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Collectively punishing families through prisoners isolation


 

Nisreen
posses next to a picture of her husband Samir in her home in Zeitoun

 

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.”

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