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Palestinian visitors in Ofer Military Prison. Photo by Oren Ziv, Activestills, 15 Sept. 2010
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The arduous journey: visits by Palestinians from the West Bank to family members held in Israeli prisons

“Seventeen long hours of dragging around from one place to another, from one bus to another and from one security check to another, getting on, getting off, on and off. Even if I were made out of steel, I would collapse. It’s an arduous journey”.

From the testimony of Hilweh Shabaneh, 80, Sinjil village, Ramallah district

As of the end of December 2019, Israel was holding in its prison facilities at least 4,544 prisoners and detainees (hereinafter: prisoners) defined as “security prisoners.” 296 of the prisoners are residents of the Gaza Strip and the rest are residents of the West Bank. Israel imposes numerous restrictions on family visits to prison – including who may visit an how often. These restrictions are applied both to prisons within its sovereign territory – where Palestinians are held contrary to the provisions of international law – and to Ofer Prison, which is inside West Bank territory but beyond the separation barrier.

As Palestinian visitors are unable to reach prisons independtly, and as Israel takes no part in facilitating prison vists, the task of organizing these visits falls entirely to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Every visit to prison involves an entire day of arduous travel and physical and emotional hardship – especially for elderly relatives and children. 

Israel allows only first-degree relatives to visit their loved ones in prison, and even that is subject to the permits it issues, and only as part of scheduled visit days on which the ICRC organizes transportation. The ICRC arranges visits from Sunday to Thursday, with buses leaving from pickup points in the major cities to one or more prisons, depending on the ICRC’s visit program. Until the middle of 2016, relatives who received permits were able to visit imprisoned family members twice a month, but because of cuts in the ICRC budget, in 2016 it reduced the number of visits to only once a month. 

Until the second quarter of 2019, visit permits were issued to most family members once a year, and family members banned from entering Israel for security reasons were required to apply for a new permit every two to four months. In August 2019, as a result of pressure from the family members and the ICRC, the Israeli authorities began issuing permits valid for one year to all family members allowed to visit, including those with a “security ban.” Still, none of them really knows whether they will actually make the visit until they reach the checkpoint, as security forces stationed there sometimes do not let them through, and they are forced to return home without visiting their loved one.

Prior to the visit, the ICRC submits a list of visitors to the Israeli District Coordination Office (DCO) in the various areas, and waits for an answer from the Israeli side. Next, the families receive the answers and hear if their requests had approved and they would receive an entry permit, rejected, or removed from the list over failing to meet the criterion of first-degree relation to the prisoner. The visitors who meet the conditions board a bus in the early morning from the pickup points in the major Palestinian cities, accompanied by an ICRC representative. When the bus reaches the checkpoint, all of the visitors are required to disembark and undergo a physical and personal effects search, which takes a long time, and then on the other side of the checkpoint they board an Israeli bus that takes them to the prison.

The visit itself lasts only 45 minutes, during which the family members talk to their loved ones through a phone receiver from behind a glass screen. Every prisoner is entitled to receive up to four visitors. Visitors may give the prisoners only specific items of clothing permitted under prison regulations, and these are inspected before being handed to the prisoner. They may also deposit money for them for buying commodities. 

After the visit, the visitors get back on Israeli buses that take them to the checkpoint, and from there onto ICRC buses. They usually get home in the evening after an exhausting day.

In testimonies relatives of prisoners gave B’Tselem field researchers, they described the arduous journey to prison, the brief visit, and the painful longing when the visit is not permitted:

Hilweh Shabaneh, 80, married and the mother of 11, a resident of the village of  Sinjil in the Ramallah district spoke about the difficulties involved in visiting her son in prison in a testimony she gave B’Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad on 30 December 2019:

Hilweh Shabaneh, Photo: Iyad Hadad, B'Tselem

My son Khaled, 41, was sentenced to life in prison, and is at Nafha Prison. Three years ago I broke my hip, and since then my health has deteriorated and I visit him less. But every few months I gather my strength to come anyway. My husband, ‘Abd a-Rahman, passed away in 2010, and before that he was very sick and was not able to see Khaled and say goodbye to him. Khaled’s brothers and sisters visit him, but he always waits for my visit.
In the first year after I broke my hip, the ICRC picked me up from home and took me back in a private ambulance, but it was very expensive and required a lot of coordination so it hasn’t happened again since then.  

