowed to visit him. He’s sick and suffers from heart problems, he’s in and out of Ramla hospital, but I’m still not allowed to visit him and take care of him. I’m worried about him, I wish someone could help me and go to prison to check up on him and give him some money”, says Jameela softly. “My youngest was 11 when he saw his father last – in prison, that was – by now he has difficulties remembering his father’s face. What did my children ever do wrong to lose their father like this? The holidays during Eid al-Fitr [Islamic Festival of Fast-Breaking] and Eid al-Addha [Islamic Festival of Sacrifice] are bleak without him, we miss out on all of the joy. My eldest son and daughter got married recently and both were sad at the day of their marriage because they couldn’t share it with their father.”
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled on December 9th 2009 that Israel has no obligation to allow “foreigners” entry into the country and that visits to prisoners are not a basic humanitarian need. The legal center Adalah states that this is not only a misapplication of international law, but also a sign of Israel’s continued and systematic persecution of Palestinians. As an occupying power, Israel cannot refer to Gazans as “foreigners”, but has to consider them as “protected persons” to whom Israel owes a particular duty of care. Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 stipulates that protection of the occupied population includes protection of family rights.
Furthermore, article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly states that prisoners taken from occupied territories should be detained within the occupied territory. Most of the Palestinian prisoners and all of the Gazan detainees are however held within Israel, which is thus illegal under international humanitarian law and constitutes a war crime.
NGO Addameer notes that the decision to ban Gazan family visits, coincided with the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in Gaza. It appears to be a form of collective punishment, which is not related to the official reasons of imprisonment, but aims to coerce Palestinian factions to respond to Israel’s demands, turning Palestinian prisoners into pawns of political gain.
Fahmi Kanaan is one of the 26 people who have been exiled to Gaza after the 5 week long siege on the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem in May 2002. “Before that, in 1987, I spent five months in an Israeli prison, so I know how the hardships of Israeli imprisonment. Forced to live in exile and being cut off from my own family for more than eight-and-a-half years now, I know something about social isolation as well. I come here in solidarity with these families and to call upon the international world and the United Nations to
interfere in Israel’s illegal conduct and to stop their violations of international law! How can it be that the whole world calls for Gilad Shalit, the only Israeli prisoner in Palestine, to be released while it keeps silent about thousands of Palestinians that are detained in Israeli prisons!?”