Israel has authorized the force-feeding of hunger striking prisoners despite prohibition of the practice under international law and medical ethics rules, and staunch opposition from the country’s own medical association.
The Times of Israel reports the Knesset, or parliament, passed the highly controversial measure by a vote of 46-40 on Thursday following a contentious night of deliberation. The Israeli Medical Association (IMA) condemned the law, calling force-feeding a form of torture, an assessment shared by leading medical associations around the world.
“It’s absolutely clear that it’s torture, and it’s long-lasting torture,” IMA Chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman is quoted by the New York Times. “It cannot be done without endangering the patient and causing him a lot of suffering.”
Palestinian prisoners have often resorted to hunger strikes as a means of protesting Israeli policies of indefinite detention without charge or trial and in bids to change or improve their treatment. The new law was born in response to prolonged hunger strikes in 2012 by Palestinian prisoners protesting administrative detention, under which they are imprisoned—and often abused—without charge or trial for lengthy periods.
Earlier this month, Israel released Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan, an Islamic Jihad member who went on a 56-day hunger strike after being jailed for more than a year without charge or trial. Adnan’s ordeal nearly killed him, resulting in widespread international outrage and condemnation. Adnan called the new law “Israeli bankruptcy in dealing with Palestinian prisoners who are on hunger strikes.”
Palestinian prisoners’ rights activists and advocates said the law strips detainees of the only viable means of protesting their unjust situation.
“It’s the last thing the Palestinian prisoner has, to fight with his own body,” Muhannad Alazzah, a researcher at Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner rights group, told the New York Times. “It’s the last thing that Palestinians have to defend themselves and to regain their dignity in the prisons of the occupation.”
Supporters of the measure said it was meant to save prisoners’ lives.
“I will promote the bill and not let [prisoners] harm the security of the state or succumb to any threats,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud), the bill’s sponsor, told Channel 2 news. “This is also a humane issue. Just as I expect a prison guard who sees a prisoner trying to hurt himself to prevent it—we must also prevent a risk of death by hunger striking.”
“This bill will strike a proper balance between the interests of the state to protect the life of a prisoner and his rights and sovereignty over his body,” MK David Amsallem (Likud) added.
But opponents of the law noted that while no prisoner has ever died due to a hunger strike in an Israeli prison, numerous inmates who have been force-fed have died.
“They don’t want to protect the lives of prisoners,” said MK Dov Khenin (Joint List), who called the law “brutal and dangerous.”
“In the State of Israel no prisoner has ever died from a hunger strike; five prisoners, however, have died that were force-fed,” said Khenin. “This is a killer law and it allows for things to be done to prisoners that are forbidden according to international norms.”
Under the new law, force-feeding of prisoners must be approved by a judge. But that does not mean the practice is considered legal or ethical under existing international law and medical ethics rules. The 1948 Geneva Conventions explicitly prohibit “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of prisoners and medical authorities around the world have repeatedly said force-feeding constitutes such treatment.
“Forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable,” the World Medical Association (WMA) stated in its 1975 Declaration of Malta, and following those guidelines, British authorities allowed hunger striking Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners to starve to death. The WMA and American Medical Association (AMA) are among the many groups which oppose and prohibit force-feeding, which is considered a form of torture by the United Nations, as well as by various civil liberties and human rights groups.
Israel is signatory to the Geneva Conventions, as well as the Declaration of Malta and related Declaration of Tokyo, and as such is violating international law and established global medical ethics by authorizing force-feeding.
“Doctors should never be party to actual coercive feeding, with prisoners being tied down and intravenous drips or esophageal tubes being forced into them,” Hernán Reyes of the of the International Red Cross asserted. “Such actions can be considered a form of torture, and under no circumstances should doctors participate in them, [even under] the pretext of ‘saving the hunger striker’s life.’”
The practice of force-feeding prisoners made headlines in the United States in recent years as hunger striking detainees at the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, many of them deemed no threat and cleared for release for years, were tortured by their American jailers through excruciatingly painful and medically unethical force-feeding.
In response to this, AMA President Dr. Jeremy Lazarus wrote to the Pentagon reminding US military commanders of their duty to adhere to international medical ethics standards.
“Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions,” Lazarus wrote. “The AMA has long endorsed the World Medical Association Declaration of Tokyo, which is unequivocal on the point: ‘Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially.’ ”
After a US Navy nurse faced a dishonorable discharge for refusing to participate in the force-feeding of Guantánamo detainees, an internal military document revealed the Pentagon knew and acknowledged that force-feeding violated both international law and medical ethics. Disciplinary proceedings against the nurse were subsequently dropped.