Each month Yasmin Rajoub gets to spend exactly ninety minutes with her son, Jamal, currently serving out a life sentence in Rimon Prison, and she savors each one. But this month, those minutes have been cut in half.
In late May, the International Committee for the Red Cross, which has run a Family Visit Program sine 1968, announced that it would be cutting back its program from two visits a month to only one, a decision which has led to uproar in the Palestinian community.
The ICRC emphasized this would not affect prisoners who were minors or women, as well as those held in Gaza, the decision still affects thousands of prisoners and their families.
Bashar Bana, a young man recently released from 26 months in administrative detention, said, “Family visits are the only oxygen that we [prisoners] breathe of the outside world, and they are cutting if off.”
Across every province of the West Bank and in every major Palestinian city from Bethlehem to East Jerusalem, protestors gathered on Thursday to voice their frustration with the ICRC’s announcement, and to show support for prisoners.
Palestinian detainees in at least two prisons staged a symbolic hunger strike.
Clutching a poster of Jamal outside the ICRC compound in northern Hebron, Rajoub was one of thirty or so protestors, mostly mothers and fathers of prisoners, seeking to pressure the ICRC into reinstating the second visit policy.
“We want solidarity and we want to put pressure on the Israeli authorities to let us see our family,” Rajoub said solemnly. “We suffer a lot from the behaviors of the prison authorities, the checkpoints and the prisons. But we must see our son.”
All but one Israeli prison is outside West Bank, making travel difficult, time consuming, and expensive, many people like Rajoub rely on the ICRC for facilitating their visits. For them, there is no other alternative.
The ICRC, in a public statement, has said that its decision came after a “clear decrease” in the number of people showing up for visits with prisoners, resulting in buses chronically under-capacity.
However, the Hebron protestors said that the ICRC failed to realize that the reason many of them had not been going to visit their relatives in prison was due to factors outside of their control. They said road blocks, village closures, and the revoking of permits prevented them from leaving the West Bank, or even, in some cases, their own villages.
“Many relatives couldn’t visit over the last few months because there were blockades,” said Ibrahim Najajreh, head of the Prisoner’s Corporation in Hebron. “No one could enter or leave the West Bank, and for many, their permits were withdrawn.”
Following the June terror attack in Sarona, tens of thousands of permits for West Bank residents to enter Israel were revoked.
Just last week, the village of Dura, where Rajoub lives, was shut down for six days following a series of shootings in the area.
Rajoub pointed to events like the recent village closure as examples of why she has not been able to visit with her son on every occasion available.
“As a relative, if I am permitted to see my son, I wouldn’t miss this chance,” she said.
Robin Waudo, communications coordinator for the ICRC, dismissed the protestor's claims that they were prevented from coming, saying that based on their data, compiled over several years showed that even those with permits were not going on the visits.
"Many people-we are talking about dozens-even after they are cleared by security they don't show up" Waudo said. "This has been going on for a few years. Fiscally, financial resources for humanitarian work are limited."
He added that in addition to working with the families to received the necessary paperwork in advance, the organization takes on the additional burden of facilitating transportation of families to visit the prisons; this, he says, should ultimately be the responsibility of the Israeli authorities.
Yet there is reason for the protestors to be optimistic. On Thursday, Essa Qaraqaa, Minister of Prisoner Affairs for the PA, stated that the Red Cross informed him that they will soon make an announcement of positive solutions in the coming days regarding their decision to decrease prison visits from two times a month to one time a month.
Qaraqaa added that a number of Palestinian political heavyweights, such as President Abbas, Prime Minister Rami Hamdalla, and Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee Saeb Erakat, intervened in an attempt to reverse the Red Cross’s decision.
For now, all the protestors say they can do is keep fighting for another 45 minutes a month to visit their family members, appealing to the humanity of their situation in the process.
Badran Jaever, a leader in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, knows what it means to be behind bars, having spent years in prison in his youth. Now, three of his brothers and all five of his sons are in prison, for a total of 28 years.
“We are human beings,” Jaever said. “We have good relationships with our families and communities, and need to keep this kind of relationship and need to be able to continue some of our life outside of the jail. Don’t forget that we have the right to live with dignity, too.”