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Sperm smuggling by Palestinian prisoners swimmingly successful

Palestinian wives of prisoners have taken up sperm smuggling operations to conceive babies from their husbands with long-term sentences
Lydia Rimawi and her son Majd, conceived through in vitro fertilisation, pose with a poster of her imprisoned husband Abdelkarim (Facebook/Lydia Rimawi)

In the past two years, 30 babies were born to Palestinian women whose husbands are imprisoned by the Israeli occupation. What is astonishing about this seemingly natural phenomenon is that these women have not had physical contact with their husbands for years.

In what seems like a far-fetched idea, Palestinian prisoners have been smuggling their sperms outside Israeli jails where their wives and families have already prepped for an in vitro fertilization (IVF) to take place.

Palestinian prisoners are allowed visits every two weeks that last for 45 minutes only. Family members must be first-degree relations, and after a thorough body search are able to talk to their loved ones behind a glass window through a telephone. Physical contact is forbidden, except for children of prisoners who are allowed ten minutes at the end of each visit to embrace their fathers.

Conjugal visits are forbidden. The Israeli prisons, known for their notorious security complex, have not managed to stop or prevent the smuggling of sperms. The Israeli Prison Service stated that they cannot be sure as to whether there has been sperm smuggling, but vaguely asserted that they are doing their best to prevent any future attempts by increasing their scrutiny and searching of family visits.

“We are doing the most we can do to prevent these types of things from happening,” said Siav Weizmann, “and [stop it occurring] in the future too.”

On the other hand, Fouad Khuffash, the director of the Ahrar Centre for Prisoner Studies and Human Rights said that the Israeli Prison Service was forced to give in to the reality around them, and that they couldn’t do anything to stop the sperm smuggling operations.

“The IPS cannot do anything regarding this matter. It was imposed on them and they were in no way consulted,” he said. “At the beginning, the IPS tried to prevent the prisoners who undertook from meeting their families, but with time and pressure from the other prisoners they eventually relented.”

Improvised smuggling

Palestinian prisoners are no strangers when it comes to smuggling. Secret letters were traditionally passed via released prisoners by way of swallowing the compressed letter wrapped in a plastic casing. In the case of sperms, the issue is more time pressing, as the sperm can only survive up to 48 hours outside the body, depending on its quality and the way it was transmitted.

At the beginning, the prisoners’ wives who got pregnant through artificial insemination were understandably reluctant to share the ways their husbands managed to smuggle their sperms. Doctors at the Razan Fertility Centre in Nablus have talked about how they received sperm samples in crisps bags, sweet wrappers, eye-dropper containers, etc.

These makeshift “vessels” would be shrewdly placed in the pockets of children who were allowed to hug their fathers. Now, however, the smuggling is dependent on the prisoner who is about to released. Logistical workings between the families of the wife and the prisoner who sent his sperm with the newly released one would already be figured out beforehand. They would be present at the reception of the released prisoner, and that is where the transfer takes place.

Roots of the innovative idea

The idea of sperm smuggling came from a Palestinian medical equipment engineer in the early 2000s. He and his wife couldn’t conceive a baby the natural way, and were already undergoing treatment at a fertility clinic, where his sperm sample was frozen. After the man was arrested, his wife underwent the operation and successfully got pregnant. The man then circulated this idea amongst other prisoners, and one man in particular, Ammar al-Ziban from the village of Silwad, was very encouraged by it. Al-Ziban has been imprisoned since 1998 and is sentenced to 27 years plus another 25. He has two daughters with his wife Dalal, who were barely toddlers when he was arrested, and had always yearned for a son. Al-Ziban wanted to try out the sperm smuggling operation in 2006, but was discouraged to do so for a number of reasons.

Mohammed Qabalan, the media director for the Razan Fertility Centre, explained there were pressing issues that had to be dealt with before an innovative and risky act could be undertaken.

“There is the political, the religious, and the social,” he told the Middle East Eye. “We needed a fatwa [religious edict] that would legitimize the procedure. We received that from Sheikh Ikrama Sabri, a senior mufti, on the condition that there was previous sexual intercourse between the married couple before the husband was arrested.”

Socially, both sides of the families should know about the planned operation and tell their communities around them. Additionally, three members from each of the husband’s and wife’s side must be present at the fertility clinic before any insemination was to take place.

