A group of Gazan men and women had a tearful half-hour reunion with relatives held in Israeli jails on Monday in the first such contact in more than five years, sources on both sides said.
Families from Gaza have not been allowed to visit their imprisoned relatives since June 2007 when the Islamist Hamas movement forcibly took over the coastal territory, ousting Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas.
But two months ago, Israel pledged to lift the ban after reaching a deal to end a mass hunger strike which had been joined by more than 1,500 Palestinian prisoners.
“I am so happy, I haven’t slept since the Red Cross told us that I could go and visit my husband who I haven’t seen for seven years,” admitted Umm Ibrahim, who is married to a prisoner serving life called Hilmi al-Aymawi.
“I started crying when I saw him, his features have changed,” she said. “The visit only lasted half an hour, but it was a day of celebration for me.”
For 75-year-old Umm Ibrahim al-Baroud, it was the first time she had seen her son Ibrahim “in 15 years” with the experience leaving her “speechless.”
“He has changed a lot,” she said of her son who has served 26 years out of a 27-year jail sentence.
“They didn’t tell us when the next trip would take place but they told us we could keep visiting our children,” she told AFP.
Israel Prison Services spokeswoman Sivan Weizman confirmed the trip had taken place “without incident,” and that such visits were now expected to resume on a regular basis.
The next visit is to take place in two weeks’ time.
For the group of 40 family members, the trip began before sunrise when they gathered at the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Gaza City.
There they boarded a bus to the Erez crossing, smiling and waving before crossing into Israel and making the two-hour journey to Ramun prison in the southern Negev desert.
In all, 24 prisoners received visitors from Gaza, the IPS spokeswoman said.
Israel agreed to restart the visits on a trial basis as part of a deal reached in May between the prison authorities and Palestinian detainees to end the mass hunger strike earlier this year.
The prisoners went on strike to demand an easing of the conditions of their detention, including greater access to lawyers and relatives, and an end to solitary confinement.
The Red Cross welcomed Monday’s family visit which it said was a “lifeline” for prisoners and their relatives.
“This is a first step and we hope that visits by residents of Gaza will resume in full,” said Juan Pedro Schaerer, head of the ICRC in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“We have repeatedly called for the resumption of family visits, which are a lifeline for detainees and their families. Under international humanitarian law, Israeli authorities have an obligation to allow the detainees to receive family visits.”
But Gaza’s Hamas rulers said that unless such visits became permanent, it would be “a step devoid of value.”
“Hamas calls for international action… to pressure the occupation to respect the rights of prisoners and end their suffering,” spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in the statement.