Palestine’s Not-So-Immaculate Conceptions: What’s Behind a West Bank Baby Boom

With thousands of Palestinians locked away in Israeli prisons and barred from conjugal visits, families have resorted to secret measures to produce new offspring

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images

A view of Israeli Ayalon prison in Ramla near Tel Aviv in 2013

Leedia Rimawi was on her way to work when the radio on the minibus broadcast the news: a Palestinian woman had given birth to a child conceived by sperm smuggled out of the Israeli prison where her husband was held. “Everyone in the bus realized I was crying,” Rimawi recalls. None had to ask why. “Everyone knows that I’m the wife of a prisoner.”

Eleven months later, Rimawi became the second Palestinian woman to bear a child by an imprisoned husband. She was followed by five other West Bank women; another 16 are pregnant. An unlikely mode of reproduction that began as newsworthy is growing nearly routine: in a storage tank cooled by liquid nitrogen to –196°C, a Ramallah clinic has 65 sperm samples awaiting implantation in wives who have not been allowed to touch their husbands for years.

“For one thing, we wanted a bigger family,” Rimawi says, explaining the decision to conceive by combining stealth and science. “But also, the Israelis imprisoned him to eliminate him from Palestinian society. We wanted to show that even though you took him away from us for a very long time, we were able to do this. It’s a political achievement.”

It may be. In-vitro fertilization from behind bars niftily combines the two central approaches available to Palestinians in their contest with Israel: resistance and demography. Numerous experts calculate that if current birth rates continue, Palestinians will outnumber Jews between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River — the land both sides claim — in the next 20 years, 30 at most. The numbers presumably would force Israel to choose between dividing the disputed land or bearing the stigma of governing as a minority.

(MORE: Why the Palestinian Prisoner Release Mattered)

“Faisal Husseini used to tell the Israelis: You have the nuclear bomb, and we have the biological bomb,” says Qaddura Fares, head of the Palestinian prisoners’ association, quoting a former Palestinian leader. He notes that rules for Israeli prisoners are far more humane: Yigal Amir, the Jewish settler who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, got married and fathered a child in an officially sanctioned conjugal visit while in prison. “We wish the Israelis would accept this [conception] procedure,” he says.

Because at bottom, the story is a human one.

“Really, it’s for these poor women,” says Dr. Salem Abu Khaizaran, president of the Razan Medical Center, which offers the in-vitro-fertilization, or IVF, procedure at no charge to the wives of prisoners. Khaizaran sees that the women live their entire lives like Rimawi on the minibus, their private business open to a watching world. Though a handful have divorced their imprisoned husbands rather than wait, the overwhelming majority accede to the societal expectation that they endure his sentence too, whatever the cost.

Leedia and Abdel Karim Rimawi had been married less than two years when he was arrested for wounding an Israeli by gunfire in 2001, early in the armed Palestinian uprising known as the second intifadeh. Their daughter, Rand, was 8 months old. But the prospects of a second child were grim. Husband and wife were both 24 when Abdel Karim received his sentence: 25 years. If he served it all, Leedia would be almost 50 when he was released, too old to bear children.

And what if the husband insists? Khaizaran says he takes motivation from the painful example of a man released, along with 1,026 other Palestinians, in exchange for Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier held five years by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. When the newly freed Palestinian learned the wife who had waited for him was too old to conceive, he simply married another, bringing a younger woman into the house of the one who had waited for him. “So the woman really pays the price twice,” Khaizaran says.

(MORE: Gilad Shalit Release: Israel’s Joy Tempered by Memories of an Intifadeh)

Leedia began consulting relatives — something the Razan clinic insists upon. It’s crucial that everyone knows in advance how it is that the wife of an imprisoned man is beginning to show. Leedia says relatives, including Rand, now 12, were overwhelmingly in favor. That turns out to be typical, says a surprised Khaizaran, who expected resistance in a society as traditional as the West Bank. “To my astonishment, the community is supporting it without reservation,” he says.

He credits the exalted role prisoners hold in Palestinian society. Currently some 4,700 are in jailed in Israel. But since the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory began in 1967, about 800,000 Palestinian men have spent time in custody. Labeled terrorists in the Hebrew press, they are the default heroes of their own community, sacrificing years in the name of a national liberation movement.

“Every couple of days I have a phone call,” the doctor says.

No one speaks publicly about how the sperm makes it out of prison. The wives of prisoners are allowed to visit twice a month, for 45 minutes at a time. They can only speak by phone through a plexiglass wall. But there may be gaps in the physical barrier and, in any event, since an Israeli court decision years ago, children under the age of 8 are allowed through a side door and can sit on their father’s lap for 10 minutes. “I watch my husband hold my daughter,” says Leedia, with an understatement that captures the human ache of the interaction. Technically, the interlude also presents an opportunity for passing over a small packet, perhaps in a pocket.

Significantly, visitors usually are not searched as they leave an Israeli prison. “The main concern is smuggling in — weapons, drugs, cellular phones,” says prison-system spokesperson Sivan Weizman. She says no procedures have changed in response to the reports of sperm smuggling, which she considers only a rumor. “I don’t have any proof that it’s really happened,” she says.

(PHOTOS: West Bank Turmoil: An Unexpected Death Raises the Tension)

Once the sperm sample is in hand — typically in a plastic bag — it becomes a race against time. The bus ride to the West Bank is three and a half hours. Khaizaran says that while time is of the essence, most samples yield the minimum necessary — the single motile sperm a technician needs to fertilize an egg. When that’s found, the sample is frozen, and the wife begins taking hormone shots to stimulate ovulation. The sequence is the opposite of normal IVF, in which the fresh sperm sample is brought in after an egg harvest, but it comes to the same thing: a dish, an ovum, and a sperm carried down a tiny pipette. The fertilized egg (or eggs) is implanted in the uterus — three into Leedia. Fifteen days later, a pregnancy test showed that one had taken. On July 31, she gave birth to a boy. “I named him Majd.” The name means glorious.

The father has not seen the baby, however. When she brought the newborn to the prison near the Egyptian border, guards angrily insisted that they had no record of a son and turned her away. “So the prison asked for a DNA test, but I refused,” Leedia says. “We refused because there’s no trust between them and us, and they were the ones that wanted a test.” Instead, she found a lawyer and filed suit to have the baby added to the visitor’s list. The case will require a DNA test, of course, but on terms she trusts.

“I’ve had so many visits where I didn’t get to see him because he was being punished or transferred and I would leave there crying,” she says. “But this time I was denied the right to visit and I was happy, because I had Majd with me.

“We had a big gap, and Majd filled it up.”