Hana al-Za’anin and her husband, Tamer, have not set eyes on each other, let alone had physical contact, for almost seven years. But the young Palestinian couple are delighted to be expecting their first child in January.

The baby — a boy already named Hassan — is not a modern-day miracle but the result of medical science combined with old-fashioned subterfuge. He was conceived after Tamer’s sperm was smuggled out of an Israeli prison, across a stringent military checkpoint into Gaza, and impregnated into an egg harvested from Hana at a fertility clinic in Gaza City. The resulting embryo was transplanted into her uterus.

Hassan will be the first “prison baby” born in Gaza, but he will join at least three infants delivered in the West Bank as a result of a rapidly growing sperm-smuggling phenomenon, driven by women desperate for babies, and doctors willing to advise on transportation and to provide IVF treatment at a reduced or waived cost. Dozens of prisoners’ wives, including several in Gaza, are reported to be pregnant.

According to Abdul-Karim al-Hindawi, the Russian-trained fertility doctor who assisted Za’anin (26), the procedure is straightforward. “We gave the family some advice on how to pack it. The best way is wrapped in plastic or in a small vial, and carried between the breasts, where it’s warm and dark. Then we freeze it as soon as it arrives,” he said.

Za’anin and her parents-in-law were coy on the details of how the sperm was passed from her husband across the tight security of Israeli jails. Another family may have been involved, and the wrapped sperm disguised as an everyday object in the visitors’ room.

Within months of the couple’s wedding in 2006, the groom — now 28 — was in jail, joining two of Za’anin’s brothers.Her husband’s family expect him to serve his full 12-year sentence.

Over recent decades, hundreds of thousands of families in Gaza and the West Bank have experienced the imprisonment of a relative, ensuring this is a visceral issue for the population. According to Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners’ rights organisation, last month there were 5,007 Palestinians in Israeli jails and detention centres.

Palestinian leaders insisted on the release of long-serving prisoners as a condition of returning to peace talks this year. The first group of prisoners were released in August; the next tranche of 25 — out of a total of 104 — will be freed at the end of this month.

A spokeswoman for Israel’s prisons service said there was no evidence that sperm had been smuggled out of jails. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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