The timing could not have been much worse. On September 9, 2002, after a year’s engagement, Fat’hiya al-Safadi, then 22, and her fiancé, Ashraf, 29, were married in the West Bank city of Nablus. The wedding took place in the midst of the Second Intifada, during what Fat’hiya, in rather understated phrasing, describes as “a very heated period.” Nablus had been under siege by Israeli troops on and off since April. Dozens of Palestinians had been killed and hundreds more injured, houses leveled by tanks and bulldozers, the entire city placed under curfew for weeks at a time. But even among so much destruction—perhaps especially there—life makes its demands. The newlyweds rented a home and moved in together. They hoped to have children quickly, to bring new life to a place stained by so much death.
Eighteen days after their wedding, Ashraf left the house to buy groceries. Hours passed. He didn’t return. That evening, the phone rang. Ashraf had been arrested by Israeli soldiers, accused, Fat’hiya says, of “shooting at Israelis” at some point in the past. It is one of the defining asymmetries of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that, in the absence of a Palestinian state, violence is only deemed legitimate when it flows in one direction: The state of Israel regards Palestinians who take up arms against it as terrorists subject to criminal prosecution, while most Israelis who use lethal force against Palestinians are thought to be acting in the defense of the country. (Israeli civilians who commit acts of violence against Palestinians rarely face legal consequences.) Ashraf was imprisoned while his trial dragged on. It took two whole years. For most of it, he was held in a prison outside Ramallah and then moved to another institution in the northern Israeli town of Megiddo, near the site referred to in the Book of Revelation as Armageddon. When he was finally sentenced, Fat’hiya said, “I thought I was dreaming.” She had expected that he would get five years. He got 21.
The timing was cruel, but the couple’s fate was hardly unique. Israel’s military court system, which has a conviction rate of over 99 percent, is as vital a part of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories as its checkpoints and walls: 40 percent of Palestinian men and boys have been jailed at some point in their lives. Some are charged with offenses that are not illegal for Israelis, like attending a demonstration; others, like Ashraf, with taking up arms. It is a rare family that has not lost someone—if not a husband, then a brother, father, uncle, or son, and sometimes a daughter, mother, sister, or wife—to the walls of Israel’s prisons.
Sitting on the sofa in the living room of her family’s home in Nablus, sunlight peeking through the heavy curtains behind her, Fat’hiya recalls the years that followed Ashraf’s sentencing. She moved back in with her parents and fell into a depression. Food lost its taste. Other people’s lives went on, but hers had stalled. Ashraf’s parents died in his absence. He missed their funerals, as well as her parents’ funerals, and weddings and births. He was moved from one prison in northern Israel to another, and later to another in the Negev Desert, more than 140 miles to the south, where he remains. Twice a month, Fat’hiya was free to make the difficult and often demeaning trip through the checkpoints and across the Green Line to visit Ashraf, but for the most part she avoided going out and didn’t want to talk to anyone.
Ashraf had been gone for more than a decade when he and Fat’hiya first heard about a fertility clinic in Ramallah that had begun helping the wives of Palestinian prisoners become pregnant with sperm smuggled out of Israeli jails. (Israeli prisoners are permitted conjugal visits; Palestinians are not.) The couple discussed it, Fat’hiya says, but neither of them was convinced it was a good idea.
The next time she visited Ashraf, she says with a smile, “he surprised me.” Prisoners are allowed to buy gifts of food for their visitors. Ashraf handed her a bag of cookies. “He had it there,” already prepared, she said. “He said, ‘Do it.’”
Fat’hiya stands, jogs suddenly from the room, and comes back with the wrapper from a pack of chocolate hazelnut Quadratini wafers, the very pack she smuggled out of the prison that day. Her son, Amir, who is now five, wide-eyed and serious, squirms on the sofa beside her. “That’s why he’s so sweet,” she says, pulling the boy to her lap.
Soon after returning from her visit to Ashraf, Fat’hiya called the clinic she had heard about, the Razan Center for Infertility. She was told to bring in the sample as quickly as possible—doctors want the sperm within 48 hours—and to bring along two members of her own family and two members of her husband’s family. Fat’hiya was nervous. How would anyone believe that Ashraf was the father? “Nobody knows about this. It was between me and my husband. People will start asking what really happened.”
The first woman to conceive a child with sperm smuggled out of an Israeli prison had given birth just a few months earlier. Since that first woman, the wives of 71 Palestinian prisoners have successfully conceived children and the practice has become widely accepted, though many are still hesitant to talk about it and are fearful of consequences from the Israeli authorities. At one point, Fat’hiya was not allowed to visit Ashraf for more than a year. Other prisoners have been punished with months in solitary confinement for smuggling sperm, according to Issa Qaraqe, who until last year served as the Palestinian Authority’s minister for prisoner affairs. (The Israel Prison Service did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)
When she was going through IVF, Fat’hiya was more concerned about the reactions of her neighbors, and those of her own and Ashraf’s families, should there be any question of her child’s paternity. In a small, traditional Palestinian village, or even in a large but conservative city like Nablus, it could be disastrous for a woman with a husband in prison to suddenly become pregnant. To protect his patients from shunning or even violence, explains Dr. Salam Abu Khaizaran, the Center’s director, “we needed a lot of support from the community.” He consulted with religious authorities to work up guidelines for the procedure: so long as the community was informed and both families approved of the process, problems could be avoided.
To be eligible for in vitro fertilization, which the Center provides without charge to prisoners’ families, the wife must be over 40 by the time of her husband’s expected release, and both of their families must give their explicit support for the procedure. Before the treatments could be performed, Fat’hiya’s brothers came with her to the clinic, and so did her brothers-in-law. The four of them and an uncle signed papers asserting that the sperm in question had come from Ashraf. Fat’hiya was relieved: “There was proof: it came from my husband. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
In early July of 2013, Fat’hiya became pregnant on the first try. The following March, Amir was born.
Some of the women regard their pregnancies as a form of political resistance. If prison exists to erase people, to break social bonds and recast collective struggle as individual defeat, the IVF-enabled children constitute a kind of opposition, notes Suhad Abu Fayed, another IVF mother based in the Askar refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus. Her husband had been a fighter in a Fatah militia and, like Ashraf, was arrested in 2002. “This is the challenge,” says Abu Fayed, “saying I’m here and I exist.” Her daughter, who will be six when her father gets out, was born in 2014. They named her Hurriya, which means “freedom.”
Contacted by phone in prison, Ashraf casts his son’s conception in political terms, in the familiar language of “sacrifice” and “struggle,” “martyrdom” and “exile.” Fat’hiya, however, is tired of politics and impatient with such lofty rhetoric. It was politics, as she sees it, that took her husband from her, and for what? “Nothing has changed,” she says. The occupation continues, and the situation is by most measures worse than it was 17 years ago. Amir’s birth, and the warmth of his presence beside her, are a different kind of victory, a triumph against despair, brown-eyed and chubby-cheeked, not a slogan but a life.