Trial Gaza family visits to Israeli jails begin

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Relatives of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons cross by bus at the Erez border crossing in Beit Hanoun during the first visit by the International Committee of the Red Cross early on 16 July 2012. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed Abed)

Published Monday, July 16, 2012

Israel on Monday allowed a group of Palestinians from Gaza to visit their loved ones held in Israel jails for the first time in five years.

The group of 40 relatives crossed from Gaza into Israel via the Erez terminal in the early hours of Monday, and were en route to Ramun prison in southern Israel.

Israel agreed to restart the visits on a trial basis as part of a deal between the prison authorities and Palestinian detainees to end a mass hunger strike earlier this year.

A total of 473 Gazans languish in Israeli jails, according to the Gaza-based group Husam, with another group of relatives set to visit the prisons on July 23.

The prisoners went on strike to demand an end to Israel's draconian administrative detention policy, as well as an easing of the conditions of their detention, including greater access to lawyers and relatives, and an end to solitary confinement.

Emotions were running high among the relatives as they waited to cross into Israel, in a trip being facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Among those crossing was the mother of prisoner Mohammed Hamdiya, who said she was almost overwhelmed with excitement at the thought of seeing her son again.

"You can't imagine my joy at being able to meet my son Mohammed soon, to be able to see his face again after all these years," she told AFP.

Fatima Nashbat was on her way to see her husband Mohammed Jaber for the first time in nearly six years, she said.

"I haven't seen my husband or heard his voice or even news of him for years," she said. "I don't know what the meeting will be like, but of course my excitement is indescribable and I can't wait to see him."

In all, 24 prisoners from Gaza are to receive relatives from the coastal territory, Israel Prisons Service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman said of the visit which will last two hours.

The Red Cross welcomed Monday's developments and expressed hope the visits would resume on a regular basis.

"This is a first step and we hope that visits by residents of Gaza will resume in full," Juan Pedro Schaerer, head of the ICRC in Israel and the Palestinian territories, said in a statement.

"We have repeatedly called for the resumption of family visits, which are a lifeline for detainees and their families. Under international humanitarian law, Israeli authorities have an obligation to allow the detainees to receive family visits."

Israel had barred family visits and imposed solitary confinement in contravention of international humanitarian law.

Israel also detains Palestinians on the basis of administrative detention, an outdated policy dating back to the British mandate era of historic Palestine, whereby individuals can be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have previously condemned the policy as a violation of international humanitarian law, but Israel has resisted calls to end the harsh measure.

Israel's routine harassment and detention of ordinary Palestinians is only part of the greater suffering endured by indigenous Palestinians, with activists accusing Israel of running an apartheid state.

(Al-Akhbar, AFP, Ma'an)

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