(Gaza City) – Israel imposes excessive restrictions on family visits to Palestinian prisoners from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government should abide by international humanitarian law and do more to facilitate contact between prisoners and their families.

Abdelhaleem Albelbasi is serving a life sentence in Israel. His adult children may not visit him. 

© 2016 Private

Israel is holding 334 prisoners from Gaza convicted for, or charged with “security crimes” related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to official information provided to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. They include two women and a child. An additional detainee is held without charge under the Unlawful Combatants Law.

“The Israeli government is unlawfully incarcerating prisoners from Gaza inside Israel and then making it very hard for their families to visit them,” said Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine director. “The government’s security concerns over having these families enter Israel for visits with their loved ones are of its own making.”

Israel holds most Palestinian prisoners who were apprehended in occupied territory inside Israel, in violation of international humanitarian law prohibitions against transferring residents from occupied territory. It then requires family members to obtain permits from the military to enter Israel to visit them. This means that family members must pass an Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet) security screening to visit their imprisoned relatives.

While Israel has a responsibility to ensure that prison visits are carried out safely and securely, the authorities have imposed general limitations on Gaza families’ entry into Israel that unnecessarily hinder visits to incarcerated loved ones. By contrast, family members of the more than 6,000 Palestinian prisoners and detainees from the West Bank are subject to only some of these restrictions, and they can visit relatives more frequently. Family members from Israel are subject only to the conditions that the Israel Prison Service sets.

The Israel Prison Service allows prison visits every two weeks for all prisoners and more frequent visits for pre-trial detainees. However, Palestinian families from Gaza can only obtain entry permits for a prison visit from the military every two months at most.

In addition, while the Prison Service allows all immediate family members and grandparents to visit security prisoners, the Israeli military will only permit entry into Israel from Gaza for spouses, parents, and children under 16. Siblings, grandparents, and sons and daughters 16 or older are denied entry. Families from the West Bank are not subject to these restrictions.

Even though the Israel Prison Service allows up to three adults and an unlimited number of children under 18 for each visit, the Israeli military will grant entry permits to only three visitors at a time, including children. While safety and security considerations need to be taken into account, limiting the number of children is particularly onerous for Palestinians from Gaza, where large families are common.

“Family visits have little meaning if sons and daughters can’t meet their parents,” Bashi said.

Israel requires Gaza families to travel to the prisons in buses, under police escort, but it does not provide the buses, leaving the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to organize and pay for the bus service. The government provides a police escort. Family members – including young children, the elderly and infirm, and working people – need to leave home before dawn on a weekday to see an incarcerated relative, returning in the late afternoon or evening. The visits are for 45 minutes through a reinforced-glass barrier.

While holding these prisoners in Gaza is not practicable, because Israel ended its permanent ground troop presence in Gaza in 2005, Israel can and should transfer them to the West Bank, the other part of the occupied Palestinian territory, Human Rights Watch said. The prohibition against removing prisoners from the occupied territory is designed, in part, to allow them to maintain family ties, and the Israeli government should facilitate visits for family members from Gaza to the maximum extent possible.

Some prisoners were arrested prior to 2005, when Israel had a permanent ground troop presence in Gaza, and others were arrested in the past decade, during incursions or when they came to the border crossing for passage into Israel.

Israel has periodically suspended visits for families from Gaza entirely in response to renewed violence or political developments, most recently in 2014, even though the authorities did not allege that the prisoners or their families were involved in the violence. Between 2007 and 2012, Israel banned all family visits from Gaza, citing, among other reasons, the fact that armed groups in Gaza were holding captive an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, allowing him no visits.

Currently, armed groups in Gaza are believed to be holding three Israeli civilians with mental health conditions who crossed into Gaza, and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 fighting. Neither those groups nor the Hamas government have provided information to their families, and they have kept them incommunicado and unjustifiably refused visits by the ICRC, in violation of international law. In July, family members of the Israeli civilians and deceased soldiers demonstrated in the path of the buses carrying relatives from Gaza and at the entrance to one of the prisons, temporarily delaying the visits, relatives of the prisoners told Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch said that unlawful acts by the Palestinian groups’ detaining these civilians would not justify imposing unnecessary restrictions on family visits from Gaza.

