Nisreen Murtaja, 35, lives in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza city in the house of her husband’s family. In 1993, Nisreen’s husband, Samir, 41, was arrested from his home in the presence of his family, just three months after his marriage.
In 1994, an Israeli military court sentenced him to 20 years imprisonment. Since 2004, Israel has prevented Nisreen from visiting her husband.
“The last time I saw Samir, 8 years ago, I did not know it was going to be our last visit. I have kept applying to get the permission to see him again but the Israelis have insisted on refusing it.”
While there is now a comprehensive ban on families from Gaza to visit their relatives in Israeli prisons, traditionally difficulties associated with the journey into Israel also prevented families from visiting detained relatives.
The hard conditions under which these visits are conducted make it impossible for the elderly or sick to undertake them. “The health conditions of Samir’s parents prevented them from visiting him as the visits are very difficult and exhausting.
There is no facilitation for sick people. Samir’s mother died with the suffering of not having seen her son throughout the 18 years of his detention. His father also passed away after 13 years from his last visit to Samir in jail.”
Nisreen commented further on the visitation process, prior to the absolute prohibition. “The visits represent a huge amount of suffering for us, we have the impression that treatment we received from the Israeli soldiers is intended to persuade us not to visit our relatives again.
After crossing Erez [the only passenger crossing point with Israel] and waiting for hours in the bus, we are subjected to a humiliating body search in the prison. Some people refuse the visitations due to the treatment we receive. Often, once there, people are refused entry or discover that their relative has been transferred to another prison without being previously informed of the transfer.”
The ban on visits is complemented by a prohibition on phone communication and difficulties associated with the letters sent via the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
As Nisreen explains, “I have no way to communicate with Samir. It is extremely hard not to know how he is, especially when I am aware of the terrible prison conditions he is living in.
The only way of communication available to us is through the letters conveyed through the ICRC, but this is useless.
These letters take between 2 to 3 months to arrive, so their content is outdated when we receive them. Sometimes they do not arrive at all. We have finally decided not to send letters anymore.”
There is no exception to the absence of communication policy, as Nisreen sadly recounts, “when Samir’s parents died, we did not know how to inform him. Which is the harm done to Israelis by a call to our relatives in jail?’
Without visits or any other means to communicate with the outside world, Palestinian prisoners from Gaza are in practice isolated. According to Abed Al-Naser Farwana, Prisoners Affairs Researcher, “with these practices Israel aims at demoralising and punishing Palestinian prisoners and their families.
This has a profound effect in the cohesion of the family and the society in general. It is not only the anxiety experienced by the relatives but when the prisoner returns to their families they have to start a painful process of rebuilding their relationships.”
For the Murtaja’s family the most difficult experience of all has been to witness the agony of Samir’s mother. “She was all the time talking about him. She somehow hoped that Samir was going to be released as part of the Shalit prisoners’ swap of October last year, she was devastated when she did not find him in the list of prisoners to be released. We believe this sadness contributed to her death 2 months after in January this year.”
Family visits for prisoners of the Gaza Strip have traditionally been subject to an ostensibly arbitrary process of permits approval by Israel. However, since 6 June 2007 there is an absolute prohibition of visits.
Today, this prohibition affects the 473 prisoners from Gaza who are currently in Israeli jails and their family members. It constitutes a publicly recognised form of collective punishment enacted in response to the capture of Gilad Shalit.
The banning of family visits constitutes a form of collective punishment prohibited by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention according to which “[n]o protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed.”
Additionally, as per principle 19 of the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment “[a] detained or imprisoned person shall have the right to be visited by and to correspond with, in particular, members of his family and shall be given adequate opportunity to communicate with the outside world.”