Qabalan mentions that this act was encouraged and supported by leaders like the late president Yasser Arafat and Hamas leader AbdelAziz Al-Rantisi since before 2003, who cited that it was the right of the prisoners to have children.

Ammar al-Ziban was finally able to smuggle his sperm out a few years later, and in August 2012, Dalal gave birth to the first baby born this way, Muhannad.

Even though the IPS still has not admitted to the smuggling publicly to the media, Qabalan has confirmed that the centre is continuing to receive a lot of sperm samples from prisoners.

“After Dalal al-Ziban’s success in 2012, we had around 45 samples. Now we have 70.”

Lydia’s story

38 year old Lydia Rimawi from the West Bank village of Beit Rima was deeply touched when she heard of Dalal al-Ziban’s story. Lydia’s husband, AbdelKarim, has been arrested since June 2001 and sentenced to 25 years. Their daughter Rand, who is now 13, was nine months old at that time. Lydia insists that the idea to get pregnant like Dalal didn’t really cross her mind, and that it was the society around her that actively encouraged her to do so.

“Every time I’d go to a wedding or a funeral or to Ramallah, people would come up to me and ask me why I don’t give it a go,” she said. “They are the ones who put the idea in my head and convinced me to go through with it!”

“I thought it through pretty well,” she said. “My husband and I will be both 50 years old when his sentence is over, where I’ll be beyond the age of getting pregnant. I thought of giving Rand a brother or sister, and to have someone to carry on his name. I also thought of it as a challenge to the occupation, that it will happen and it will succeed.”

Lydia recalls making her way immediately to Razan Centre after she visited the Bi’r al-Sabe’ prison her husband was in. It was a long journey from the Negev desert to the West Bank, and she took a taxi from Qalandiya checkpoint to Nablus, arriving there at 8 pm where the six family witnesses were waiting for her.

“The centre then tested the sample in front us, and we saw the sperms swimming and we were told it was a good healthy sample,” recounted Lydia. “The centre then froze two samples, and after a month I started getting the treatment. After I found out I was pregnant, the mosque in our village announced the news, and encouraged the wives of other prisoners to think about this idea.”

When baby Majd was born on 31 July 2013, the village was overjoyed and celebrated like it was an Eid holiday. But it was also a bittersweet moment for Lydia and her family, as Abdelkarim could not be present.

“Majd is our life now. It’s true he’s naughty” -Lydia laughs – “but he has filled our lives with optimism and hope. Majd has changed everything in our lives. When his father will be released he will have his son waiting for him.”

Majd the baby bomb

It took almost a year and a half for Majd to meet his father. The Israeli authorities banned Lydia from seeing Abdelkarim but on 25 November 2014, father and son were united, albeit briefly.

Lydia tried to bring Majd to a prison visit when he was 2 weeks old, but the IPS forbade Abdelkarim from seeing them for 8 months. The Israeli court sentenced Abdelkarim to a further 8 months in prison on top of his original sentence and fined him 5000 shekels, after he confessed he had smuggled his sperm out. The IPS claimed that they needed proof that the baby was his son, and took the matter to the court after they refused to consider a DNA testing.

“They called me a liar, saying it wasn’t my husband’s son because he’s been locked up for 12 years,” Lydia said. “It was like I had brought a bomb with me, not my baby. The prison was on high alert that day.”

Social obligation

There are 14 IVF clinics in the West Bank and Gaza strip, but the Razan Fertility Centre is the only one that does not charge the $3,000 dollars required for the procedure. Of the 6,000 prisoners in Israeli jails, over 1000 have been sentenced to 20 years or more.

“We do it for free, because we see this as a social responsibility, an obligation,” Qabalan explained. “It’s also more of helping out the prisoner’s wife rather than the prisoner himself.”

He then launches into the many stories that occurred following the 2011 prisoner swap deal, in which 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were released in exchange for one Israeli soldier that was held in captivity by Hamas. Many of the older prisoners were newlyweds when they got arrested, and did not have the chance to have a family. After the prisoners release over two decades later, the wife in unable to get pregnant because of her age.

“His family marries him to a younger woman in order to bear his children,” Qabalan narrates. “But the first wife out of loyalty has been waiting for her husband for 26 years, and this is her reward? It’s unfair.”