At the end of April 2019, Israel had in custody 5,152 prisoners and detainees (hereafter: prisoners) who are being held on what it terms “security” grounds. Most are incarcerated in prison facilities within Israel’s sovereign territory. The state exploits this fact to severely restrict family visits to Palestinian prisoners. In addition to limiting the number of visitors and the frequency of visits, since July 2017 Israel has also banned all visits to 1,329 Hamas-affiliated, most of whom are from the West Bank and some from Gaza. The declared purpose of this ban is to pressure Hamas into returning the Israeli civilians Avera Mengistu and Hisham a-Sayed it is holding captive and the bodies of soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin. As “security” prisoners are not allowed to use phones, this restriction makes it impossible for them to maintain any form of contact with their families.
Even when families are permitted to make prison visits, the journey – organized by the Red Cross – is exhausting and long, leaving home before dawn and returning late in the evening. During the visits, which last only 45-60 minutes, the prisoners are kept apart from their visitors by a glass partition and communicate with them via a prison phone line.
Among the Palestinians incarcerated in Israel are 303 residents of Gaza, who are subjected to even harsher restrictions on visits. Some were arrested before the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, under the Disengagement Plan, and some after. Three are minors between the ages of 16 and 18. In addition, 15 Palestinians from Gaza who are being held for illegally entering Israel are defined “criminal” prisoners.
In 2007, Israel issued a complete ban on family visits to prisoners from Gaza. As of 2012, it has been allowing visits, but subject to draconian limitations. Among other things, only the parents, spouses and children - under 16 - of prisoners are allowed to visit. They are allowed to make visits only once every two months, as opposed to once a month for prisoners from the West Bank. Siblings are permitted to visit only if their parents are deceased or gravely ill and if the prisoner is unmarried. Even then, visits are allowed only once every six months, subject to special coordination and submitting medical records, and only if the visitors are not defined as “barred entry into Israel for security reasons” - an arbitrary definition that cannot be appealed.
In testimonies given to B’Tselem field researchers, men and women from Gaza who have relatives imprisoned in Israel described the pain of being kept from meeting their loves ones:
Nisrin Jaber, 43, is a preschool teacher. She is unmarried and lives in Gaza City. She. Her brother, Muhammad Jaber, 38, was arrested in 2003 and sentenced to 18 years in prison, which he is serving in Eshel Prison in Beersheba, Israel. Since family visits were reinstated in 2012, Jaber has seen her brother only twice. Their father passed away about ten years ago, and their mother has been unable to visit her son since 2016 due to failing health. Nisrin and her sister Nur, 26, have submitted more than 10 requests to visit their brother since 2016. Only two were approved. In a testimony she gave B’Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 2 May 2019, Nisrin stated:
Muhammad was arrested in 2003 and, at that time, Israel allowed us to visit him in prison. I first visited him with my parents in 2004, and again in 2005. Because the number of visitors is restricted, I didn’t go again. On the other visits, my parents took along Nur and Ahmad, my younger siblings. In 2007, Israel banned visits altogether. No one has been to visit Muhammad in almost five years.
Our father passed away in 2009. Muhammad wasn’t allowed any visits at the time, and my father died without seeing him. The fact that Muhammad is in prison made it even harder for us to deal with my father’s death. It was a difficult period.
In 2012, Israel started allowing prisoners to have family visits again, but without siblings. I had a really hard time accepting that and was in a bad way emotionally. That year, my mother made the trip to visit Muhammad alone. She’s elderly and unwell yet they still wouldn’t let us go with her. For a whole week after the visit, my mother was exhausted and ill. There are a lot of stairs in the prison and you have to walk a long way. That was very difficult for her. Nonetheless, she kept up the visits.
In early 2016, my mother submitted her medical records to the prison management via the Red Cross, so that they’d allow Nur and me to visit. She chose us over my brothers because she knew that as women, it would be easier for us to get permits. The Israeli authorities informed us that she couldn’t visit Muhammad as long as Nur and I were his visitors, and she agreed.
Since the beginning of 2016, Nur and I have submitted seven requests via the Red Cross to visit Muhammad. Every time, Israel refused our requests “on security grounds.” Then, suddenly, in July 2017, I got a call from the Red Cross saying our request had been approved. I can’t tell you how happy I was. That night I couldn’t sleep. I was so happy and excited that I’d finally get to see Muhammad, for the first time in 11 years.
The visit was tough, for me and for all the other relatives visiting prisoners. The prison management searches the visitors in a very unpleasant way. They frisk you very thoroughly, even your underwear. The day of the visit is long and exhausting. You go through all that for about 45 minutes together. I went through it all because I was willing to do whatever it took to see Muhammad.
When I saw him come in, escorted by an Israeli prison guard, I told him I wanted to hold his hand. The guard refused and Nur and I cried and shouted.
I was thrilled to see him. Muhammad had a stroke after he heard our father had died. When we met, he told me he’s had trouble with his eyesight ever since, especially with his left eye. He told us he doesn’t get any medical care in prison and that if he’s in pain, they just give him paracetamol [OTC pain reliever]. The visit was over so soon. I didn’t notice how the time flew by because I was so happy - even though I really wanted to hug him, take his hands in mine and kiss him. I got home overjoyed but exhausted.
Six months later, Nur and I submitted another request, to visit Muhammad on 10 March 2018. Our request was approved and we were thrilled. But when we visited him, Muhammad told us he almost couldn’t see out of his left eye any more. He asked us not to tell our mother. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her, anyway.