The last time I visited Khaled was on 25 September 2019. That morning I got up at 4:00 A.M., got ready and took painkillers, because all of the jostling and walking as part of the visit cause me severe pain. I made sure I had my identity card and all of the papers, including a medical report that states that I have platinum in my leg, so that I could go through the scanners without problems. When me and my daughter Samiha, who always comes with me, set out, it was still dark and the rest of the family was asleep.

We took a taxi to the meeting point in al-Birah and paid 70 shekels. That was the first stop on the journey. The bus left at seven o’clock towards the Ni’lin checkpoint, through the villages west of Ramallah. 

There were about 50 of us. The gate at the checkpoint opens only at eight o’clock and then you get off the bus. I use the cain to help me walk, and my daughter, Samiha, too until I go into the checkpoint. You have to go through two turnstiles, which is very difficult for me with the cane. Then we put our bags and belongings and anything metal, including my cane, on a conveyor belt for scanning, and we went through another scanner inspection gate next to it. 

Then everybody went one at a time past a glass window, behind which sits a clerk, and you have to raise your hands so that he can see that you’re not holding anything, and then you go to a reception window and you give them your identity card and permit. From there we went out through a turnstile to a lot on the Israeli side of the checkpoint, where an Israeli bus waited for us. Samiha stayed right next to me the whole time to help me. We got on the bus and waited for the last passenger to get on, around 9:30-10:00 A.M. The whole process at the checkpoint takes an hour and a half and sometimes more.

It was still morning but by then I was already exhausted. Then we drove for about two and a half hours nonstop. I was in a lot of pain and felt nauseous. My feet legs asleep.

When we got to Nafha Prison we waited in a courtyard that had nothing in it except for disgusting bathrooms it’s better to avoid. On these visits I try to drink and eat as little as possible that day so I don’t have to go to the bathroom. Sometimes I actually fast. 

In the prison courtyard we split up. Samiha went to get Khaled cigarettes, and I walked with my cane to get in line for the visit and hand over my and Samiha’s identity cards, and our tickets and permits. Samiha also rented us a locker for five shekels for our personal belongings, because we’re not allowed to bring anything in with us, not even a tissue. 

Then we waited with everyone in the courtyard. It has a roof but there’s no air conditioning in the summer or heat in the winter and the conditions are rough. About 30 minutes later we were called and the third round of security checks in the course of the visit began. We went through an electronic gate, took off our shoes, took off our belts and anything that could make the machine beep. I put my cane through the conveyor belt. We went through a turnstile and then we met a policeman or clerk and deposited with him 1,200 shekels for the canteen so that Khaled could buy whatever he wants inside the jail. And then we went through another electronic gate into a long corridor where we waited. Sometimes you wait there for a few minutes and sometimes more than half an hour. Luckily this time we didn't wait very long. Samiha and I were called, we went through another electronic gate and from there to an inspection room, one at a time. Despite my condition, they didn't let Samiha go in with me. Two policewomen inspected me physically with a handheld device. When they finished checking us we went into a large hall that has room for about 200 visitors. It has wooden benches, air conditioning and water, but no bathrooms. We waited there until they finished checking the whole group. It usually takes between half an hour and an hour, and this time it took 45 minutes. 

And then four policemen lead the group towards the visit room. Two policemen walk in the front and two in the back. There are two visit rooms, and one of them is more than 150 meters away. When we have to go to that one it’s very hard for me because every step hurts and there’s no consideration. 

When we got to the room, all of the prisoners were already sitting there waiting for us. Sometimes it's the other way around. The visit lasts only 45 minutes and I see my son behind fortified glass and can speak to him only by phone. Thank God, I could see that Khaled was in good health. We talked about all kinds of social and family news and about health. 

At the end of the visit they let us out through a gate that leads to the prison courtyard, and there we got on the bus and waited for everyone to arrive. It was already 3:30 P.M. We got to the Qalandia checkpoint at around eight o’clock in the evening. I swear to God, I wouldn't wish this on anybody. We got home at 9:00 P.M.

