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Israel/Gaza: 23 years' solitary for a detainee's wife

26-05-2008 Feature

Tahani is one of hundreds of Palestinian wives whose husbands are held in Israeli prisons. For the past 23 years, she has had to raise their six children alone. In June 2007, the Israeli authorities suspended all family visits; she is desperate to see him once again.

Tahani fears she will never see her husband again. They have lived apart for 23 years, after he was captured in Gaza by Israeli forces and later detained in Israel, leaving behind a pregnant wife and five children. The prison sentence he received will ensure that he remains behind bars for the rest of his life.

  ©ICRC/M. A. Albaba /il-e-01471    
Tahani Mustafa Herig holding a photo of her husband who she hopes to be able to visit in prison again if the family visits programme is resumed in Gaza.    
    Shortly after the capture of her husband, she gave birth to a little girl, the sixth child in the family. " Today she is 23 years old and has just had a baby herself. My husband has become both a father and a grandfather while in prison. But we don't know if he ever will be able to see his grandchildren, " she says.

Tahani used to go and visit her husband twice a month, under the ICRC's family visits programme. But she says that since 2001 the Israeli authorities have allowed her only three visits, for security reasons. In June 2007 the authorities stopped them completely.

" I miss my husband terribly and I need him to take care of the family. I have only been allowed to talk to him once by telephone, " Tahani states, holding up a photo of him that was taken in prison 13 years ago. She explains that photos are normally taken every six months in prison and given to the families.

The only way to communicate directly with her detained husband is by Red Cross Messages – personal messages sent and delivered through the ICRC. The messages may contain only personal information and have to undergo censorship by the authorities.

 Gesture of defiance  

Even though the family visits have been suspended for almost a year, Tahani and some 1,100 other relatives of detainees from Gaza still sign up for them with the ICRC, a gesture of hope and defiance. The ICRC has continuously asked the authorities to allow a resumption, but this has repeatedly been turned down.

  ©ICRC/M. A. Albaba / il-e-01472    
Local media attends the weekly sit-ins in front of the ICRC office, where family members of detainees gather every Monday to protest against the suspension of the visits.    
    Most Mondays, hundreds of family members gather for a " sit-in " in front of the ICRC office in Gaza City. Followed closely by local media, they come to express solidarity with their detained relatives and to demonstrate against the suspension of the visits. They also aim to offer the detainees some hope.

" On Mondays they are waiting in the prisons to see our faces on television or hear our voices on the radio, since they can't see us or talk to us in real life, " she explains.

 Personal, not political  

Tahani's most fervent wish is for her husband to be released from prison and come home to be reunited with the rest of the family. But for now all she can do is to repeat her demand for the visits to be resumed.

" This has nothing to do with politics. We just want to be able to see our relati ves, to meet them, to talk to them. If I am not allowed to visit him any more, we might not see each other for the rest of our lives, " she says.

Families of Palestinian detainees held in Israeli prisons get some financial support from the Palestinian authorities. This helps in a territory where living conditions are extremely hard for most families and essential services sometimes non-existent. But Tahani's difficulties are more than material: " My children have been raised without their father to guide them. Today they are all grown up, " she sighs.

However, she worries much more about the well-being of her husband. Detainees depend on visits from their families for basic items, such as clothes. But the psychological benefits from the visits are much greater.

" The visits are very important to the detainees, to let them see their families. My husband is just spending his time in prison waiting for us to come. I can only hope it will be soon, " she murmurs.