The Right to Family Visits

There are about 4,000 prisoners and detainees from the occupied territories in Israeli prisons, according to International Red Cross (IRC) data. In regular times, the IRC provided transportation for between 8,000 and 10,000 visitors each month. This year the number of visitors decreased by 50 percent.

The photograph of a light-haired baby girl lies on the bed of prisoner Hamzi Sabra, of Qalqilyah, in his cell at Damon Prison in the Carmel region. It's a photo of his six-month-old daughter, Leili, whom he has never seen in the flesh. Sabra was arrested for being in Israel illegally, was sentenced to two years in prison, and since being incarcerated in this recently re-opened facility, hasn't seen any of his family. There are hardly any family visits at Damon, as is the case with all prisons where Palestinians are held.

This is not what will decide the future of Israel's relations with the Palestinians. Nevertheless, Israel's attitude toward the subject of visits to Palestinian prisoners is a gloomily instructive case of false promises, lack of goodwill, passing the buck among different security bodies, double standards and a violation of Israeli regulations, international law and the Geneva Convention, to which Israeli is a signatory. It is precisely here, over an issue that is so crucial to Palestinians, that the authority's narrow-mindedness and insensitivity is seen in its full splendor.

There are about 4,000 prisoners and detainees from the occupied territories in Israeli prisons, according to International Red Cross (IRC) data. Most of them are security prisoners, a few are in prison for criminal offenses and all of them are imprisoned within Israel in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of individuals for incarceration outside the territories of occupation. Israel has bypassed international law by invoking the Defense (Emergency) Regulations, and no one thinks twice any longer about the presence of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli detention facilities. Some of these prisoners were supposed to have been released long ago as part of the Oslo Accords - another written commitment that Israel has violated - but who in the world is interested in the Oslo documents now?

The Palestinian prisoners are dispersed among 19 prisons and detention centers run by the Prisons Service and the police, along with one military prison, at Megiddo. Their number has risen from 2,800 in September 2000 to 4,000, with more prisoners being added every day. They are considered "protected" persons according to the definition of the IRC, and they have explicit recognized rights. Even according to Israeli regulations, they are entitled to a series of basic rights, including visiting rights - once every two weeks at the Prisons Service facilities and once a month at the military prison, with up to five visitors at a time.

Until the closure imposed over the past year, that right was preserved through the IRC, which organized transportation to the prisons. Prisoners' relatives had to endure trips that could last many hours for a 40-minute visit, but at least the visits took place, one way or another. In regular times, the IRC provided transportation for between 8,000 and 10,000 people a month. The Israeli army issued the entry permits and the police provided vehicles to escort the buses.

This year the number of visitors decreased by 50 percent; almost all of them were from East Jerusalem, the rest from the Gaza Strip. Residents of the West Bank could only dream of visits.

With the advent of the holy month of Ramadan, Israel declared solemnly it was introducing a series of measures to facilitate life for the Palestinians, including the renewal of the prison visits. That particular declaration was worth about as much as the others. According to the IRC, Israel did not permit one prison visit by residents of the West Bank - not of an aged mother, not of a newborn baby. The IDF Spokesman said at the end of last week that "the IDF permits family visits in the prison facilities," and blamed the cessation of the visits on the police; the police spokeswoman discussed allocating escort forces "in accordance with the ability of the police, in light of many other missions" and proposed that the Military Police help out; whereas the IRC said with understatement that "Israel's security needs can be accommodated together with respecting humanitarian missions."

Last week, at the Damon facility, I met a few prisoners who have never seen their children. Virtually none of them have seen their families for more than a year. According to a report of Physicians for Human Rights, a similar situation exists at Megiddo prison, where more than a thousand Palestinians are currently incarcerated, most of them prior to conviction. The security prisoners are also prohibited to speak to their loved ones by telephone - no visits or phone calls for more than a year.

It goes without saying that this situation is the source of constant unease and unrest among the prisoners, and it has a serious impact on events within the prison. The prison authorities do want the visits to take place. Israel could show some goodwill by permitting the visits to resume. Even the prime minister and the defense minister have said they do not wish to make the Palestinian population suffer. But these are empty words. Even in connection with such a specific, narrow subject, which is so clearly a humanitarian issue, Israel is demonstrating that it does not have good intentions. Palestinian prisoners, too, are human beings, and basic human rights accrue to them. What would we say if another country were to treat thousands of our prisoners like this?