Families of prisoners described to Human Rights Watch the restrictions placed on visits to their loved ones. Sana’a al-Hafi, 44, who was convicted of transferring money to Hamas and sentenced to 12 months in prison, is held in a facility for women in northern Israel, said her son Ayman al-Hafi and the rights group Addameer. Ayman al-Hafi told Human Rights Watch that the Israeli authorities have not allowed Sana’a al-Hafi’s husband or any of her seven children to visit her, apparently because the government is not willing to facilitate the escort needed for her family members. Two of al-Hafi’s sisters living in the West Bank are able to visit her, he said, as there are organized group visits from the West Bank to northern Israel, where many prisoners from the West Bank are held.

Abd al-Halim al-Bilbeisi, 48, was sentenced to life in prison for participating in an attack in 1995 that killed 21 Israeli soldiers and an Israeli civilian. Because of Israeli restrictions, his adult daughter and two adult sons have not seen him for periods ranging from 9 to 12 years. Only his wife, Ibtissam al-Bilbeisi, is permitted to visit, every two months. On those days, she leaves the house at 5 a.m. and returns home to the Jabalia refugee camp at about 8 p.m., she said. His daughter Shaima’a, al-Bilbeisi, 23, hasn’t seen her father in 12 years. She told Human Rights Watch that she misses him most during important transitions in her life, such as when she began her university studies.

International humanitarian law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Hague Regulations of 1907, which govern military occupation, requires the occupying power to respect the family unit. Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, for example, provides that the “family rights” of civilians are to be protected at all times. Article 49 prohibits transfers of individuals, including prisoners, from the occupied territory, “regardless of [the] motive.” And article 76 specifically states that individuals who are convicted should serve their sentences in the occupied territory. The ICRC has publicly been critical of Israel for detaining people outside the occupied territory.

Individuals in occupied territories convicted and imprisoned under the occupier’s criminal law maintain their rights under international human rights law. Prisoners in all circumstances have a right to protection of their family life, which includes maintaining contact with family members. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Mandela Rules”) in rule 58 protect a prisoner’s right to receive visits “at regular intervals” from family and friends.

The Israeli government should comply with its obligations to facilitate visits for family members, to include siblings and children, regardless of their age, in the category of eligible visitors, and to refrain from suspending family visits for reasons unrelated to the security of the visits themselves. To allow for as many children as practicable to visit an incarcerated parent, the military authorities should only count adults among the three visitors per prisoner allowed to enter Israel each time, and admit additional children under 18, consistent with prison safety and security considerations.

While holding prisoners in Gaza is not feasible, the Israeli government should transfer prisoners from Gaza to facilities in the West Bank, Human Rights Watch said. Doing so would ensure that the prisoners remain in occupied Palestinian territory as international law requires, and would facilitate visits from relatives in the West Bank. About 7 percent of adult Gaza residents have first-degree relatives in the West Bank, according to the Israeli human rights group Gisha.

Family members from Gaza would need to be bused through Israel, so entry permits into Israel would still be needed. However, given its ability to mitigate security risks through the police escort it already provides, Israel should limit entry refusals as much as possible. In particular, Israel should respect the right of all Palestinians to freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank, including for the purpose of prison visits. It should allow Palestinians from Gaza who choose to relocate to the West Bank to do so, including in order to be closer to their loved ones. The leading Palestinian prisoner rights group, Addameer, has advocated holding all Palestinian prisoners in prisons in the West Bank.

“All prisoners have a right to family visits, which are crucial for maintaining and developing family relationships,” Bashi said. “Israel should facilitate regular family contact to the greatest extent possible.”