For the first time in five years, 40 Palestinians from Gaza have been allowed to visit relatives held in Israeli jails. The visits were allowed as part of a deal to end a mass hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners demanding better conditions – including more access to relatives and lawyers – and an end to Israel's policy of detaining terrorism suspects without charge.
Around 320 Palestinians are being held without charge, out of a total of approximately 4,800 Palestinians detained in Israeli jails.
This move has been a long time coming. Family visits were banned in 2007, shortly after Palestinians in Gaza captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. He was released in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners last year.
The deal to end the hunger strike by 1,600 Palestinian prisoners was reached in May, brokered by Egypt and Jordan. As well as permitting family visits, Israel agreed that it would not renew "administrative detentions" unless new evidence emerged. It stopped short of releasing prisoners held without charge before the end of their sentences.
For the Gazan families allowed to visit their relatives for the first time since 2007, yesterday was a milestone. The Israeli authorities confirmed that 40 people – the relatives of 24 prisoners – visited Ramon Prison and said that weekly visits by inmates' relatives in Gaza would now be allowed.
Yet despite the personal joy expounded in reports of the visits, this should not be allowed to be a simple photo opportunity. These visits were long overdue – the deal was reached in May – and covered only a fraction of the 550 prisoners with close relatives in Gaza. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) facilitated the visits and says that it hopes it will open the way for visits by the families of other prisoners too. Several earlier attempts to arrange visits were aborted because of Israeli intransigence. Although yesterday's visits are being presented as a concession by Israel, as Juan Pedro Schaerer, the head of the ICRC delegation in Israel and the occupied territories pointed out, "Under international humanitarian law, the Israeli authorities have an obligation to allow the detainees to receive family visits".
While the visits were facilitated by the Red Cross, an independent body which offers a certain degree of protection, it must be remembered that crossing the border into Israel is fraught with risks for any Gazan. Israel has form in arresting people and using them as bargaining chips for intelligence. Although it has been largely unnoticed by English language news sources, it is being reported on Arabic websites that a 43 year old patient seeking treatment was detained by Israel yesterday. Rouhi Fuad Qarqaz was travelling from Gaza via the Beit Hanoun crossing. This serves as a stark reminder of the risks faced by Palestinians on a daily basis.
The Hamas-led government in Gaza was dismissive of the prison visits, saying that the move was "a step devoid of value" because there was no guarantee of future visits. This pessimism is understandable, given past experience, but it is possible that strategic concerns may provide the guarantee needed, at least in the immediate future. Israel is anxious to secure its relationship with the new regime in Egypt. If it wants to be taken seriously, it will need to honour the obligations it made in the agreement made in May to halt the hunger strike. Whether it actually does so remains to be seen over the coming weeks and months.
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