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With their husbands behind bars, Palestinian women find new ways of becoming pregnant

January 23, 2014 at 12:24 am

As 26 families celebrate the recent return of their sons, brothers and fathers from Israeli jails, Hana al Za’ani is awaiting an arrival of a different kind from her home in Beit Hanoun, Gaza.

The former prisoners were the second group of releases authorized by Israel as a “gesture” in the ongoing Palestine-Israel “peace talks”. They had all been in prison for over 19 years.

Hana al-Za’anin’s husband still resides behind bars after 7 years and is unlikely to taste freedom for many more. For the couple this has meant 7 years without seeing each other, as the Israeli authorities have prevented Hana from visiting her husband. Yet she is now just a couple of months from giving birth to their first child.

Like every baby born, the family is eagerly anticipating the arrival. For the Za’anin family the birth seems an extra special miracle.

For the first time mother to fall pregnant her husband’s sperm had to be smuggled out of an Israeli prison, cross numerous security barriers and even country borders, before being frozen and then fertilizing the egg via “In Vitro Fertilization” (IVF) – and all against the ticking 24-48 hour life span of the sperm.

Across in the West Bank, ten more women eagerly await their due date. They are also wives of Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences in Israeli prisons. And like Hana, they went to extraordinary lengths in their quest for motherhood.

As their pregnancies progress well, the birth of a further ten babies in the coming months will mean 16 babies in total have been conceived through smuggled sperm.

“The first baby gave hope to other women in similar situations. Encouraged, more approached the clinic for help,” said an IVF specialist from the clinic in the West Bank where all but the Gaza baby was conceived.

As Israel does not permit conjugal visits to its over 5,000 Palestinian prisoners, the West Bank clinic offers some women their only chance at motherhood. The imprisonment of a family member is hardly uncommon in Palestine, where families constantly face the fear their loved ones will be arrested by the Israeli authorities.

The clinic, which provides the IVF free of cost to the wives of long term prisoners, claims to have treated 40-45 women in this way, but only a percentage of these result in a baby.

“The women’s lives are so lonely; they really want to be mothers. They could wait until their husbands are free, but by then they will be too old to have a baby,” said the specialist.

The women are first advised to announce their decision to all family, friends and everyone in the village to avoid any doubts over paternity, with the husband still residing in jail. The families then begin the difficult task of retrieving the sperm and getting it to the clinic before the 24-48 hour deadline.

“The process is very hard. Some women wait two, three, even five years before they manage to get the semen to the clinic. And then it is not a given they will fall pregnant,” he said.

After announcing her decision to fall pregnant via these means, one of the clinic’s patients waited 5 years to successfully smuggle semen out of the prison. On the first attempt her husband was caught and placed in solitary confinement for a whole year. Now the semen has reached the clinic, but the patient is in her mid 40’s.

“There is a small hope for her,” said the specialist.

Israel routinely conducts raids across the West Bank, taking youths in the middle of the night on unknown charges. Out of the 5,007 prisoners, 136 are held under administrative detention without charge or the right to trial, and 180 are minors, while an estimated 40 percent of the Palestinian male population has been arrested at least once in their lives.

To celebrate the 1st birthday of the first baby conceived in this way, an extra big milestone in this case, the hospital held a party. As Palestine celebrates the release of some long term prisoners, the quest for motherhood by the women whose men still reside behind bars continues.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.