FAR from the forbidden items conventionally smuggled out of jail, the Palestinians have been smuggling “sperm” from Israeli’s prisons for almost six years to continue the baby boom culture. Since the first in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) birth by an inmate’s wife was reported, about 50 children have been born via IVF, with sperm from Palestinian prisoners.
Having babies conceived from smuggled sperm is both a source of hope and a form of protest for the prisoners and their families. All these babies born are, as one Palestinian states, “definitely a victory for their family and for all Palestinians fighting the occupation”.
The prisoners’ wives who underwent IVF were impressed after watching televised news in August 2012 of Ammar Al-Zebin’s wife, who gave birth to a baby through this process. She spoke triumphantly to local and international press, dedicating her baby “to the Palestinian people, namely prisoners and their families” and paving the way for dozens of other prisoners’ wives to do the same.
Al-Zebin, serving 27 life sentences, has been held in prison since 1998. He is the first inmate to have had his sperm smuggled out of an Israeli prison. His wife gave birth to their first-born, Mohannad, on Aug 13, 2012.
Sperm smuggling is a safety net for long-serving inmates to ensure their wives stay faithful and lead meaningful lives. Families and friends have to be on board to ensure the reputation of Muslim wives is intact and the children born are a result of advancement in science and not an act of “sin”.
As a form of political dissent, the prisoners are breaking the barriers between them and the Israeli authorities. To defeat the aspect of being imprisoned, which traditionally prevented prisoners from procreation, was a way to triumph over Israeli occupation.
Some 750,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned since 1967. There are more than 6,150 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails. Due to the restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, visiting relatives who are jailed in Israeli territory is not an easy undertaking for families. They need to apply for permits from the Israeli authorities, which Israel has been known to revoke or deny on security grounds.
Smuggled sperm samples arrive at the Razan Medical Centre in the West Bank town of Nablus in many forms, including candy wrappers, plastic pens and even a pitted date. The sperm remains alive for around 12 hours, though it depends on the quality of the sperm and the conditions of its transmission. Razan Medical Centre head Dr Saleem Abu Khaizaran said: “I don’t know how they do it and I don’t want to know. When they come to us, we cannot deny them treatment.”
Staff members at the centre’s lab are on call 24 hours a day. Once a sperm sample arrives, sometimes in the middle of the night and is deemed usable, it is preserved in sub-zero storage tubes. Not all the samples are suitable for IVF. They must be delivered within 48 hours in order to be frozen. Dr Abu Khaizaran claimed that 50 children had been born via the treatment.
He offers the service for free in solidarity with the prisoners despite the odds and risks.
“The prisoners’ wives are suffering. They feel lonely because their husbands are behind bars, some for the rest of their lives. They are eager to have babies to make a difference in their lives.”
Politicians have hailed the procedure as an important contribution to the Palestinian resistance movement. Both Hamas and Fatah representatives have offered to donate money to the Razan clinic, but Dr Abu Khaizaran has refused, saying his interest is humanitarian, not political.
The Palestinian Supreme Fatwa Council approved the procedure on condition that the prisoners’ wives opted for IVF only if their husbands served long sentences.
“IVF clinics are prevalent in the Middle East and fertility treatment is permissible under Islamic law.”
By the time the birth of babies conceived using smuggled sperm peaked in 2015, the Israelis had tightened visitation rights. To make the situation difficult, they denied identification documents or legal status of any kind to babies claimed to be born from smuggled sperms.
When the Associated Press contacted Jennifer Kulp Makarov, a fertility expert at the Maimonides Medical Center in New York, about the feasibility of sperm smuggling, she suggested the
stories could be accurate since IVF treatments only required “a few viable sperm” to succeed.
IVF has become the new form of Palestinian resistance which reflects a moral victory for prisoners. Having a son or daughter through IVF means they have to overcome the walls, borders and barbed wire of the Israelis and their illegal occupation.
For the parents and doctors involved, this has become a “national mission”, a soft revolution to warn the Israelis that “life” and “bloodline” continue for these Palestinian families.
The writer, a Fulbright scholar and Japan Institute of International Affairs fellow, is a former lecturer of UiTM Shah Alam and International Islamic University Malaysia, Gombak