Areen and one of her nephews

Areen Nayfeh is a normal, pretty, bright ten year old from Tulkarem in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Her life, however, is not so normal. Three of her brothers, Nimer, Mohamed and Fadi are in jail in Israel. As a collective punishment, Israel denies visiting rights to all adult members of her family (mother, wives, brothers and other sisters), so Areen has the responsibility of taking her nephews and nieces to see their fathers.

The prison visitors programme is organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and paid for by the Norwegian government. Buses leave its Tulkarem office four times a week. Areen has done five visits a month to three different jails since she was eight.. She tells me about her routine on her visiting days. “I get up at 5 o’clock to take the Red Cross families bus. It is half an hour to the Taybeh checkpoint (on the border with Israel). There everyone gets off the bus and it takes about two hours to search our bags. Hadarim and Jalboa jails are 30 minutes and 1 hour away but the jail in the Negev where Nemir is takes 4 hours. At the jails I have to register, then wait till I’m called. It can take a long time. When I’m called we take our shoes and coats off and go in. We’re supposed to get 45 minutes to talk but its on a phone through glass. My brothers can’t touch their children, and anyway by the time we get in sometimes the kids are asleep and I have to carry them in. I can’t take food or letters, just clean clothes and money.” When I ask if they’re treated any different from adults, she says no. What does she talk about with her brothers? “I just bring news from home, tell them how their wives and families miss them, Mum tells me what to say.” I ask if the kids are ever mistreated “Not really,” she says, “but sometimes the guards push us and shout.” They have to wait until all the families have visited before they get back on the bus for Tulkarm. On a Negev visit she doesn’t arrive back until after midnight.

Weekly demonstration by prisoners’ families

There are 11,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Every year they get a total number of 211,000 visitors. 1,000 of the prisoners are from Tulkarem, out of a population of 80,000. That’s one in eightly people, mostly young men between 18 and 26. Every Tuesday, the Prisoners’ Families’ Club brings photos and demonstrate in front of the ICRC. Some mothers like Areen’s have more than one son in prison. One old man holds a photo of his grandson who was born in prison. He is now two and by law should leave prison but his mother wants to keep him. Prison is all he knows; he has only seen his brothers and sisters through a glass. Another woman holds a photo of her daughter who she has heard is very ill but can get no details of her condition. The families protest their classification as “security risks” with an embargo on visits, the disproportionate sentences, bad conditions, and ill-treatment of prisoners. Families suffer in other ways too. Areen’s house was demolished in 2002 by the Israeli army as a punishment for the family when her brother Mohamad was sent to prison. The family have rebuilt the house and have gone to court to stop the new one being demolished too. Collective punishment of civilians violates the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The Monday after I talked to Areen, she is taking her brother Mohamad’s two little boys, Dwad (6) and Rabea (5), to see their father. We meet at the ICRC bus at 6 am. She is tired and doesn’t feel like going. “Why do I have to do it?” she complains. “My nephews sometimes behave badly or wet themselves.” She has to cope with them emotionally and practically. She would rather have more fun like other little girls. And she also does not like missing school when there is something important on. “But”, says this little girl with great dignity and compassion, “I have to think of the family, if I don’t take their kids my brothers get upset because they look forwards to it so much. And anyway, it’s not only me that does it.” 30 families in Tulkarm are not allowed to send adult visitors. We are shocked to see the buses so full of children on their own. Their day can be as long as 20 hours. “Sometimes they are confused by the number of buses coming from different places, and get on the wrong one to a different town” says Aymen, the ICRC officer in charge of the visiting programme. ICRC has been campaigning at a high level for an improvement. So has the Israeli human rights organisation Hamoked. Even the Israeli prison service wants the situation improved since so many children are a nuisance for them too; many have psychological or behavioural problems. Aymen says he sees a slight improvement in the situaton as 275 permits have been given for adult sisters in April. This is good news for Areen.

Meanwhile, sometimes resigned, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, sometimes proud of their families in the Resistance, children like Areen grow up quickly under the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank.

Four ICRC buses leave four times a week