First Gaza family visits to Israeli jails in five years

AFP , Monday 16 Jul 2012

Deal struck to end hunger strikes in Israeli prisons bears fruit as relatives from Gaza are allowed to visit detainees

Palestinians held photographs of prisoners jailed in Israel during a support rally for Palestinian prisoners who were on hunger strike, May 2012, (Photo: AP).

A group of Palestinians gathered on Monday to cross from Gaza and visit relatives in Israeli prisons for the first time in five years.

The visits were banned in June 2007, leaving the families of hundreds of Gazans held in Israeli jails unable to see their sons, husbands and fathers.

Emotions were running high among the relatives, a group of men and women whose departure from Gaza through the Erez border crossing into Israel was facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Among those crossing was the mother of prisoner Mohammed Hamdiya, who said she was almost overwhelmed with excitement at the thought of seeing her son again.

"You can't imagine my joy at being able to meet my son Mohammed soon, to be able to see his face again after all these years," she told AFP.

In all, 24 prisoners from Gaza would receive relatives from the coastal territory, Israel Prisons Service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman said. The visit of a few hours would take place at Ramun prison in southern Israel.

Israel agreed to restart the visits on a trial basis as part of a deal between prison authorities and Palestinian detainees to bring an end to a mass hunger strike earlier this year.

The prisoners were calling for the easing of the conditions of their detention, including greater access to lawyers and relatives, and an end to solitary confinement.

The Red Cross welcomed the visit, and said it hoped they would resume on a regular basis.

"This is a first step and we hope that visits by residents of Gaza will resume in full," Juan Pedro Schaerer, head of the ICRC in Israel and the Palestinian territories, said in a statement.

"We have repeatedly called for the resumption of family visits, which are a lifeline for detainees and their families. Under international humanitarian law, Israeli authorities have an obligation to allow the detainees to receive family visits."

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