More cases of Palestinian prisoners becoming fathers via sperm smuggling have come out since the first successful artificial insemination of its kind was reported in 2012. Just over a month ago, the wife of a prisoner in Israeli custody gave birth after being inseminated with her husband’s smuggled sperm. No longer unusual or objected, these births are seen by Palestinians as an act of resistance against Israel’s control over Palestinian life.
End of September, Samahar Masalmeh delivered little Kareem at al-Ahli hospital in Hebron. Samahar conceived the baby boy through IVF (in vitro fertilization) using a sperm sample of her husband smuggled from prison two years ago.
Nabil Masalmeh has been inside an Israeli high-security prison for the last 15 years. That’s how long he and his wife Samahar have had no physical contact. There’s no surprise that he arrival of Kareem came as a blessing for the Masalmeh family.
Sitting in her home in Beit Awa, near Hebron, in the West Bank, Samahar explained he and his husband wanted to give a brother or sister to their two other children, who were born before Nabil was jailed.
“We made up our minds on having another baby few years ago, after we heard about other prisoners trying to become fathers through vitro fertilization,” Samahar said delighted, holding her new baby.
For Samahar, waiting for her husband to get out of jail would have meant being too old to bear children.
Nabil is currently serving a 23-year sentence in Ketziot prison in the Negev desert. He was imprisoned for his involvement in clashes with the Israeli military during the Second Intifada.
Three photographs of Samahar’s husband are noticeably displayed in the living room. One shows the date when he was imprisoned in October 2000.
“Nabil was put in jail for being affiliated with Fatah and defending his land,’’ mentioned a neighbor named Ali Masalmeh.
Besides enabling prisoners’ wives to have children while their husbands are in jail, smuggling out sperm is another way of defying Israeli jailers and challenging Israel’s occupation. Having babies in that way is thus perceived as a form of resistance, and widely supported by fellow inmates.
“That child will grow and defend our land against the enemy,” Ali Masalmeh commented.
Wives of prisoners are deeply affected by having their husbands behind bars on long sentences, some of them condemned to stay inside for the rest of their lives.
Conceiving a baby can bring something beautiful in their lives. Even though it’s not easy raising a baby with a husband in jail, the new mother can cope with life better.
After three previous attempts at artificial insemination failed, Samahar finally succeeded to have her newborn.
“It’s difficult, we don’t have a specialized hospital in Hebron,” added Abu Nadi, brother of Nabil, “It cost to Samahar 4,000$ each time she tried the insemination.”
Razan Medical Center in Nablus, the only existing fertility clinic in the West Bank, has carried out the majority of IVF treatments for prisoner’s wives. Dr. Salim Abu Khaizaran, director of the Razan Center, is said to offer the treatment to prisoners’ wives free of charge.
Relatives kept secretive about how the sperm was smuggled out of the prison, plainly suggesting there are all sorts of ways to carry out the samples.
Prisoners’ families typically refuse to give such details, fearing that either husbands would be punished or the information would help Israeli authorities to prevent further attempts.
Kareem was the first child in the village to be conceived through IVF. Although initially Samahar wasn’t supported by her family, worried of what people would say if they saw her pregnant with Nabil in jail, everyone welcomed the idea in the end.
Abu Nadi confirmed everyone was happy when the baby came. Nabil’s inmates rejoiced at the news, and people celebrated in Beit Awa.
Because Palestinian wives might face a stigma in their conservative society for becoming pregnant without their husbands present, the IVF procedure is not widely accepted.
Ahrar Center for Prisoners Studies and Human Rights has worked to generate discussion among prisoners, to get the religious authorities to issue a fatwa declaring the procedure acceptable, and raise awareness in Palestinian society.
Not all of Nabil’s sperm sample was used, and what’s left is currently stored in the hospital.
“We’re planning to have another baby next year,” Samahar anticipated smiling.
The Masalmeh’s case adds up to other pregnancies of such kind. On the same day Kareem was born, another Palestinian woman reportedly gave birth to twins in Nablus using the same procedure.
According to Ahrar Center, there have been at least 19 childbirths from sperm smuggled from Israeli jails, 17 of them in the West Bank and two of them in Gaza. Ahrar estimates there are today another 25 women waiting to become pregnant.
The first baby conceived with smuggled sperm was Muhannad born to Dalal, wife of Ammar Ziban, back in August 2012. Ammar, who was sentenced for acts carried out as a member of Hamas, has been behind Israeli bars since 1998.
Fouad Khuffash, director of Ahrar Center, recalled when Ammar started thinking of having a baby. The day when Dalal gave birth, Ahrar staff went outside the hospital in Nablus, to show solidarity, gathered a group of higher educated people, and brought local media with them.
“Our real role was to break the taboo, and openly talk about Ammar and other prisoners wanting to have babies in the same way,” Khuffash emphasized.
Ahrar acted as a key mediator to facilitate social acceptance around the issue. Wives of prisoners, relatives and Palestinians at large have gradually accepted the idea as more prisoners have been sneaking sperm from their cells in recent years.
At least 5,000 Palestinians are serving security sentences handed down by Israeli military courts, based on data published by Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.
Most women seeking to become pregnant have husbands who are serving lengthy sentences. These prisoners are not allowed to receive conjugal visits. Carefully screened relatives can meet with prisoners only through glass dividers.
Yet, there’s little the Israeli prison service can do to stop the growing phenomenon of prisoners fathering children.
“The message we want to send is that for every man imprisoned for life, a new baby will come to life going past the Israeli jail’,” Ahrar’s director voiced out, ‘’If Israel intends to destroy the life of a Palestinian and prevents him to have children, their plan will fail.”
Alessandra Bajec lived in Palestine between June 2010 and May 2011 starting to work as a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in various Palestinian newswires, the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, The Majalla, among others.