Israel had barred Gazans from visiting prisoners after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in 2006 and held in Gaza. He was released last October in a prisoner exchange with Hamas, which controls the coastal strip, but the ban had continued.
Israel agreed to resume visitation rights for Gaza families after more than 1,600 Palestinian prisoners went on hunger strike in April demanding better prison conditions. One of their demands was to allow such visitations. The strike ended on May 14 with an agreement between the prisoners and the Israel Prisons Service.
The continued delay in starting family visits had caused prisoners to threaten to resume their hunger strike.
Israel allowed the first group of Gaza families into Israel to visit prisoners at Rimon Prison in the Negev desert on a trial basis. The International Committee of the Red Cross arranged the visits.
Abdul Nasser Ferwaneh, who heads a Gaza-based Palestinian prisoner’s advocacy group, said the family members selected for the trial visit gathered at the Red Cross office in Gaza City at 3 a.m. They were put on a bus and driven to Erez crossing into Israel.
The families were told not to bring children or anything for the prisoners. They were told not to bring food even for themselves to eat during a trip that started before dawn and that was going to take them to a prison some 140 miles away.
There are at least 475 prisoners from the Gaza Strip held in Israeli jails. Because the first family visits went without incident, Israel said it would allow another group of family members to visit 50 prisoners next week. The visits are scheduled to continue every week.
Photo: A bus with relatives of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons leaves Erez border after crossing into Israel on Monday to visit the prisoners for the first time in five years. Credit: David Buimovitch / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.