“The detainees spend their imprisonment waiting for their families’ visits,” Dad once said, recalling the Israeli Prison Service IPS punishing him by denying him family visits during his 15 years of imprisonment. “Despite all the suffering and humiliation attached to their procedures, family visits are as important to prisoners as the air they breathe.”
Following the capture of Gilad Shalid in June 2006, Israel collectively punished Palestinian political prisoners from Gaza by banning family visits, one of their basic rights and a lifeline between detainees and their families. “Under international humanitarian law, Israeli authorities have an obligation to allow the detainees to receive family visits,” said Juan Pedro Schaerer, the head of the ICRC delegation in Israel and the occupied territories.
Our detainees’ determination proved stronger than the jailers’ guns. In exchange for ending the one-month mass hunger strike in May, they made Israel comply with the international humanitarian law and reinstate family visits to Gaza Strip detainees after almost six years without them.
On July 16, 48 family members were finally allowed to see to their relatives in Israeli jails for the first time since Shalit’s capture, through barriers for 45 minutes. However, Israel imposed its own conditions on the visits. Only wives and parents were allowed to visit. Detainees’ young children weren’t, “for security reasons.” Fathers must imagine their children growing up without them, or wait for the miracles of their smuggled pictures.
Last Monday, August 6, the fourth group of detainees’ families gathered in front of the ICRC to visit their relatives in Nafha prison. The day before a visit, the ICRC usually announces the names of approved relatives.
Among those who received permits were the parents of detainee Yahya Islaih, who was captured on August 24, 2008 and sentenced to 12 years. His 75-year-old mother and 80-year-old father arrived very early at the ICRC, dressed very traditionally and beautifully. Yahya has not met his parents since his arrest. I used to see Yahya’s mother Aisha in the sit-in tents for political prisoners. She barely missed any protest, despite her advanced age. Last Monday was supposed to be her first reunion with her son in four years. But destiny stood between them.
Aisha breathed prayers of thankfulness that she had been blessed with another opportunity to talk to her son, and see him through a barrier after five years of separation. While sitting in the bus, wishing that time would move faster, she felt the gasp of death and leaned on a neighboring woman’s shoulder.
Later that morning, as I was getting ready to leave for the weekly protest for political prisoners, I read the terrible news. I found it difficult to believe that this had really happened. I thought that we only hear such stories on dramas. But it did happen. When she was so close to meeting her son again, she passed away. Death separated them, just as Israel had for so long.
I left home with tears in my eyes. When I arrived at the protest, people were very quiet. Everyone was in shock. I could read the sorrow in every eye. The elderly mothers of detainees cried while hugging the banners of their sons. Each seemed to wonder, “Will we share Aisha’s fate?”
Amidst silence and sorrow, the 75-year-old mother of detainee Ibrahim Baroud who has been detained for 27 years stood and began shouting. “Enough tears. Tears won’t bring her back to life! Just pray for her soul to rest in peace.” Om Ibrahim Baroud was in the first group issued permits to visit their sons on July 16. That was her first visit to her son, after 16 years banned “for security reasons.” “How would an elderly mother like me threaten their security?” she always complained. “They are simply heartless and merciless, and enjoy breaking mothers’ hearts over their sons.”
The world blamed her when she hurled her shoes at Ban Ki-moon’s convoy when he entered Gaza. She was angry and disappointed by his prejudice when he refused to meet prisoners’ families in Gaza, after repeatedly visiting Gilaad Shalit’s parents. But they didn’t know to how much she had suffered at Israel’s hands. Read the story of this incident, when shoes and stones welcomed Ban Ki-moon to Gaza, here.
After the protest, I went to say hello to her. “Are you joining us for the funeral, Shahd?” she asked, every wrinkle in her face revealing her sadness. “Yes, grandmother,” I answered, even though I hadn’t known of the plan. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go or not. Honestly, I fear funerals.
But when I said yes, she caught my hand so I could help her to the bus, and pushed me forward as if she sensed my hesitance. “When I saw her last Monday, she congratulated me for having visited my son, and sighed while hoping that her turn to see hers again would come soon,” Om Mahmoud said.
When we arrived at the funeral, we learned that Aisha hadn’t been buried yet. She was in a narrow room with two doors. It was crowded with women. They entered one by one from a door, kissed her, prayed for her, and then left through another door. I glanced at the scene, then pushed myself away, trying to postpone my turn. I recalled meeting my dear friend Vittorio Arrigoni for the last time as a dead body.
I stood next to a woman who happened to be Aisha’s niece. “Yahya wrote her a letter once, asked her to remain steadfast and know that she would see him again,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks. “He asked her to wear her traditional Palestinian dress when she comes to visit him again. And she did. After she learned that she would visit him, she was very happy. She ironed her new dress, which she had kept for Yahya’s wedding after his release.” She burst out crying and continued, “But she neither visited him, nor would she ever attend his wedding.”
Finally my turn came. I entered, one foot pushing me forward, the other backward. I saw her body and kissed her forehead. I still can’t believe I did. Traumatized, I returned home in the afternoon and slept. I couldn’t stand thinking of her, nor her son, who would never see his mother, alive or dead again. I felt like I wanted to sleep forever, but I woke up after twelve hours.
Please pray for Aisha’s soul to rest in peace, and for her son to remain strong behind Israel’s bars. Her story is more clear and bitter evidence of the suffering our detainee’s families endure because of Israel’s violations of their basic rights and their families’.