Spending time with her dad requires that 6-year-old Jinan undertake a bizarre and arduous odyssey. Usually she travels alone, but last Monday, the Palestinian girl with the rosebud smile and bouncing energy was accompanied by her younger sisters Dania, 4, and Noor, 2, on the journey to the Israeli prison that holds her father.
At home in the beleaguered West Bank town of Qalqilya, as her mother dresses her before dawn in an almond-green blouse and jeans, Jinan asks the same question she always does: "Mommy, why does Daddy have to sleep on the Israeli side?" And her mother Salam Nazal comforts her by saying, "Because that's where the best Palestinian men go to sleep, and your father is one of them." The town, which has elected a Hamas mayor, is known as a center of Palestinian militancy, and Israeli security forces conduct raids there on average five times a week. (See photographs of conflict in the Middle East.)
Salam cannot accompany her daughters because she is on an Israeli security watch list, although she has never learned why she's on it. Her immediate family lives in Jordan, so she must put the girls on a bus bound for Chattah-Gilboa prison inside Israel and hope that one of the many Palestinian women on board will help Jinan wrangle her sisters. "I'm so worried about having them go without me," says Salam, as she hoists her girls onto the bus, organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "But what can I do? This is their only chance to see their father."
Ali Nazal, 35, who sold clothes from a cart in the streets, is one of more than 10,300 Palestinian detainees currently inside Israeli prisons. Although he has yet to be tried, Nazal has been behind bars for the past two years. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of possessing weapons and harboring a fugitive charges the family insists are based on false evidence from anonymous informers working for the Israeli security services. Salam says no weapons were found in their home but says the Israeli military demolished it anyway. The Israelis maintain that Ali was an active member of a militant organization and part of a cell that had been planning a terrorist attack.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Ali and his fellow detainees should never have been transferred to prisons outside the occupied territories. But since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began in June 1967, more than 650,000 Palestinians have passed through Israeli jails. Nearly every Palestinian family has someone who was locked up in Israel at some point. Prison has become a rite of passage for rebellious teens and, for families seeking to visit detained loved ones, a nightmare of permits, checkpoints and body searches. It's not an easy journey for an adult, much less three unaccompanied tots carrying their lunch in a Barbie backpack.
Israel refuses to finance or arrange transportation for Palestinians making prison visits, leaving the task to the Red Cross. Every month, says Anne-Sophie Bonefeld, an ICRC spokeswoman in Jerusalem, her organization arranges the bus rides and bureaucratic paperwork that enable more than 20,000 Palestinians to visit relatives inside Israeli prisons. The Palestinian family-visitation program, which has been going on since 1967, is "the largest of its kind anywhere in the world," she says, although the number of visits has dropped slightly since 2007, when Israel barred families from the Hamas-controlled enclave of Gaza from making the trip.
For prisoner Ali, his daughters' visit is a rare treat. He last saw his youngest, Noor, when she was six months old. Now she walks and talks, and her moon-shaped, serene eyes seem to display perpetual bemusement over the whirlwind antics of her two sisters.
Qalqilya is encircled by Israel's security barrier, and at a checkpoint, the three girls dismount with the rest of the Palestinian passengers and are herded through a labyrinth of turnstiles, flashing lights, metal detectors and an X-ray machine that swallows up the Barbie backpack. Jinan and her sisters squirm through a turnstile too soon and are stranded in a security no-man's-land and yelled at by the disembodied voices of soldiers watching through closed-circuit cameras. When the girls finally emerge dazed from the checkpoint, Jinan runs over to a field of wildflowers and plucks a stem of Queen Anne's lace for her little sister.
Then the girls clamber aboard another ICRC bus, which is escorted to the prison by Israeli police. Skipping up the aisle, Jinan touches a man's bald head and asks, "What happened to your hair? Mine's soft and pretty." She snatches my cell phone and, within five seconds, has snapped a photo of a napping Palestinian woman and turned it into my screensaver.
Two hours later, the bus arrives at the high walls of Chattah-Gilboa prison. Nearly 1,000 Palestinians have been waiting up to five hours in shrinking shade for the 45 minutes they will spend speaking with their relatives on a telephone from behind thick glass. The glass has small holes that allow the prisoners to touch fingertips with their visitors. Jinan and Dania climb the metal bars of the turnstile as if it were a piece of playground equipment. A buzzer blares, and a light over the turnstile flashes from red to green. A guard calls out a few names, and the eager crowd pushes Jinan and her sisters aside.
Another hour will pass before the girls are let in. By then, Noor is hot and cranky, in tears, crying for her distant mother. Their pretty pink and green clothes are smeared with dirt. I volunteer to escort them inside, but the prison wardens refuse. Instead, a veiled young woman with pale-gray eyes agrees to escort them into the visiting room.
That morning, their mother had shown the girls a photo of their imprisoned father so the younger ones would recognize him. It showed a solemn, heavyset man in a training suit of the Spanish soccer team Real Madrid. "He's been memorizing the Koran. That, and lifting weights," Salam told me.
Jinan assumes her responsibility and grabs the hands of her two sisters. They vanish inside the prison, scared but eager, leaving me to wonder whether Jinan will remember any of the many earnest and loving messages entrusted to her by Salam to pass on to their father.
With so many Palestinians still locked up in Israel, demands for prisoner releases remain at the center of most Israeli-Palestinian political negotiations. Those behind bars are a lost generation of Palestinians, and it's a safe bet that their children, like Jinan and her sisters, will inherit their parents' bitterness toward Israel.