A draft bill that is making its way through the Israeli parliament and would authorize the force-feeding of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike has pitted the country’s medical community, which opposes the practice, against the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After the country’s main doctors’ association said the practice amounts to torture, Netanyahu asked that the legislation, which has been under several rounds of debate, be fast tracked, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
In reaction to Netanyahu’s desire to find doctors that would consent to force-feeding hunger-striking prisoners, who have been on strike for some 6 weeks, the Israel Medical Association (IMA) urged physicians not to cooperate with the government’s plans.
“It goes against the DNA of the doctors to force treatment on a patient,” spokeswoman Ziva Miral said on Tuesday. “Force-feeding is torture, and we can’t have doctors participating in torture.
Palestinians held in Israeli jails began the latest hunger strike on April 24, when about 100 prisoners began refusing meals in protest of Israel’s use of administrative detention — a practice in which Palestinians are indefinitely detained without charges or trial. Since then, hundreds of other prisoners have joined the protest, while thousands have held one-day strikes in solidarity with the original 100, Maan News, a Palestinian news outlet, reported.
Yoel Hadar, a legal adviser with the Public Security Ministry, which initiated the pending legislation, said the force-feeding would be used if an Israeli judge felt a Palestinian prisoner’s life was in danger through hunger striking.
"We want the judge to take into consideration what will happen to the country if something happens," Hadar said, referring to the unrest that could accompany the death of a person who refuses meals.
But a number of Israeli medical groups in addition to the IMA have criticized the legislation.
Israel’s umbrella organization for national medical associations, the World Medical Association (WMA), also opposes the practice. In 2006, it said that “forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable.”
Israel’s National Council of Bioethics also said it opposes the bill.
Another group, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel reportedly called the WMA last month, asking that it help stop the legislation. The group reiterated such ethical concerns, saying “the true motivation … is to the break the spirit and protests of the hunger strikers.”
Currently, some 5,000 Palestinians are imprisoned by Israel, including 191 in administrative detention.
Protests erupted on Wednesday across the occupied Palestinian territories in solidarity with hunger-striking prisoners. Palestinian youth clashed with Israeli soldiers near Ofer, an Israeli prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah where two Palestinian teenagers were shot and killed last month. Solidarity rallies were also held in Gaza in which children played the roles of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian prisoners.
“It’s a very grave and dangerous situation. I think the Palestinian people are becoming very anxious and angry over the prisoners,” Mustafa Bargouthi, secretary-general of the Palestine National Initiative, said. “Force-feeding is a violation of human rights and is unacceptable under any standards — Israel can solve this problem easily by releasing the prisoners arrested without charges.”
Palestinian prisoners have died after being force-fed in Israeli prisons, according to Barghouthi. “They aspirated, contracted lung infections and other very serious complications,” he added.
Sivan Weizman, spokeswoman for the Israeli Prison Authority, said she recalled one or two cases of force-feeding prisoners in the 1980s. Qadoura Fares, head of the Palestine Prisoners' Club — a prisoner rights group — confirmed the deaths, but said three prisoners had died from complications.
Two years ago, about 2,000 administrative detainees and other prisoners launched a mass hunger strike aimed at ending the practice of force-feeding. One of those on the previous strike, Samer Issawi, came to prominence after he refused food for about eight months in protest of his administrative detention. It was reported at the time that he might have been force-fed through an intravenous tube; it is unclear how he would have survived the long hunger strike otherwise. In the end, Israel agreed to release Issawi because his life was in imminent danger.
Al Jazeera with wire services. Renee Lewis contributed reporting.