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Smuggled sperm: Palestinians become dads from jail

Faridah Ma'arouf says she smuggled a sample of her son's sperm out of Ofer Prison, above, so that her daughter-in-law could become pregnant.
Faridah Ma'arouf says she smuggled a sample of her son's sperm out of Ofer Prison, above, so that her daughter-in-law could become pregnant.NBC News

TEL AVIV, Israel -- It is surely among the strangest jail break stories ever conceived: a daring escapade in which a determined band of young women beat one of the toughest security regimes in the world.

They are the wives of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails – without the right to conjugal visits – who nevertheless claim to have become pregnant by their husbands.

This isn’t a case of the usual contraband sneaked into a jail to make life a little easier for inmates. It’s what is smuggled out that matters – the stuff of life itself.

Plenty think the plot is far-fetched, but the women insist that armed with little more than cunning and a concealed container, they can ensure that no wall or coil of barbed wire is a barrier to parenthood.

Faridah Ma’arouf laughed as she recalled hurrying out of the prison gates after visiting day was done, hiding a sample of her son’s sperm.

“We had a taxi waiting to take us very fast,’’ she said. “I thought I had to get it to the doctor quickly.’’

It seems to have been a successful operation. Three months later Ma’arouf sat in an IVF clinic where the progress of her daughter-in-law’s pregnancy was being monitored.

It is what could be described as the brainchild of Dr. Salim Abu Khaizaran, head of the Razan Center for Infertility in the Palestinian city of Ramallah on the West Bank.

“We are doing this to help these ladies because we feel as doctors that the wives of prisoners pay a very high price,” Abu Khaizaran said without revealing how many other such procedures he had conducted. “She has to wait for her husband, sometimes she can spend her lovely youth just waiting. And by the time her husband is out, many of them will not be able to have babies.”

Faridah Ma'arouf says she smuggled a sample of her son's sperm out of Ofer Prison, above, so that her daughter-in-law could become pregnant.NBC News

He added: “The wives lose out twice because the community then pressurizes the husband to marry another woman in order to fulfill his requirements to become a father, which ... I feel is very sad.”

'What are you waiting for?'

Many of the men are serving long sentences for terrorist offenses.

Ammar Al-Zibben has been in prison for 16 years. He is serving 27 life sentences with an additional 25 years for plotting bomb attacks in Jerusalem that killed 21 people.

He is also the recent father of a baby boy, named Mohannad, who is just seven months old.

His wife, Dalal, 32, said the idea to go for IVF was originally her husband’s. The suggestion took her by surprise. She had expected opposition from family and friends in their conservative community.

“I was very surprised when I found them encouraging me enthusiastically,” she said. “Everyone said I should do it and not deny myself and my husband our basic right, to have a family.

“It reached a point where people would stop me in the street and ask me why I still hadn’t done it,” she added. “They would say to me, ‘What are you waiting for? Why are you wasting time?’”

Her husband got to see his son for the first time six months ago.

“The meeting was happy, sad, exciting. It was mixed with a lot of feelings and tears, I can’t describe to you how we both felt,’’ she said.

“I had sacrificed everything when my husband was arrested,” she said. “Now I have been given this opportunity to make my dreams come true, to have the family I always wanted. We will be waiting for my husband to come out and join us.’’

Near-miraculous conceptions

As word spread, the number of prisoners’ wives waiting for the clinic to make their dreams come true has risen, hospital officials said.

Palestinian mother Dalal Rabaya holds her child Mohannad at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus on 13 August 2012. Dalal Rabaya delivered a baby conceived through artificial insemination after her husband Ammar Al-Zibben's sperm was smuggled out of an Israeli prison, where he is serving a life sentence.Alaa Badarneh / EPA, file

They all face the same, daunting obstacle. Typically a prisoner visitor will pass through an airport style scanner, a body search, and then be asked to leave all their possessions in a locker before they get to see their relative. And then they will be separated by glass and speak only by phone.

According to the Israel Prison Service these are near-miraculous conceptions.

“Due to technological and security restrictions that apply to prisoners in their relationship with family members, one can question the ability to smuggle as claimed,’’ Sivan Weizman, spokeswoman for the Prison Authority, said dryly.

If Abu Khaizaran has any idea how samples get from prison cell to fertility clinic, he’s not telling. But the hospital insists on the written word of two close family members that the sperm is indeed that of the husband, he said.

A black-and-white screen showed the outline of a baby in the womb. The loud and rapid beat of its heart reverberated in the fertility clinic’s small ultrasound room.

“This is the head of the baby. And there’s its hand. He’s moving. It’s a boy. Fifteen weeks,” Abu Khaizaran told mother-to-be Lidya Al-Rimawi who had come in for her first scan. “Everything looks fine.’’

Like all the women NBC interviewed, Al-Rimawi was coy when asked how she managed to evade Israeli prison guards and their searches.

“We found much difficulty. But despite the security checks we got through, thanks to God,” she said.

“Each case is different from another,’’ she said when pressed for more detail. “We smuggled it out in a bag, a small nylon bag. But it is difficult to explain how.”

“If I told you the way we smuggled it, definitely the army will prevent it from happening and there are prisoners we don’t want to deprive of this same chance.’’

She beamed as she looked at the image of the fast-growing baby inside her.

“It is a very beautiful feeling,’’ she said. “It is a feeling that cannot be described. It is a miracle.’’