From four o’clock in the morning to nine o’clock at night, 17 long hours of dragging around from one place to another, from one bus to another and one security check to another, getting on, getting off, on and off. Even if I were made out of iron I would collapse. It’s an arduous journey.”

Amneh Abu Khirmeh, 65, a widow and mother of six, resident of Tulkarm R.C., said in a testimony she gave B’Tselem field researcher Abdulkarim Sadi on 31 December 2019, that Israel had been preventing her for a whole year from visiting two of her three sons who are in prison in Israel:

I have three sons in prison: Muhammad, 40, Ahmad, 38, and ‘Adnan, 34. All three of them were arrested in 2003-2004 and sentenced to long terms of more than 20 years. Muhammad and Ahmad are in the Ramon Prison and ‘Adnan is in Hadarim Prison.

Amneh Abu Khirmeh, Photo: Abdulkarim Sadi, B'Tselem

I'm the only one who visits them because my daughters are married with families, one in Jordan and one in Hebron, and it's hard for them, and the Israeli authorities prevent my fourth son, Mahmoud, from visiting because once he was arrested when he entered Israel without a work permit. For the first five years after my sons were arrested, Israel forbade me from visiting them, claiming I was under a security ban. During that time, other family members received permits to visit them. Since then, the ICRC has managed to get me visit permits defined as permits for people with security bans, and I can visit my sons once a month.

To visit them, I have to leave my house at 5:30 A.M., travel to a point where everybody meets, and from where the ICRC buses leave, and wait there with the other family members until the buses leave at around sevevn o’clock. The buses go to the Sha'ar Efrayim checkpoint that opens at eight o’clock for visitors and other people who have permits to cross by foot for “special needs,” and then you start going through the security procedures. They include a security check with electronic instruments and an inspection of the visit permits. The inspection of all of the family members’ papers takes more than an hour, and if they send someone to the room where they do body seraches it takes longer.

In 2019 the Israeli authorities forbade me from visiting my sons again. I would get an Israeli entry permit, but every time I got to the Sha'ar Efrayim checkpoint the security guards forbade me from crossing. I didn’t see my sons for a whole year and nobody bothered to explain to me why I wasn’t being let through.
It went on like this until on 5 December 2019 I was finally allowed to go through and visit my son ‘Adnan who is at Hadarim Prison.

I didn’t believe they were really letting me enter until I got to the bus depot where all of the prisoners’ relatives wait after they finish going through all of the security checks. 

At the prison, I saw ‘Adnan for only 45 minutes. I spoke to him on the phone with a glass window separating us. 

On 11 December 2019 I was supposed to visit my sons Muhammad and Ahmad at Ramon Prison.  I got ready and left the house at 5:30 A.M.. The bus left the meeting point in Tulkarm and drove to the Sha'ar Efrayim checkpoint, and at eight o’clock the families were allowed to enter the checkpoint and begin the seccurity check. When I got to the point of checking the permits and documents, the security guard from the private security company held me for more than half an hour in the presence of the ICRC representative who oversees the process, and finally forbade me from entering and ordered me to go back to Tulkarm. When I asked why, she said I had an ISA ban.

I don't understand how for all those years I’d been issued permits through the ICRC and then forbidden from crossing. I haven't seen Muhammad and Ahmad for more than a year now because of the security ban.

Husniyeh Abu Shakhdam, 75, a widow and mother of 11, resident of Jabal al-Rahmeh in Hebron, also spoke about the difficulties involved in visiting her son in prison in a testimony she gave B’Tselem field researcher Manal al-Ja'bri on 13 January 2020:

Husniyeh Abu Shakhdam, Photo: Manal al-Ja'bri, B'Tselem

My son, Wael, 38, has been in prison since 2002. He was sentenced to six life terms and another 20 years. Since then he’s been moved between three prisons: Nafha, Rimon, and Ashkelon.

For two years already his brothers and sisters have been visiting him without me, because the visits involve a lot of suffering and I’m an old woman now. It’s an arduous and torturous journey that begins at four o’clock in the morning. On the bus to the Tarqumya checkpoint there are no stops. I’m diabetic and need to go to the bathroom a lot on the way, so to avoid it I don't drink anything that morning. 

