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Gaza: crossing the border to visit her son

18-12-2006 Feature

On a hot summer's night in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, Um Hassan tossed and turned in her bed. She couldn’t sleep, as she was thinking about her son, Ahmed, who was in the Israeli prison of Beer Sheva.

" I woke up as my daughter Amal shouted from downstairs and, at first, I didn't believe her when she said I could visit my son the next day! But then she brought me the radio, and I heard the ICRC's announcement. My heart almost jumped out, it was beating so loudly! Then I asked her to get me from the corner of the room, the blue bag which I use to take to my son what he needs”.

   
   
 
  Last year, the ICRC’s Family visit programme allowed 200,000 family members from Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank to visit around 11,000 detainees in Israeli prisons. In the first half of 2006, 176,500 people visited detained family. In June Israel suspended the programme, but it resumed in August.    
     
Since the programme had been called off, Um waited to hear from the ICRC about a visit and had checked that blue bag every night until recently, when she had begun to lose hope. But now she hurried to the supermarket to buy fresh goods, and prepared her outdoor dress for the next morning. She explained, smiling, that her preparations in advance were due to limited electricity in her Gaza home. " When I leave home to catch the ICRC bus it will be very dark, so it is better to have everything at hand " .

The Family visit programme, operated by the ICRC since 1976, is the only means Palestinian families from Gaza and the West Bank have to regularly visit their detained relatives. As part of the programme, the ICRC organises transportation and coordinates with Israeli authorities, facilitating administrative formalities at checkpoints. " All security-related aspects are under the responsibility of the Israeli authorities. This includes verifying the identity of participants, the issuing of necessary permits, the organization of police escorts, and the control of the visitors while in the places of detention " , explains Expedite Bandak, the ICRC programme manager.

At 4.30am the next morning, Um Hassan and Amal, along with other families, were picked up by an ICRC rented bus and taken to the Erez crossing point between Gaza and Israel. The prolonged security checks, involving highly sophisticated equipment and complicated procedures, did not prevent her from smiling as she looked ahead to the other side to see if the buses had arrived. At around 9am, she was on the bus, ready to meet with her son.

In the afternoon on her way back after visiting her son, Um Hassan's face didn't show any emotions and appeared pale. Suddenly, her eyes filled with tears when asked about the trip and the visit to her son. " I wanted to hug him, I wanted to smell his breath, I wanted to touch his hand, I wanted to hold his head against my chest, but I couldn't because cold glass separated us. After so long, 45 minutes is not enough to see and talk with my son! " she said. But a big smile appeared on her face, while drying her tears with her black head cover. " But I saw him! " , she added.