GAZA CITY, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - “We could enter the Guinness book of records for the longest running weekly sit-ins in the world,” Nasser Farrah from the Palestinian Prisoners Association jokes dryly.
Since 1995, Palestinian women from Beit Hanoun to Rafah have met every Monday outside the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) office in Gaza City, holding photographs and posters of their imprisoned loved ones, calling on the ICRC to ensure the human rights of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel’s 24 prisons and detention centers.
Since 2007, the sit-ins have taken on greater significance: Gaza families want Israel to respect their right — enshrined in international humanitarian law — to visit their imprisoned family members. This right was taken from Gaza’s families in 2007, after Israeli tank gunner Gilad Shalit was taken by Palestinian resistance fighters from an area along the Gaza-Israel boundary where he was on active duty.
The sit-ins have grown, with more than 200 women and men showing up weekly. On 11 July, ICRC and the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) helped facilitate a demonstration from the ICRC office to the Unknown Soldier Park to protest the ban on Palestinians from Gaza visiting their imprisoned loved ones.
“We can’t send letters, we can’t see him, we can’t talk to him,” says Umm Ahmed of her 32-year-old son. Ahmed Abu Ghazi was imprisoned four years ago and sentenced to 16 years in Israeli prison.
“Because we have no connection with him, every Monday we go to the Red Cross. But nothing changes. Last week we slept outside the Red Cross, waiting for them to help us talk to our sons and daughters,” Umm Ahmed says.
“While our sons are in prison, their parents might die without seeing them again.”
Parents die as children languish behind bars
Bilal Adyani, a Palestinian prisoner from Deir al-Balah in Gaza, is experiencing such a bereavement. On 11 July, Adayni’s father died, after waiting for years to see his son again. The ICRC reports that more than thirty relatives of Palestinian prisoners have died since the prison visits were cut.
Umm Bilal, an elderly woman in a simple white headscarf, walks among the demonstrators, holding a plastic-framed photo of her son when he was 16. The teen wears a black dress shirt, has combed and gelled hair, and smiles easily to the camera.
“Twenty years, ten months, he’s been in prison. I haven’t been allowed to visit him in eight years,” says Umm Bilal.
“The prison canteen should sell phone cards, clothes or food, but Israel is making it difficult now. He wanted to study but in prison but he hasn’t been allowed.”
In December 2009, the Israeli high court ruled that the Israeli government may deny families from Gaza visitation rights to prisoners in Israeli prisons. Among the stated reasons for the court’s decision were that “family visits are not a basic humanitarian need for Gaza residents” and that there was no need for family visits since prisoners could obtain basic supplies through the prison canteen.
In June 2011, the Israeli Prison Service is reported to have taken away various rights of prisoners, including that allowing prisoners to enrol in universities, and blocked cell phone use.
“Take Shalit but release our prisoners”
“The world is calling for Shalit to be released. But he is just one man, a soldier,” says Umm Bilal. “Many Palestinian prisoners were taken from their homes. Shalit was in his tank when he was taken. Those tanks shoot on Gaza, kill our people, destroy our land. Take Shalit but release our prisoners.”
According to Nasser Farrah, “there are over 7,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including nearly 40 women and over 300 children. Seven hundred prisoners are from the Gaza Strip.”
Other estimates range from 7,500 to 11,000 Palestinian prisoners. “The ‘over 7,000’ does not include the thousands of Palestinians who are regularly taken by the Israelis in the occupied West Bank, and even from Gaza, as well as those held in administrative detention for varying periods,” Farrah notes.
Under administrative detention, Palestinians, including minors, are denied trial and imprisoned for renewable periods, with many imprisoned for between six months and six years.
According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, as of February 2011, Israel was holding 214 Palestinians under administrative detention.
Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prevents forcible transfers of people from occupied territory. But Israel has been doing just that since 1967, and has imprisoned more than 700,000 Palestinian men, women and children, according to the UN.
Aside from denial of family visits, higher education, and canteen supplies, roughly 1,500 Palestinian prisoners are believed to be seriously ill, and are denied adequate health care.
Majed Komeh’s mother has many years of Monday demonstrations ahead of her. Her son, 34 years old, was given a 19 year sentence, of which he has served six years.
“For the last four years I haven’t heard from him,” Umm Majed says. “He has developed stomach and back problems in prison, but he’s not getting the medicine he needs.”
Farrah says this is a serious problem. “Many have cancer and critical illnesses. Many need around-the-clock hospital care, not simply headache pills.”
A 2010-2011 report from the Palestinian Prisoners Society said that 20 prisoners have been diagnosed with cancer, 88 with diabetes and 25 have had kidney failures. “Over 200 prisoners have died from lack of proper medical care in prisons,” the report says.
One of the ways ill Palestinians end up in prison is by abduction when passing through the Erez crossing for medical treatment outside of Gaza.
“The Israelis give them permits to exit Gaza for treatment in Israel or the West Bank, but after they cross through the border Israel imprisons many of them,” says Farrah.
“We are a people under occupation. We have no other options to secure our prisoners’ rights but to demonstrate in front of the ICRC. It’s their job to ensure prisoners are receiving their rights under international humanitarian law.”