Every time Daniella, 55, sees little children in the street, she says her heart breaks. Of her six grandchildren, she hasn't seen the youngest two - a two-year-old boy and three-year-old girl - for about six months. After an argument with her son and daughter-in-law over a phone bill dating to the time they lived with her, the young couple decided that Daniella would no longer be allowed to see the children.

Daniella turned to Sav Hasha'ah, a hotline run by the NGO New Family to deal with problems between grandparents and grandchildren arising out of family strife. "I always helped them and supported them financially to the extent I could," says Daniella, "but my means were limited. My relationship with my daughter-in-law wasn't great to begin with, and my son felt torn between the two of us."

Until now, grandparents caught in such binds had no legal rights, and parents could deny their own parents access to the grandchildren as leverage in disputes, often financial disputes. A new law approved by the Knesset last week aims to change that.

Until now, courts could establish the rights of grandparents to see their grandchildren (if under age 18 ) only in the case of the death of one of the child's parents. The new law establishes that the courts have the right to issue instructions regarding the grandparent-grandchild relationship, such as visitation rights, under other circumstances as well.

Such circumstances are far from rare. According to New Family's estimate, some 300,000 family members are caught up in inter-generational rifts because of conflicts of various kinds.

The organization, which was actively involved in promoting similar legislation in the past, has recorded thousands of calls to Sav Hasha'ah. According to the data assembled, most conflicts center on money (32% ) and tensions with the daughter- or son-in-law (45% ). Other conflicts stem from relocations to distant places, sexual harassment, children's refusal to accept a grandparent's new romantic interest, and religious issues - cult membership or greater or lesser observance of Jewish law.

Sleepless nights

In some cases, the hotline offers mediation to resolve the situation. People do not always take Sav Hasha'ah up on the offer, but it has met with some success. That's what happened with one couple, embroiled in a bitter conflict with their daughter over money, which led to a rift with the grandchildren.

"My daughter's husband expected us to help them buy a very expensive apartment," the couple wrote to New Family. "We insisted that before helping them there be a financial contract to make sure the large investment we were making wasn't going to go down the drain. The minute we mentioned a contract, our son-in-law took offense and refused to meet with us. He incited our daughter against us, too, and the worst thing was that he refused to let us see our two little grandchildren whom we used to see almost every day. It got to the point that they wouldn't even take our phone calls. We missed them so much we couldn't sleep at night."

The couple tried to enlist family members to serve as go-betweens to repair the damage, but to no avail. Finally, they contacted the hotline.

"The organization's attorney met with them," says attorney Irit Rosenblum, director of New Family, "and proposed that she contact the daughter and her husband in writing and invite them to a meeting. The fact that a neutral party was getting involved seems to have done the trick, and the daughter agreed. She came to the first meeting by herself, and to an additional meeting with her husband. In the mediation process, the attorney helped both sides understand one another, give up entrenched positions, and put egos aside. We were able to reach a compromise: The parents helped the young couple buy a less expensive apartment and the young couple agreed to sign a contract."

According to Rosenblum, "We live at a time when life expectancy has gone way up, and one has to relate to grandparents as being part of the family. Falling birth rates and rising life expectancies justify new definitions of the nuclear family, and it's very important to bring family rights up to date also in terms of the grandparental generation. Parents who keep their children away from grandma and grandpa are violating their children's right to have that relationship."

The new law emphasizes this right as long as it is in the best interests of the minor. Nonetheless, the law also presents the points made by opponents to legislation on the issue. Among the various claims is the argument that this could increase the number of court cases among family members, escalate conflicts and create new ones, and that the issue belongs in the therapeutic rather than the legal setting. According to MK Zevulun Orlev, who co-sponsored the new legislation, these cases will be referred to the social services unit working with the family courts, which provide diagnosis, consultation and therapy.

Burned all bridges

People who suffer continuous, enforced distance from their grandchildren have no doubt about the need for a third party to sort things out. Daniella laments that her grandchildren "have no idea what happened to grandma," as she puts it. "It's not fair. I miss them so much. I can't even bring myself to go and look at them from outside their preschool. I just can't do it.

The relationship [with her daughter and son-in-law] was in trouble long ago," she says. "Had I paid this debt, some other demand would have come up a week or two later. I can't go on like this, but it shouldn't come at the expense of my relationship with my grandkids, and more importantly at the expense of their relationship with their grandmother."

In divorces, the connection with the grandparents can become a means of revenge. For Ronit, a retired teacher, the relationship with her grandchildren was affected because of her son's divorce. "Since then it's been very troubled," she says. "As far as his ex is concerned, we don't exist. If my son has to work late, for example, and I try to help by picking up my grandson from her place, she won't let me have him. I do see my grandson, but only on my son's visitation schedule."

By contrast, D., a retired businessman in his 70s, hasn't seen his six grandchildren for about ten years. "My brother is a difficult person," says D.'s sister, who contacted Sav Hasha'ah a few weeks ago, "and his relationship with his children was always loaded and complex. Things got worse after an argument over a family inheritance, which ended up in court. The children lost the case and then just burned all the bridges."

D. once tried to visit his grandchildren but the door was slammed in his face. "They're not willing to forgive him. Maybe they have the right," says his sister, "but I don't think they have the right to prevent him from having a relationship with his grandchildren. That's just cruel."