In Palestine, Immaculate Conceptions, and More to Come

Israel’s “demographic time bomb” made flesh: even locked in prison, Palestinian men have started having children. From Le Monde, the story of Palestine’s “undercover babies.”

She gave birth live on television. Well, practically anyway. On Sat. August 10, Salam Nazzal delivered a baby boy at a private clinic in Nablus. But this 30 year old woman from the West Bank town of Kalkiliya is no ordinary mother. On that day, she brought into the world Palestine’s third “undercover baby” (the first was born in 2012), conceived by artificial-and very political-insemination.

What all of these children have in common are fathers detained in Israel, their sperm smuggled out of prison. The father of Sherif, this latest newborn, is Ali Nazzal, an active member of Hamas who has been imprisoned in Israel since 2002.

Just a few minutes after delivering her baby by caesarian section, Salam was taking questions from Palestinian television programs. Her pregnancy, far from a personal affair, was an act of public resistance: “We are defying the Israeli occupation,” Nazzal said, after laboriously donning a black hijab. “This birth will bring a little bit of freedom to my husband in prison. He dreamed of having a son.” Nazzal was able to choose her future child’s gender in vitro, a practice which is banned in France, but permitted in Palestine.

Around 20 women like her are said to be pregnant at present, thanks to sperm samples from their husbands imprisoned in Israel. All of them are patients of doctor Salem Abu Khaizaran, progenitor of the first “test tube babies” in Palestine, who were born in 1996.

Among them is the wife of Osama al-Silawi, 55, one of the 104 Pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners held since before 1993, who is supposed to be released under the present Israel-Palestine negotiations. “His wife is due in a few weeks,” the doctor says. “A true miracle. Their older daughter is starting university. She was only a few months old when her father was arrested.”

A man elevated to the ranks of national heroes, Dr. Abu Khaizaran says that really his work is about amending cruel injustices. “Palestinian detainees are not allowed conjugal visits in prison,” he says. “Why are they not allowed for Palestinians, while the prisoner Yigal Amir [the Israeli assassin who killed President Yitzhak Rabin in 1995]was allowed to marry and father a child?”

For years, Dr. Abu Khaizaran had seen a procession of the wives of prisoners serving long sentences come through his office, desperately hoping to stop the inexorable movement of their biological clocks. “One of my patients waited for her husband in prison for 26 years. But when he was finally released in Oct. 2011 under the Gilad Shalit agreement, she could no longer have a child. So her husband took a second wife.” This sad story was what finally convinced the doctor to launch an in vitro fertilization program specifically for wives of prisoners incarcerated in Israel, backed up by a fatwa from the religious authorities in Ramallah.

The obvious question is the method used to smuggle the precious samples out from behind Israeli bars. Of course Israeli prisons allow family members no direct contact with prisoners during visits, and each person is carefully searched coming in and out.

So how it is done remains one of Palestine’s closest guarded secrets. Sperm samples have a very short lifespan in open air, a day at the most. “The failures are numerous,” admits Dr. Abu Khaizaran. But he cites the enormous “creativity” of prisoners’ families in their efforts to make his program possible. Some samples are said to have been hidden inside of candies or packets of salt.

But whatever the smuggling methods, there are around 65 samples currently stored at Dr. Abu Khaizaran’s clinics. “It would be practically impossible to run a smuggling operation of this scale without accomplices inside,” says one Palestinian journalist. “Probably prison guards taking fat bribes from families and the various Palestinian factions. Prisons are also places for business.”

Naturally, Israeli prison officials dismiss such talk. Spokesperson Sivan Weizman describes these pregnancies as “too miraculous” to be believable. But in answer to Israeli suspicions of these cases of “questionable paternity,” a Palestinian prisoner from East Jerusalem had a hair sample delivered to his wife, 8 months pregnant. Just to prove to Israeli authorities, with DNA, that his “undercover baby” to-be was indeed his son.

Jerusalem interim correspondent.