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Su’ad al-‘Amur could not say goodbye to her son Sami, who died in prison after Israel barred her from visiting him for two years. Photo by Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B’Tselem, 23 Nov. 2021
From the field

Not even a phone call: Israel cutting some 230 Gazan security prisoners off from their families

According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, as of 7 December 2021, Israel is holding some 230 Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip as security prisoners. About 70 of them are members of Hamas. In early 2020, after the pandemic broke out, Israel canceled family visits for all prisoners. The visits were renewed in mid-June 2020, with the exception of security prisoners ״who are not residents of Israel.” A statement issued by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) stated that allowing visits to these prisoners will be examined “in the future, subject to opening the border crossings and coordinating with the Red Cross.” Since Palestinians defined as “security prisoners” are barred from talking on the phone with their families, they have no other way to stay in touch with them.

In December 2020, HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual filed a petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice (HJC) on behalf of eight human rights organizations, demanding that Palestinian prisoners be allowed to talk on the phone with their families. Consequently, the state allowed every “security” prisoner a single phone call throughout the month of Ramadan.

In June 2021, HaMoked contacted the IPS again and demanded that it reinstate visits for prisoners from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. About a month later, the IPS reinstated family visits for prisoners from the West Bank. The status of prisoners from the Gaza Strip, a few of whom are serving criminal sentences, remains unchanged and their families are still not allowed to visit them. 

This reality reflects a longstanding Israeli policy. Since 2007, Israel has imposed various restrictions on family visits for prisoners from the Gaza Strip, at times banning them altogether and at others, allowing them only subject to draconian restrictions – including banning children over 16 from visiting their parents in prison. Since 2017, the state has – with HJC approval – barred visits to members of Hamas.

The ban on family visits constitutes collective punishment of the prisoners and their families. Israel has attempted to justify the restrictions by citing various security pretexts. However, its claims are baseless and cannot justify the imposition of blanket bans, the isolation of the Gazan prisoners and the great suffering caused to their families, who cannot meet or even talk to their imprisoned loved ones for months or years on end.

B’Tselem field researchers Olfat al-Kurd and Khaled al-‘Azayzeh collected testimonies from the relatives of prisoners from the Gaza Strip, who have not been allowed to visit their loved ones for two years:

Testimony of Iman Salem (55), wife of prisoner Majdi Salem (48) and mother of their five children:

I was born near Ramallah and still have a West Bank ID card. My parents currently live in the area of Bitunya in Ramallah District. In 2014, I visited my parents in Ramallah without my husband and stayed with them for a year, and then Majdi wanted to join us. On 24 August 2015, he tried to leave the Gaza Strip via Erez Crossing. He was detained at the checkpoint and arrested on suspicion of belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. I was shocked, because I hadn’t expected him to be arrested. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, of which he's served six.

I stayed in the West Bank for about a year and then went back to Gaza with the children. I applied several times through the Red Cross for permits to visit Majdi, and was rejected every time. In 2017, I was granted a permit for myself, for my daughter Wisal who was 14 at the time, and for my son Mamduh, who was six. When we got to the prison, we asked one of the guards to allow Mamduh to go behind the glass partition and hug his father, and he agreed. It was a very sad visit. I cried when Mamduh hugged his father. It was a very tough sight.

That was the only visit. We haven’t been allowed to visit him since and every time, the Red Cross tells us the Israelis have rejected the request. Then the pandemic broke out, and Israel used it as a pretext to completely ban visits to Gazan prisoners. I sent my husband money and clothes through the families of prisoners from the West Bank.

My husband was arrested and locked up when our children were small and really needed him. They really need to see him now, too, especially Mamduh. He keeps asking about his father and saying he misses him. Wisal also asks to see her father a lot. We haven’t been allowed to visit him for four years. I miss my husband, and my children miss their father.

Even if Israel renews family visits for Gazan prisoners, of all our children, only Mamduh will be able visit his dad because he’s the only one under 16. My heart aches for him. He sees other children with their fathers and cries that he hasn’t been allowed to grow up with his father. He says, “ I want to see Dad and hug him.” We don’t have any joy without my husband, even on holidays and special events. The children feel his absence. They really need him by their side.


Testimony of Iman ‘Azzam (17), the daughter of prisoner Jum’ah ‘Azzam (53):

Iman ‘Azzam. Photo by Olfat al-Kurd, B'Tselem, 22 Dec. 2021
Iman ‘Azzam. Photo by Olfat al-Kurd, B'Tselem, 22 Dec. 2021

My dad was arrested on 4 December 2006 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. I was only two years old and don’t remember anything. I was a baby. My little sister Aya, who’s 16 now, was only five months old.

