In July 2012, Israel reinstated authorization for relatives to visit Palestinian prisoners and detainees from the Gaza Strip being held in Israel (hereafter: “inmates”). Such visits were prohibited as of September 2007, shortly after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli decision to permit visits was made after some 2,000 Palestinian inmates went on a nearly six-week-long hunger strike. The media reported that the strike ended after representatives of the striking inmates reached an agreement with the Israeli Prison Service (IPS), which included an Israeli pledge to renew permission for family visits to Gazan inmates.
However, Israel set strict criteria for theses visits, allowing only parents, wives and children under eight to visit the inmates. All other relatives, including children over 8, siblings and grandparents, are not allowed to visit. Visitation rights were extended to inmates’ children under the age of eight only in May 2013, and children have taken part in three visits since.
B’Tselem has gathered testimonies from Gazan children over the age of eight who have not seen their imprisoned fathers since 2007. In their testimonies, the children describe their longing to be reunited with their fathers as well as the difficulties they face because of the separation. The children’s only mode of communication with their fathers is written correspondence and sending pictures.
Visits are permitted very infrequently, only once a week on Mondays, and then only at one prison facility at a time: Nafha, Ramon and Eshel (Dekel). As a result, each eligible inmate receives a visit once every three or four months. In contrast, inmates from Israel or from the West Bank who are held on criminal or security grounds may receive visits once every two weeks.
At the end of April 2013, some 511 Gazans, including 14 minors, were held in Israeli prisons. Over 411 of the inmates are defined as “security inmates,” including one minor who was arrested in February 2012. One hundred others, including 13 minors, are defined as “criminal inmates”. Of those defined as “criminal,” 23 are being held for illegal presence in Israel.
According to figures provided by the Red Cross, Gazan inmates in Israel had 830 visitors from Gaza between July 2012 and 22 April 2013. The number of visitors allowed is not constant, ranging anywhere from about 40 to about 80 on a particular scheduled visiting-day. Some inmates have received no visitors whatsoever for various reasons, including having no relatives in Gaza matching the IPS criteria or an IPS sanction on some inmates.
Visits are suspended during Jewish holidays. For example, there were only two visits this past March due to the Passover holiday, and visits were cancelled on 15 April 2013 for Israel’s Memorial Day. In addition, the visit on 8 April 2013 was cancelled due to tension following the death of Palestinian prisoner Maysarah Abu Hamdiyeh. As a result, there were no visits from 11 March 2013 to 22 April 2013, on which date 68 relatives visited 49 inmates at Nafha Prison.
In advance of every visit, the IPS sends the Red Cross a list of inmates eligible for visits on that particular date and the details of the relatives permitted to come. The Red Cross ensures that the listed relatives are in the Gaza Strip and informs them of the upcoming visit. If a certain inmate’s relatives are unable to attend on the given date, they may join the next visit to that prison. The IPS does not allow relatives of other inmates to take their place.
On the day of the visit, a Red Cross bus collects the relatives from meeting points throughout the Gaza Strip and transports them to Erez Crossing. After a Red Cross representative crosschecks the passengers’ ID cards with the list provided by the IPS, they are checked at Erez Crossing. On the Israeli side, a Red Cross bus transports them to the prison.
‘Ali Abu Haneyeh, 13, of a-Nuseirat Refugee Camp in the central Gaza Strip, told B'Tselem field researcher Khaled al-‘Azayzeh how much he misses his father:
I last visited my father in 2006. I went with my grandmother and with my sister, Maysaa. He was in Nafha prison. When we met, we were separated from him by a sheet of glass, and I had to talk to him on a phone. Even though I couldn’t hug him, I was happy... From 2006 to 2012, Israel kept us from visiting my father. It was hard. My mother sent him letters through the Red Cross, but it took months till we heard back from him. That whole time, we were very worried, because we didn’t know how he really was – if he felt well or was ill, and if he needed anything. Almost every day, I asked my mother if we’d be allowed to visit him, and when. My mother always said that she didn’t know, and that made me very sad.
In September 2012, someone from the Red Cross called and told my mother that she and my grandmother …could go visit my father…My mother asked if the children could come, too, and they said we couldn’t. That made me very angry. My mother and grandmother went to visit him. On the night before the visit, I couldn’t sleep…I was happy for my mother that she’d see him after so many years…My mother told me I might be allowed to come along on future visits and she calmed me down a bit. But I wasn’t allowed to join the next visit, either, and I was very disappointed. I haven’t seen my father in seven years. I haven’t even seen a recent photo of him. Every time I miss him, I open up the photo album and look at old photos. I keep asking my mother if he’s changed and what he looks like now. For full testimony, click here.
The visit lasts approximately 45 minutes. A glass partition separates the inmate from his visitors, and they communicate via a telephone. The visitors can give the inmates a limited amount of food and drink, but no gifts.
These restrictions on family visits to Gazan inmates in Israel contravene the Israel’s obligation to enable such visits. This obligation stems from the right of the inmates and of their relatives to family life, which is enshrined in both international and Israeli law. International law not only prohibits arbitrary disruption of family life, but obliges the state to actively ensure its fulfilment. Moreover, detaining or imprisoning a person and the consequent limitations to his freedom of movement do not justify restricting other basic rights, except when those are explicitly denied him by a court of law.
Some of the Gazan inmates have children or siblings who are minors. International law obligates Israel to take children’s rights into account. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel ratified in 1991, “[i]n all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” Accordingly, any decision affecting a child must first take his or her welfare into account, and only then the welfare and interests of others. Since permission was granted for visits by children up to age eight, 24 children have been to visit their fathers. Israel does still not allow children above that age to realize the basic right of visiting their fathers. This is an arbitrary prohibition that manifestly does not safeguard the children’s best interests.
Israel must match visitation rights of Gazan inmates to those from Israel and the West Bank, increasing the frequency of family visits and enabling all inmates to realize their right to such visits once every two weeks, and not just once every three or four months as things now stand. Similarly, Israel must also allow Gazan inmates to receive visits from all first-degree relatives, including children of all ages.