After all of the hardships and checks there are only 45 minutes for the visit itself, through a glass wall and on the phone. It’s not enough to quench the longing that burns in our hearts.

Tomorrow, despite it all, I plan to go again, after not seeing Wael for two years. The longing burns my heart and I always worry I’ll die without seeing him. I pray to God to give me the strength to bear the difficulties of the travel and the suffering.

After visiting her son, Husniyeh Abu Shakhdam told Manal al-Ja'bri:

Wael was very happy I came. I tried not to cry in front of him, he begged the guards to let him hug me, but they woudn’t. I was so happy I could get there and see him after we hadn't seen each other for two years, but as usual the trip was exhausting. I got very tired and the weather was also terrible and very cold. I don't know if I’ll have another chance to ever see him again.

Maqboulah ‘Abd al-Jalil, 65, married and a mother of five, resident of Nablus, said in testimony she gave B’Tselem field researcher Salma a-Deb'i on 20 January 2020:

My son Raed, 39, was sentenced to four life terms plus 40 years. We weren’t told where he was until four months after he was arrested in 2002, and even then we weren't allowed to see him, we were told the whole family was under a security ban. Only a year and a half later did they let me visit him for the first time.

מקבולה עבד א-ג'ליל, צילום: סלמא א-דבעי, בצלם

Then I came down with a heart condition and my health deteriorated. I still wanted to visit him anyway, but every time I tried to get a permit I was refused. My husband and children got permits but I didn't. This went on for about 10 years and then I finally got a permit for a year that allows me to visit Raed once a month.

In the last five years Raed has been at Gilboa Prison. The night before the visit I’m always so excited I can’t fall asleep. I get up at four in the morning and then the exhausting journey begins. I make preparations, and I even take the wire out of my bra so that the scanner at the checkpoint won't beep when I go through.
During the visit, a glass window separates us and we can only speak on the phone. In the past 18 years I saw Raed face-to-face only about four times, each time for only a few seconds, when we were allowed to take our picture together. 

When it’s time to leave, after about 45 short minutes, I feel deeply sad that I’m leaving Raed behind alone, that I can't take him home, take care of him and cook him the food he loves. 

Raed especially likes okra, and for years after he was arrested I wasn't able to cook okra or his favorite cookies that he used to help me make. All I want so I can die in peace is to see him outside of prison.

Rima Janazra, 37, a homemaker from al-Fawwar R.C., married and a mother of three, spoke about the difficulties of visiting her husband in a testimony she gave B’Tselem field researcher Musa Abu Hashhash on 27 December 2019:

My husband Sami was arrested on 16 September 2019 and put under administrative detention for four months. He’s supposed to get out on 15 January 2020. We have three children. The oldest one, Firas, is 16, and the youngest, Maria , is 9, and I’m seven months pregnant.

Sami was already under administrative detention for 11 months in 2017-2018, during which he went on a 10-day hunger strike. Me and the children visited him at the time. He moved between Ofer Prison and Ketziot. The children were young and the visits were really horrible.

At four in the morning we got on a vehicle that took us to Hebron, where we got on buses with dozens of other relatives of prisoners. On the way to the prison we went through the Tarqumya or Metar checkpoints, and waited there for a long time. The soldiers checked us thoroughly one at a time, including the children. They confiscated everything except water.

We also waited for a long time in the prison courtyard where everyone, including the children, went through security checks again, and then we were shut in a room with all the other visitors until the time of the visit. Sometimes we waited an hour and sometimes several hours, because the visit was only in the afternoon or evening. That waiting was particularly difficult. A lot of children cried and the mothers tried to soothe them. Children lay on the chairs.

The visit itself was also a difficult experience, through a glass wall and a telephone receiver. Sometimes I had to shout so my husband could hear me. There was a lot of noise in the room and the visit ended so quickly. It was difficult for me that after such a hard day on the road and all that waiting I could only see my husband and talk to him for a short while.

Because of that and because of my pregnancy, this time I decided not to visit him. My husband also asked me not to come, hoping he’ll be released at the end of four months. But if they extend his detention I’ll have to visit him. Nobody else can visit him because his mother is elderly and sick and can't make the trip, and our children are too young and can't visit him without me. 

* Sami Janazra’s administrative detention was extended for four more months on 5 January 2020.