Since my dad was arrested, he’s been transferred from one prison to another and is currently in Negev Prison (Ktziot). My mother, Sabah ‘Azzam (48), says that Aya and I went with her to visit him several times. The last visit I remember was when I was 10, and what I remember of it mostly is being frisked by soldiers. I don’t remember what my dad looked like, only the brown uniform he wore. I also remember crying when I saw him. The guards wouldn’t let me go in to hug him, but they did let younger children in. I have three brothers and four sisters who are all older and married. My sister Aya and I also got engaged a few months ago.

We haven’t been allowed to visit my dad for more than a decade. When I was little, I went with my mother to a rally outside the Red Cross in Gaza. Nowadays, my brother Fadi (20) regularly attends those rallies. We demand that they allow us to visit my father. My siblings and I have grown up without a father. They took him away from us when we were little. We went through very tough times without him. I need him at every moment. He didn’t attend the weddings of my brothers and sisters: Fadi, Shadi, Yunes, Asmaa and Nidaa. It’s very sad. Even when I got my high school diploma in August, I couldn’t really be happy because I missed Dad.

Even at my engagement ceremony a few months ago, I couldn’t really rejoice; I wanted him to be with me. No one can take his place. It’s hardest during the holidays. I see the children in the neighborhood with their fathers, and my dad isn’t here. I only know him from old photographs. Today, I wouldn’t recognize him. He has six years left on his sentence. I hope they pass quickly, and then I can meet him and we can be happy together. My mom has been through these years all alone. It's very hard for her. I see her sitting alone and crying over Dad. She says she's tired and can’t carry on. This is a crime against the prisoners' families. Why are they preventing visits?


Testimony of Su’ad al-‘Amur (62), the mother of late prisoner Sami al-‘Amur (39), who died during surgery after not having a family visit for two years:

On 1 April 2008, the military raided our home and arrested my martyr son, Sami. He was 26 and was sentenced to 19 years and 11 months in prison. That year my other son, Hamadah (35), was arrested. He was sentenced to 12 and a half years and released a year ago.

In the first few years, we were forbidden to visit them after the soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted. All we could do was correspond with them via the Red Cross. After a few years, Israel renewed the visits and in 2013, we visited them for the first time. His father and I went alone because Israel wouldn’t allow their brothers and sisters to visit. At first, my two sons were held in different prisons: Sami in Nafha Prison and Hamadah in Ramon Prison. We’d meet them both at Ramon Prison on the day of the visit. On one visit, I was taken into a room alone and then they brought Hamadah in with his hands and legs tied. I saw him for one minute, shackled. I burst into tears when I saw him like that.

סועאד אל-עמור, שלא זכתה לראות את בנה סאמי שנפטר במהלך מאסרו לאחר שנתיים שבהם מנעה ממנה ישראל לבקר אותו. צילום: ח'אלד אל-עזאייזה, בצלם, 23.11.21
Su’ad al-‘Amur could not say goodbye to her son Sami, who died in prison after Israel barred her from visiting him for two years. Photo by Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B’Tselem, 23 Nov. 2021

A year later my husband ‘Abed, who’s 72 already, stopped visiting because of the long journey and the grueling security check. Since then, I've traveled alone to visit Sami. We waited for hours at Erez Crossing every time, until everyone was inspected. Once, I wasn’t let through the checkpoint. All the other visitors reached the prisons that day, and only I had to go back to Gaza. To this day, I don’t know why.

When the pandemic broke out in early 2020 they stopped the visits, supposedly because of the coronavirus. Israel didn’t let us visit for two years. I joined the weekly rallies of the prisoners’ families by the Red Cross offices, demanding the visits be allowed. For two years, I was in contact with families of prisoners from the West Bank. I wired them money every time and asked them to bring Sami clothes and canteen money.

In early November 2021, Sami started vomiting and ran a high fever, and was treated in prison. Then he was transferred to Ashkelon Prison. I don’t know why. It never occurred to me that he was seriously ill. On 17 November 2021, Sami passed away while he was undergoing surgery at Soroka Hospital. I learned of my son’s death through the media! It was a terrible shock. We started screaming our heads off, my husband, our children and I. Sami died far away from me after I hadn’t seen him for two years, not to mention his siblings – they hadn’t seen him since his arrest. I’m full of pain over Sami’s death, far away from his father and me, and I cry day and night.

