Fatherhood behind bars: sperm smuggling in Israeli prisons | Antonio Faccilongo’s Reportage

 

The long-neglected Palestinian rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) remain a present-day reality. Recently, a report of the Human Right Watch condemned the Israeli government’s decision making,  warning that the policies implemented by the authorities, especially in the OPTs, are enabling an apartheid regime. The impact of this institutionalized discrimination – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel found that at least 65 Israeli laws discriminate directly or indirectly against Palestinian citizens –  was worsened by the current pandemic.

The violation of Palestinian citizens’ rights is perpetrated also in jail. Palestinian detainees tend to serve unreasonably long prison time for sentences that are often disproportionate to the crimes committed and usually have lifelong detrimental effects on the prisoner. A portrait of Israeli prosecution of Palestinian citizens is provided in the 2019 award-winning documentary Advocate, directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche. The figures are stunning. Looking at the data, 40 percent of Palestinian men and boys have been jailed at some point in their lives. Up to April 2021, an estimated 4,450 Palestinians are believed to be held in Israeli prisons as political prisoners, including 41 women, 140 minors, 440 administrative detainees, with at least 543 prisoners serving life sentences.

Being classified as a security prisoner a priori might deprive Palestinian detainees of some fundamental rights, such as family visits and conjugal visits. Um Awad Al-Seidi, a mother of a Palestinian detainee once said, “Our harsh realities prompt us to wait more impatiently for the visit’s date rather than the actual release of our sons”. Despite the dire conditions of detention and the limitation of visits, Palestinian detainees in OPTs have not given up their fatherhood dreams, pursuing their reproductive rights even behind bars through sperm smuggling.

The smuggling of sperm from Israeli jails in order to be used for artificial insemination is a recent phenomenon. Mohanad al-Zaben was the first Palestinian child born through smuggled semen in 2012. His father, Ammar al-Zaben, is serving a sentence of 27 years.  Since prisoners are allowed to buy gifts or food for their visitors, semen is hidden in candy wrappers, cigarette lighters, pens and chocolate bars. Since 2012, 68 detainees have succeeded in this process, with 96 children conceived. Palestinians call these children “ambassadors of freedom” because they constitute a link between the detainee in Israeli prisons and his family.

To have a visual perception of this complicated phenomenon, the AP suggests viewing Antonio Faccilongo’s reportage ‘Habibi’, winner of World Press Photo Story of the Year. A powerful coverage of daily life moments of Palestinian families in a conflict that is also deteriorating their reproductive rights.

Perceived as a ‘Biopolitical act of resistance’, a tool to challenge Israeli arbitrary detention, we must not forget that in many cases for most inmates the idea to have offspring remains a battle for dignity, not a slogan but a matter of rights. Besides, advocacy on this issue might help inseminated mothers fight local prejudices, promoting social approval and preventing the community’s allegation of adultery.

 

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