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Israel and the occupied/autonomous territories - Family visits to detained relatives resume

23-05-2002 News Release 02/21

After a suspension of over two-and-a-half months, the ICRC's family-visit programme resumed on Monday 20 May in the Gaza Strip.

After a suspension of over two-and-a-half months, the ICRC's family-visit programme resumed on Monday 20 May in the Gaza Strip. Under the scheme, which first began in 1969, the ICRC facilitates access for persons living in the Palestinian territories to relatives being held by the Israeli authorities inside Israel. People wishing to apply for a visit are registered by the ICRC, which then submits their names to the authorities. For those authorized to visit their detained relatives, the ICRC arranges transportation from door to door. Only close family members are eligible to apply, and even those who fall within the criteria are often refused access by the authorities.

Over 300 persons from Gaza City applied to visit their relatives on 20 May. More than half were refused permission, but the 137 people who received the necessary authorization were overjoyed at having the chance to see their loved ones again — even though the visit itself lasts a little under an hour, and requires a whole day of travelling, undergoing security checks, and waiting.

" I am so glad to be able to see my son again " exclaimed one mother, Zeinab, as she clambered aboard the bus that was to take her to the Israeli border at 5 a.m. " But I wish that at least one of my two daughters had been allowed to come with me, so that she could see her brother too. "

The visitors ranged in age from toddlers to old, hunched grandfathers. Nearly everyone was weighed down with plastic bags containing presents of coffee, tea, vegetables, fruit and sweet-smelling mint for their detained relatives. Many of them also carried small holdalls full of spare clothes for their loved ones, and p icnic lunches for themselves.

Those who were not able to make the journey this time felt regret, but also relief that the programme had restarted, at least in Gaza. " It is a terrible thing to be separated from your children, " commented one 75-year-old woman whose own son spent many years in an Israeli jail but has now been released. Sitting in the garden of the ICRC office in Gaza City, during a weekly protest by detainees'families to lobby for access, she added: " We are very glad that the visits have resumed. But we will not be satisfied until every wife and mother who is waiting to see her loved one can do so. "

Since the start of the current intifada , 18 months ago, the family-visit programme has been suspended by the Israeli authorities on a number of occasions for unspecified security reasons. In Gaza, it ran more or less smoothly from August 2001 until March 2002, but was halted when tensions rose throughout the occupied territories. In the West Bank, the programme resumed in mid-February 2002 after a suspension of five months, only to be halted again three weeks later. It has not yet resumed.