My son was a prisoner and died in prison, and now Israel is refusing to give us his body. They won’t let us say goodbye and hold a funeral for him in the Gaza Strip. I complained to the Red Cross and demanded that they help us get Sami’s body. Israel wouldn’t let me see Sami alive, and now they won’t let me see him dead.

Testimony of Muhammad Abu ‘Aram (38), a married father of five and the brother of prisoner Ibrahim Abu ‘Aram (47), a father of two:

Muhammad Abu ‘Aram. Photo by Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B'Tselem, 17 Nov. 2021
Muhammad Abu ‘Aram. Photo by Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B'Tselem, 17 Nov. 2021

The Israeli military arrested my brother at the Abu Huli Checkpoint, north of Khan Yunis, on 13 March 2003 and sentenced him to 24 years in prison. He was transferred between prisons and is currently at Ramon Prison. At first, my mother and father and his wife (Sanaa, 37) visited him every other week.

But after Gilad Shalit was abducted, Israel barred all Gazans from visiting for five years. It was a very tough time for our family. We were worried and hardly knew anything about what was going on with Ibrahim. Every two weeks, one of his brothers or I went to the Red Cross offices in Khan Yunis or in Gaza to ask how Ibrahim was doing and find out if there was any news about the prison visits.

In 2013, Israel allowed us to visit Ibrahim. My mother was suffering from several illnesses at the time, but she went with my father to visit him despite her condition. At the end of the visit, my mother got confused on the way to the bus, and the security forces fired next to her. If the prisoners’ families hadn’t intervened and taken her back to the bus, something terrible would probably have happened. It later turned out that my mother has memory loss (Alzheimer's). Since that incident, the occupation authorities have banned her from visiting Ibrahim. My father suffered a stroke and also had to stop visiting. He now uses a wheelchair. It’s been eight years since anyone from the family has visited Ibrahim. I go to the Red Cross offices in Khan Yunis almost every month to apply for a permit for my brothers and me to visit him. Every time, I’m told that Israel refuses to allow the prisoners’ brothers to visit them.

We have no choice but to wire money to Ibrahim through the families of West Bank prisoners, and it’s a complicated and exhausting process. Because we haven’t visited him or brought him clothes for eight years, he’s now forced to buy clothes in the prison canteen, and sometimes he gets hand-me-downs from the families of West Bank prisoners. Now, in the winter, we’re especially worried about him. We’re afraid he’ll be cold and know that clothes are very expensive in prison. Because I can’t see Ibrahim or transfer him clothes and money, I always feel I’m a prisoner just like him. Ibrahim’s children, Bilal (20) and Dunia (21), last visited him when they were little and haven’t seen their dad in nine years. Father asks me every day about Ibrahim and his medical condition, and to make it easier on him I have to lie. I always tell him that Ibrahim’s okay, even though I haven’t heard anything about him.

Testimony of Khadrah a-Sa’idi (69), the mother of prisoner ‘Awwad a-Sa’idi (43):

Khadrah a-Sa’idi. Photo by Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B'Tselem, 15 Nov. 2021
Khadrah a-Sa’idi. Photo by Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B'Tselem, 15 Nov. 2021

When my son ‘Awwad was arrested, he was engaged. The Israeli military arrested him on 2 December 2004 at the Abu Huli Checkpoint in the central Gaza Strip, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 2012, he got into an argument with a prison guard and got four years added to his sentence. In his first years in prison, ‘Awwad’s fiancée and I visited him every other week or so in Nafha Prison. Since then, he’s been transferred between prisons several times and is now back in Nafha. Israel has banned his brothers and sisters from visiting him all along. Since 2017 I haven’t seen ‘Awwad either, because Israel has banned visits to Hamas prisoners from the Gaza Strip. Since the pandemic broke out, Israel has banned visits for all Gazan prisoners. I live with constant worry over my son. I think about him all the time.

Israel is using the pandemic to prevent visits from Gaza, but it does allow families from the West Bank to visit. It’s irrational discrimination that is meant only to collectively punish Gazans. It has nothing to do with the coronavirus.

When I was still allowed to visit, it was always a very difficult experience. The night before the visit, I couldn’t fall asleep for fear of missing the bus. I’d leave the house at 4:00 A.M. to wait for the bus on the main street. I stood there in the dark, sometimes in stormy weather, in the freezing cold and rain. When we reached Erez Crossing, the torture of the security check would begin. They’d put me through a scanning device again and again, and then again when we arrived at Nafha Prison. Another search, and then another long wait until the guards finished inspecting all the families who had come to visit.