After that visit, I submitted several more requests, but they were all denied. I feel Muhammad’s absence whenever we have family events and get-togethers – holidays celebrations, weddings, and especially now, with Ramadan approaching. But I missed him most on the day my father died, and when our brothers Rami and Fadi got married. We weren’t happy at their weddings, because Muhammad wasn’t with us. I hope the time passes quickly until his release. It’s been a year and two months since Nur and I last saw him. Every time, the Red Cross says our request has been denied and they don’t know why. I very much want them to let me visit Muhammad, because I’m very worried about his health. I miss him all the time. I want to hug him and touch him. He’s always on my mind.
Muhammad al-Agha, 38, a single and unemployed resident of Gaza City, served a 12-year sentence in Israeli prisons. During the final portion of his sentence, for a period of over two years, he was imprisoned together with his brother Diaa’, 45. Muhammad has not seen his brother since he was released from prison in 2015, due to the ban on sibling visits. In a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Muhammad Sabah on 25 April 2019, he described the current situation:
I got out of prison after years of missing my siblings, because they weren’t allowed to visit me even before 2007. The whole time I was in prison, my mother was the only one who was allowed to visit me. From 2007 to 2012, even she couldn’t come, because they banned all visits. In 2013, I was transferred to Nafha Prison, where I met my brother Diaa’, who has been in prison since 1992. We spent more than two years together, and our mother visited us several times there. Since I got out in 2015 I haven’t seen him, because Israel doesn’t allow prisoners to receive visits from siblings.
My other siblings haven’t seen Diaa’ for 27 years, ever since he was arrested. He doesn’t know any of them, because they’re not allowed to visit him. At least I got to see him in prison and got to sit and talk to him. For some time, we were even in the same cell. I miss him so much. I miss seeing him. I miss sitting and talking with him about everything that’s happening in our society and in our family. I want to see him so much, even just for a few hours, to see how he’s doing and not worry about him so much.
Amal Abu ‘Eida, 47, a homemaker and married mother of six from Jabalya Refugee Camp, last saw her brother Muhammad Abu ‘Eida, 40, almost 12 years ago. Muhammad was arrested in 2005 and his relatives were able to visit him until 2007, when the authorities banned family visits from Gaza. Amal and Muhammad’s mother passed away several months before visits were reinstated in 2012; their father died years ago. Muhammad’s wife lives in the UAE. In a testimony she gave B’Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 23 April 2019, Amal Abu ‘Eida spoke about how badly she misses her brother:
When Muhammad was arrested, it came as a complete shock to me. He was living in the UAE at the time. He was working there and had gotten married there. At that point had been living in the UAE for five years. Muhammad was arrested at Rafah Crossing on his way to Gaza for a visit. The Red Cross informed us that he was in Ashkelon Prison, Israel, and we were issued a permit to visit him once every two weeks. Visits were much less restricted then. In 2007, they banned our visits. We didn’t see Muhammad at all for almost five years. It was a brutal time. We were very worried. In 2007, my brother Jihad passed away. Several months before visits were allowed again, in 2012, my mother passed away. The whole family was in deep mourning. Things were very bad.
Since family visits have been reinstated they’ve only allowed Muhammad’s wife, Walaa, to visit him. But she lives in the UAE, with her parents. When she comes to Gaza, she files for a permit to enter Israel so she can visit him in prison. Two years ago, she gave birth to a son conceived with my brother’s sperm, which was smuggled out of prison. Since 2005, she’s visited him about five or six times.
In 2018, my sisters Nawal and Maha and I filed requests to visit Muhammad, because his wife doesn’t live here. They only gave permission to Maha, and she visited him in June. We were very glad and her visit made us feel a bit calmer. Since then we’ve filed more requests to visit him but they were all denied, even Maha was denied even though she had gotten permission before. I haven’t seen him in nearly 12 years. I’m starting to forget what he looks like. We send him money with the relatives of other prisoners from Gaza. I’ve also tried to send clothes with them, but they weren’t allowed to bring them in.
I think about him all the time, and especially when something happens in the family. My mother hadn’t seen him for five years before she passed away. On her deathbed she called out, “Muhammad, Muhammad, my soul is leaving my body, I want to see you so badly!” We cried for her and for him. Her death was an especially heavy blow because she passed on full of longing for Muhammad. We also feel his absence strongly when we have happy celebrations. My brother Mahmoud got married in 2010. I so much wanted Muhammad to be with us and celebrate with us.
Five years ago, my daughter Fatimah got married. Then too, I really wished he could be with us for the celebration.
Muhammad was everyone’s favorite, including my own. He would always come over, play with my kids and spoil them. He was a loving, beloved uncle. I want to see him so much. I hope he’s doing well and in good health. God willing, he will get out of prison and come back home to me and the rest of our family.
Mazen al-‘Elah, 46, a married father of six, is unemployed and lives in Gaza City. He has not seen his brother Rami, 40, since he was arrested 11 years ago. Rami is being held in Nafha Prison, where is mother and wife visit him once every two months. His son Muhammad visited him until he recently turned 16. In a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Muhammad Sabah on 24 April 2019, Mazen al-‘Elah related:
Since Rami was arrested in 2008, my brother, my four sisters and I haven’t seen him. My mother and his wife visit him about once every two months. Until recently his son Muhammad would go with them, but he can’t now that he’s turned 16. Every time we file a request to visit via the Red Cross, the Israeli side replies that siblings are not allowed to visit.
I’ve been waiting and hoping to visit Rami ever since he was arrested. I haven’t seen him in 11 years. We used to be very close and I miss him a lot. He wasn’t just my brother. We were also close friends. I miss sitting and talking with him, hanging out together. I miss him all the time. After my mother comes back from visiting Rami in prison, she always says he keeps asking about me. He tells her that he really wants his brothers and sisters to visit him in prison, and for us to see each other again like siblings do all over the world.