Samahar Masalmeh holds baby Karim and a picture of his father, Nabil, who is in an Israeli jail
In her home near Hebron in the West Bank, Palestine, Samahar Masalmeh lifts her new baby and holds him like a trophy. Karim was born two weeks ago, and there’s no doubt he’s a small victory for the Masalmeh family: His father has been inside an Israeli high-security prison for the past 14 years, and he and his wife have had no physical contact since then.
His mother says Karim was conceived through IVF (in vitro fertilization), using a sperm sample smuggled out of prison.
“My two other children wanted a little brother or sister, and by the time my husband gets out of jail I will be 47 and too old to bear children,” says Samahar, whose four previous attempts at the procedure failed. Samahar’s two other children, who are 15 and 16, were born before Nabil Masalmeh was jailed for his involvement in clashes with the Israeli military during the Second Intifada.
“When we came up with the idea we consulted the doctor and we were told that it’s normal," says Samahar, "we’d just have to bring the sample.”
“Normal” takes on a whole new meaning in the West Bank, where the reality of the occupation affects every aspect of Palestinian life, from freedom of movement to whom residents can marry and where they can build their homes. Unlike other detainees, “security prisoners” do not have the right to conjugal visits, and although a few Jewish Israelis have been imprisoned under similar provisions, the conditions of their confinement tend to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. For instance, Yigal Amir was allowed to father a child through in vitro fertilization while serving a life sentence for the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
After Dallal Ziben pioneered the procedure in August 2012, other women were emboldened to do the same. On the same day Karim was born, Roula Muhammad Adb al-Ghani gave birth to twins in Nablus using the same procedure. According to Dr. Salim Abu Khaizaran, director of the Razan Center—a fertility clinic that has been performing the treatment—so far 21 women have conceived using sperm smuggled out of Israeli jails.
“I don’t know how they do it and I don’t want to know. When they come to us, we cannot deny them treatment,” says Abu Khaizaran. Samahar and other women have been equally secretive about how they manage to get the sperm through prison security. “Once they bring the sample, we demand that two first-degree relatives on both the wife’s and husband’s side confirm where the sample comes from," says Abu Khaizaran. "If the sample is good, we freeze it. It can last for 24 hours or even more, depending on the person."
“The idea of in vitro fertilization is not widely accepted,” says Samahar. “At the beginning my family didn’t support me, they were worried of what people would say if they saw me pregnant while my husband is in jail. But then one family did it because they couldn’t have babies, and things became easier. Now even those who criticized us support us.” The Palestinian Supreme Fatwa Council approved the procedure last year.
Due to restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, visiting relatives in jails located in Israeli territory is not an easy undertaking. They have to apply for permits from the Israeli authorities through the International Committee of the Red Cross, which Israel has been known to revoke or deny on security grounds—as during the Gaza offensive, when family visits to members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were forbidden.
“When my husband was in Nafha prison, I used to visit him every two weeks, then when they moved him I started seeing him every month,” says Samahar. “Now with the baby it will be even more difficult.” The families' journeys are often long and they are subjected to humiliating searches. Only first-degree relatives are allowed to visit, normally for 45 minutes every two weeks, and physical contact is usually only allowed with children under the age of eight. All prisons except one are located within Israel, in violation of international humanitarian law.
Palestinians demonstrate against the re-arrest of prisoners who had been released under the Gilad Shalit exchange
A framed photograph of Nabil Masalmeh hangs on a wall in the living room, marking the date when he was imprisoned in October 2000. Political prisoners are seen as national heroes by Palestinians, and the Palestinian Authority pays a stipend to the wives of those who are serving sentences longer than five years. According to Israel Prison Service figures published by human rights organization B’Tselem, as of the end of August, 5,505 Palestinian detainees and prisoners were held in Israeli jails; 473 were administrative detainees, held without charge or trial. The number of administrative detainees is at the highest it has been in five years—it more than doubled from 196 in May, when Operation Brother’s Keeper was launched in the West Bank in response to the abduction and murder of three yeshiva students.
Administrative detention is only permitted in international law in exceptional circumstances and not as routine practice. According to prisoner support association Addameer, administrative detainees are not told the reason for their detention, which in practice has no time limit—although each detention order can last up to six months, it can be renewed indefinitely.
Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are also often used as bargaining chips. In 2011, 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were freed in exchange one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been held in captivity by Hamas for over five years. The deal ended up bolstering both Hamas and the Israeli government. Seventy-two of those freed under the Shalit deal were re-arrested in the summer as part of Operation Brother’s Keeper. In late September, Hamas announced another possible prisoners' swap deal, not confirmed by the Israeli government.
The Razan Medical Center for Infertility and IVF has been offering the procedure for free for women with husbands who have long jail sentences, although the costs associated with medication and aftercare are to be borne by the family. Dr. Abu Khaizaran denies that there’s a political agenda behind what they do. “We really do it for humanitarian reasons, so that these women don’t waste their whole life waiting for their husbands, so that life can go on.”
Follow Ylenia Gostoli on Twitter