Palestinian Prisoners’ IVF Babies: Symbols of Survival and Resistance

Long prison sentences meted out by Israel’s military courts have jeopardized Palestinian family life, but some estranged Palestinian families have found a way to thwart the rupture. Survival, resistance, or a combination of both?

Israel’s tactics of ethnic cleansing have evolved since the Nakba of 1948, where massacres and forced removal provided the foundations for replacing the Palestinian population with European Jewish settlers. Beside the normalized tactics of forced displacement and settlement expansion, which have left dispossessed Palestinians at the mercy of international humanitarian agendas, Israel’s preferred tactic for ensuring the Palestinian people’s ongoing trauma is incarceration.

Israel’s preferred tactic for ensuring the Palestinian people’s ongoing trauma is incarceration.

report by Haaretz from November 2011 which summarized Israel’s military court data shows that 99.74 percent of trials end in conviction. Administrative detention orders amounted to 98.77 percent. The same statistics are still quoted, indicating that not much has changed in terms of Israel’s persecution and prosecution of Palestinians.

The number of Palestinian prisoners presently stands at 4,550 — 544 of whom are serving life sentences. Demography is still a topic of concern for Israel — as the Jewish state is still concerned with retaining the demographic majority. Therefore, a broad approach based on disrupting every possible semblance of Palestinian life, including through long prison terms, is a contribution towards entrenched apartheid.

Palestinian prisoners, once considered the foundations of resistance, have now been marginalized to the point that their prominence is mostly achieved through the organization of hunger strikes to protest inadequate conditions in jail or deprivation of basic necessities. Israel’s battle is not just with the Palestinian people’s presence in Palestine, but also with their identity in terms of resistance and survival. In Israeli politics, if survival is threatened, resistance is weakened.

Hence Israel has sought to make life as aberrant as possible while justifying its oppression to the international community by claiming it faces an exception. In terms of the international community’s acceptance and support of Israel’s narrative for its prolonged military occupation, the Jewish state has succeeded beyond all expectations.

However, implementing the direst conditions for Palestinians can also create unexpected actions and reactions. Israel’s military courts have disrupted family life to the point that some Palestinian families have opted for both survival and resistance and children are still being born, some of whom have been fathered by prisoners in Israeli jails.

In an act of defiance, many Palestinian prisoners are smuggling their sperm outside of Israeli jails so that their wives can give birth through in vitro fertilization.

Many Palestinian prisoners are smuggling their sperm outside of Israeli jails so that their wives can give birth through in vitro fertilization.

The first baby conceived as a result of sperm smuggling was born in August 2012. The latest baby, named Watan (Homeland, in Arabic) whose father is serving a 19-year prison sentence in the Negev, was born last November. As of now, 97 babies fathered by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have been born through such a process, much to Israel’s dismay.


Newborn baby boy of Palestinian mother Hanaa al-Zanen, 26, was conceived with her husband’s smuggled sperm from an Israeli prison. Gaza City hospital, Gaza, Jan. 11, 2013 (Mahmud Hams, AFP via Getty Images)

But Palestinians are conscious of the rupture which Israel has forced upon them and for some families, sperm smuggling and IVF intervention have provided both a solution and a contrast between life behind bars and a new Palestinian life.

The Israeli Prison Service (IPS) has been unable to stop the sperm smuggling and has cast doubt over the veracity of the procedure.

To qualify for the IVF procedure, which is carried out at the Razan Center in Ramallah, both the wife and the husband’s families are required to give their consent to avoid any societal retributions. The wife must also be 40 years or older by the time her husband is released from jail. Treatment for the wives of Palestinian prisoners is given free of charge. Religious rulings on the procedure have also been instrumental in encouraging approval within Palestinian society.

In the context of Israel’s brutality, such a feat is even more of a celebration. Israel does not permit conjugal visits for Palestinian prisoners, hence each birth as a result of sperm smuggling is considered a victory in terms of resistance and continuity. If Israel is attempting to destabilize Palestinian families through its incarceration system, the births of children fathered by Palestinian political prisoners achieve the opposite.

Survival, which is a necessity, is now compounded by the birth of a Palestinian child who will form part of a historical link, not only in terms of the family’s own struggle against Israel’s military occupation, but also in terms of the Palestinian people’s tenacity to remain on their land. Palestinian prisoners are inclined to contextualize their children within a political framework.

While armed resistance garners more attention than Sumud, a belief “interwoven with ideas of personal and collective resilience and steadfastness,” but also “a socio-political concept [that] refers to ways of surviving in the context of occupation, chronic adversity, lack of resources, and limited infrastructure.”  IVF intervention is part of the latter as it has enabled Palestinians to resist on a daily basis.

The mere act of remaining in Palestine is considered to be an act of non-violent resistance.

The mere act of remaining in Palestine is considered to be an act of non-violent resistance; hence the importance of viewing Palestinian defiance as a collective effort incorporating both forms. The Palestinian babies fathered by prisoners are one example of such endurance.

For the Palestinian mothers who are experiencing various consequences as a result of their husbands’ imprisonment, a child may signify resistance but is also symbolic of the undeniability of life. The child does not embody only defiance to Israel’s military occupation. If politics are the reason that families are being ripped apart so cruelly, why should the child be tarnished by the same oppression?

For women with this viewpoint, which should not be discarded to solely elevate the resistance narrative, a more realistic assessment of the current situation might be seen as normalizing the child’s birth, despite the fact that most women would not have had to resort to such measures had Israel not imposed such inhumane conditions upon Palestinians.

Resistance rhetoric aside, the celebration of Palestinian prisoners’ babies should also prompt a reflection on the aberrations that Palestinian families are forced to live. It is one thing to laud Palestinian resistance; their struggle against Israel’s violence is admirable. But the struggle itself is testimony to the fact that the international community is consistently failing to uphold the simple truth that Palestinians have human and political rights.

Why should Palestinians be forced into another humanitarian paradigm – this time from a medical aspect – to have children? Women have expressed that their joy at their child’s birth is incomplete, with reference to the incarcerated fathers. Resistance and survival may triumph, but the hidden costs should be brought to light.

Palestinian Prisoners’ IVF Babies: Symbols of Survival and Resistance

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