Gaza prisoners in bid to lift ban on family visits

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Palestinian prisoners from Gaza held in Israeli jails have launched a legal battle along with their families to lift a year-long ban on visits organised by the Red Cross.

Their legal action, supported by a series of Palestinian and Israeli human rights organisations, is seeking to overturn a decision by the Israeli authorities to bar prison visits while Hamas remains in control of Gaza.

One of the Israeli organisations, Hamoked, says there are about 930 prisoners from Gaza held in Israeli jails and the cancellation of regular family visits "constitutes collective punishment and violates international law".

In a response to Hamoked, the Israeli authorities said that "since Hamas' military coup in the Gaza Strip ... [it is not] possible to co-ordinate passage through the border crossings, which are now under the control of terrorist organisations." But the rights group says that the International Committee of the Red Cross is willing to co-ordinate the visits as it always has in the past and has itself pressed for the restoration of the visits.

Its court petition quotes Ruweida Al-Burdini, the wife of one prisoner held in an Israeli jail, as saying that her husband has had 10 operations since being detained but that she has been unable to find out the details. She said: "The children and I miss my husband very much ... We want to realise our right to visit him in prison. We did not do anything wrong. Why are we being punished?"

*Israel's Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, told Labour Party activists yesterday that turmoil in the ruling Kadima party was undermining truce negotiations with Hamas. "If this government wasn't overshadowed by the Kadima primaries, a truce agreement with Hamas would have been achieved a long time ago."