Each month Yasmin Rajoub gets to spend exactly 90 minutes with her son, Jamal, currently serving out a life sentence in Rimon Prison for terrorist activities during the second intifada as a member of Fatah’s Al-Aksa Brigade. For the past fifteen years since Jamal's incarceration, Rajoub has learned to savor every minute she gets with him. But since June, those minutes have been cut in half.
In late May, the International Committee for the Red Cross, which has run a Family Visit Program since 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.
Although ICRC emphasized this would not affect prisoners who are 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 after 26 months in administrative detention, told The Jerusalem Post that “family visits are the only oxygen that we [prisoners] breathe of the outside world, and they are cutting if off.”
Across every governorate of the West Bank and in every major Palestinian city and in east Jerusalem, protesters gathered on Thursday to voice their frustration with the ICRC’s announcement, and to show support for prisoners.
Meanwhile, Palestinian detainees in at least two prisons staged symbolic hunger strikes.
Clutching a poster of Jamal outside the ICRC compound in northern Hebron, Rajoub was one of some 30 protesters, mostly mothers and fathers of prisoners, seeking to pressure the ICRC into reinstating a second visit.
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“We want solidarity and we want to put pressure on the Israeli authorities to let us see our family,” Rajoub told the Post solemnly. “We suffer a lot from the behaviors of the prison authorities, the checkpoints and the prisons. But we must see our son.”
Since all but one Israeli prison is outside the West Bank, making travel difficult, time consuming, and expensive, many people like Rajoub rely on the ICRC for facilitating their visits. They say that 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 in the past few years, resulting in buses chronically under-capacity.
However, the Hebron protesters 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 cite roadblocks, 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 many of them, their permits were withdrawn.”
For instance, following a June terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, 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 alleges that events like the recent village closure are the reasons 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 data compiled over several years by his organization showed that even those with permits were not going on the visits. This data served as the rationale for cutting the visit times.
"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 the transportation of families to visit the prisons. This, Waudo says, should ultimately be the responsibility of the Israeli authorities.
Yet there may be a reason for the protesters to be optimistic. On Thursday, Essa Qaraqaa, minister of prisoner affairs for the PA, stated that the Red Cross informed him that it would soon announce positive solutions on the matter.
He added that a number of Palestinian political heavyweights, such as PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Rami Hamdalla, and PLO Secretary General Saeb Erakat have intervened in an attempt to reverse the Red Cross’s decision.
Rajoub alleges that examples like the recent village closure are the principle cause of why she has not been able to visit 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.
Yet there may be 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 it would soon announce positive solutions on the matter.
He added that a number of Palestinian political heavyweights, such as PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Rami Hamdalla, and PLO Secretary General Saeb Erakat have 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, which they assert is a basic human right.
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.”
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