A year after the 2014 war, I returned to Gaza. One of the stories grabbing the headlines was that of women conceiving babies with sperm smuggled out of the Israeli prisons in which their husbands are held. I wrote the story for Inter Press Service and you can read it on their website by clicking here.
– Thirteen-year-old Hula Khadoura sits on a large sofa in her grandfather’s home in the neighbourhood of Tuffah, Gaza City, her one-year-old twin brothers Karam and Adam on her lap. “I am so happy they arrived,” she beams, holding the babies’ feeding bottles in her hands.
There is an aura of mystery and something of the miraculous around the twins’ births – their father, Saleh Khadoura, has spent the past 11 years in an Israeli prison and has had no physical contact with Hula’s mother, Bushra, since then.
Hula hears people refer to her brothers as ‘special babies’ but does not fully grasp what the fuss is about. She is completely unaware of the unusual obstacles her father’s sperm had to overcome to reach her mother’s eggs.
Bushra Abu Saafi, is one of around 30 Palestinian women who have conceived babies since 2013 with sperm smuggled out of the Israeli prisons in which their husbands are being held. She was only the second woman in Gaza to do this. Before her, two had tried but only one succeeded.
According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ NGO Addameer, there are currently some 5,750 Palestinian political prisoners being held in Israel. Of these, roughly 5,550 are adult males.
Women whose husbands are serving decades-long sentences do not want to see their dream of starting a family, or increasing its size, taken away by the very same authorities that took away their husbands.
Until recently, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) was highly sceptical that sperm smuggling could be happening at all. Spokesperson Sivan Weizman told the press that tight security made it very unlikely. Recently, though, they have acknowledged that it may be an issue.
The Palestinian National Authority and Hamas, on the other hand, have never shown any doubt and have financially supported women wishing to try this very unconventional method of conceiving.
In May in Gaza, the Palestinian Ministry of Prisoners even organised a collective birthday party for the little ‘ambassadors of freedom’, as babies born this way are often called.
“It was my husband who suggested we try ‘in vitro fertilisation’ (IVF) treatment with his smuggled sperm,” Bushra Abu Saafi told IPS from her father’s apartment, where she lives with her five children.
The majority of Palestinian households have at least one relative in an Israeli prison. For a people under occupation, political prisoners become part of the collective identity, they are adopted by Palestinians as long lost brothers, sisters, mothers or fathers and are celebrated at Prisoners’ Day marches and recurring demonstrations.
In the private sphere, the prisoners continue to be individuals and occupy prominent places in the home. Their handicrafts are displayed with pride, their photos adorn each room and the vacuum they have left is still palpable.
A flowery picture frame with a photo of her smiling husband Saleh in his twenties sits on a side table in Bushra’s living room. He was arrested at the age of 23, accused of being part of the Islamic Jihad. They had been married for five years and only two of their children have had the privilege of spending some time with him as a family.
When Saleh was imprisoned, Bushra was pregnant with Ahmed. “It hasn’t been easy these past 11 years,” she told IPS. “We miss him terribly, my son Ahmad especially. He doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘father’. He tells me ‘when I grow up I want to be like grandad’.”
Smuggling new life out of jail
Entering a fourth pregnancy was something Bushra did not take lightly and her father worried about the extra pressure. “When Saleh proposed this to me from prison, I was sceptical,” she confessed. “My family and I worried about what people would say. Imagine, pregnant with a husband in jail!”
She need not have worried. The advice she was given, like other women undergoing IVF in this way, was to tell everyone in her family and village that her husband’s sperm had been brought out and would be used for insemination. Since then, local media stations have helped spread the story and both Palestinian society and local religious authorities have been highly supportive.
“In the end, my father saw that it was my desire to try for another baby and eventually supported my choice,” Bushra said. It took two months and many tests before she could be ready for the operation.
Although the women do not wish to discuss how the sperm is smuggled past Israeli security and out of prison, it is acknowledged that it may be slipped into the clothes of unaware children.
While wives talk to imprisoned husbands through glass and over a phone, children are the only ones allowed physical contact at the end of a visit. The clinics performing the operation, both in Gaza and in the West Bank, report that sperm has arrived in a variety of improvised containers, from sweet wrappers to eye drop bottles.
“The preparation, the waiting, it was all very tough,” said Bushra. “But when the news came that I was pregnant, the pressure was off and we finally celebrated.” The double surprise came later, when she was told that twins were expected.
She describes the steps leading to this pregnancy as being about resistance and overcoming challenges. “After the suffering I am put through with each visit, with the searches and the humiliation, with this pregnancy, with Karam and Adam, I wanted to show that rules can be broken.”
Fertility and non-violent resistance
According to Liv Hansson, a Danish public health specialist who has researched fertility in Palestine, the practice of sperm smuggling only makes associations between fertility and resistance easier to draw.
“In a context such as Palestine, where women are well educated and child mortality is low, a lower fertility rate would be expected according to classic demography,” Hansson told IPS. The fertility rate of 4.1 registered in Palestine between 2011 and 2013, then, must be seen in the light of Israel’s ongoing occupation.
Indeed, fertility has long been considered by Palestinians as part of resistance efforts against Israel’s military occupation. For its part, Israel views high fertility rates in the West Bank and Gaza, and in majority Palestinian areas inside Israel, as a very real threat. Talk of the ‘demographic time-bomb’ – the time when Palestinians will outnumber Jewish Israelis – is very common.
“Former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat famously stated that ‘the wombs of Palestinian women are the greatest weapon of Palestine’,” Hansson told IPS. “Fertility is seen as something of interest not only to the family but to the community, society at large and to politicians too.”
Bushra and her five children will have to wait three more years to be reunited as a family with Saleh. Since 2012, following the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Shalit, Israel’s Prison Service has been slowly reinstating visiting rights for family and prisoners from Gaza.
Ahmed saw his father two years ago for the first time, Hula six months ago and for the twins, the only meeting so far has been through the photograph on the side table, portraying Saleh as a young man eager to live life.