The underground sperm smuggling ring that helps Palestinian women have their imprisoned husbands’ babies

From the moment Hossam Al Attar passed the phial containing his semen to his wife, Farhana, she knew she had only a small window to act.

Their hands moved furtively, trying to avoid the attention of the Israeli prison guards who kept a wary eye on Farhana during one of her rare visits to the facility where Hossam had been imprisoned since 2009.

Her heart pounding in her chest, she left the prison and drove an hour to the Gaza border, where she began the arduous process of crossing the Israeli checkpoint to the other side.

All the while, the clock was ticking. She knew she had only a few hours before the semen would be worthless.

But her mission was of vital importance – the container of semen was the last hope the couple had for fulfilling a long-held dream: to conceive a child.

"Let's try this idea," Hossam once told Farhana from his prison cell.

"Because we must have children."

Farhana and Hossam were married in late 2008, young and in love. Only three months later, Hossam was arrested by Israeli forces during the Israel-Gaza war, and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

With the prospect of a long separation, they hatched a plan to secretly transport Hossam's sperm to a clinic in Gaza, the coastal enclave on the Mediterranean that has been sealed off from the world by Israel and Egypt for more than a decade.

From there, a doctor could fertilise one of Farhana's eggs and implant the embryo to grow their dream baby. 

The plan was months in the making and they each knew the risks.

If they were found out, Hossam could face further punishment and Farhana might never be able to visit him again.

"I was lonely and young back then. My life was very hard," she said from her home in Gaza City.

"I wanted children."

Semen turning up on the doorstep

Before making her visit to her husband in prison, Farhana sought help from Dr Baha Al Ghalayini, considered one of Gaza's best-known IVF doctors.

The Cambridge-educated Palestinian gynaecologist and obstetrician trained under Patrick Steptoe, the late British pioneer of in-vitro fertility treatment.

Dr Al Ghalayini says it is "important for me to help" people who need IVF.(ABC News: Motaz Azaiza)

The semen samples Dr Al Ghalayini receives vary in their condition, with many brought to him in makeshift containers. Once received, they are immediately frozen in specialised storage.

There is no publicly available data on how many Palestinian couples have conceived using sperm smuggled from Israeli prisons, but anecdotally there have been dozens since the mid-2000s.

The journey for the would-be parents is difficult and prone to failure at every step of the way.

First there is the delicate task of smuggling the semen out of the prison cell, then the frantic journey to the Gaza border, then the time-consuming crossing at the Israeli checkpoint, and finally – provided the semen survives that long – the medical procedure itself on the other side.

"It was hard and risky, especially for the smugglers. Whoever does this puts his life in danger," said another Palestinian woman in Gaza, Sherine Al Sakany.

Sherine conceived twins from semen smuggled six years ago from the Israeli prison where her husband is currently serving a 28-year sentence.

Sherine Al Sakany's twins were conceived from smuggled semen.(ABC News: Motaz Azaiza)

Once Farhana had crossed the Israeli border checkpoint, she headed directly for the fertility clinic.

"We don't give them instructions," Dr Al Ghalayini said, referring to couples who undertake IVF with smuggled semen.

"We just suddenly find certain families at the centre with a semen sample asking us to freeze it."

Next was Farhana's procedure itself. Using sperm taken from Hossam's container, Dr Al Ghalayini and his team carefully fertilised one of Farhana's eggs and surgically planted it inside her.

It took three months to hear the crushing news – it hadn't worked. She had miscarried.

But the doctor was insistent: there was still enough sperm in Hossam's sample to try again, if Farhana was willing.

Dr Al Ghalayini and his team receive sperm smuggled from prisons across Israel.(ABC News: Motaz Azaiza)A baby is born as bombs fall

Five years on from her miscarriage, Farhana and her husband still spoke longingly of the possibility of a child.

They discussed possible names. If it were a girl, Farhana wanted to name her Jannat, meaning heaven in Arabic.

In 2014, Gaza was bearing the brunt of bombardment from Israeli warplanes during one of the deadliest conflicts between Israel and Hamas – the militant group that controls Gaza – in several decades.

Sheltering at home, as shells exploded on streets around her, Farhana received a call from Dr Al Ghalayini. Tests showed the embryo he had cultivated in his lab and inserted into Farhana's uterus was healthy.

Even in the midst of the chaos, her Palestinian family and friends celebrated.

Five years after their first miscarriage, another IVF attempt brought Jannat into the world. (ABC News: Motaz Azaiza)

Many Gazans see conceiving a child using such methods as an act of resistance to Israel and Egypt's years-long blockade of Gaza, which has made contact between those living in the territory and the outside world extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.

"The prisoners' spouses are getting a lot of support and help here in Gaza," Farhana said.

"The Palestinians in Gaza are very pleased with this idea of smuggling sperm."

Dreaming of a reunion

As Farhana's daughter Jannat grew older in Gaza, birthdays and school years passed still without her father, Hossam.

Now seven years old and never having met him, she knows little of her father except for what she can glean through photos and stories her mother tells her.

Jannat has not yet met her father Hossam, but dreams of the day that she will.(ABC News: Motaz Azaiza)

Some nights, Jannat wakes in the small hours and runs to her mother's bedside, where she tells her of a dream she's had where her father is sleeping peacefully next to her.

Over breakfast, she laments that her father can't take her to school and see her off at the gates, or wait for her at the sound of the bell.

In Jannat, Farhana sees her beloved husband, Hossam, who remains in an Israeli prison cell.

"It was worth waiting all this time. She helps me to forget the pain."


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