Israel’s Knesset on Thursday passed a law allowing for prison authorities to force feed hunger striking prisoners. The Israeli Medical Association has said they will not abide by the law.
The extremely controversial law passed by a slim margin of 46 to 40 with 34 abstentions on Thursday in the 120-seat Knesset. A lengthy parliamentary debate preceded the vote, and was met with outcry from both the opposition and the Israeli Medical Association when it passed.
The bill was approved in a cabinet in June 2014, at which time 63 Palestinians were on a two-month hunger strike, and dozens were hospitalized. This marks one of the first major legislative moves since the last federal elections in Israel in March.
The law will allow a prison commissioner to request a court order for force feeding, but only on the recommendation of a doctor and if there is “imminent danger” to the prisoner’s life, or if the prisoner in question faces chronic health problems.
When reviewing the request, the court must take into account the dangers and invasive nature of force feeding, the prisoner’s mental state, and what the prisoner’s belief on force feeding are. Prison officials must first use “all means possible” to persuade the prisoner to eat. Force feeding should then be initiated in “as dignified a manner as possible.”
Keeping the peace
The government of Israel says they’re concerned that the death of a Palestinian prisoner from a hunger strike could lead to mass protests in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel has been known to accede to the requests of striking prisoners in the past, including early release. Hunger strikes in Israeli prisoners have also in the past lead to increased tensions in the Palestinian community.
Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who sponsored the legislation, said the law was necessary. “Hunger strikes of terrorists in prisons have become a means to threaten Israel,” he told reporters.
David Amsalem of the majority Likud party, who also backed the law, said “The law creates the right balance between the state’s interest to protect the prisoner’s life and his rights and sovereignty over his body.” Force feeding, he emphasized, “will be used only if a doctor determines that the continued hunger strike will create an immediate risk to the life of a prisoner or long-term damage to his health.”
Tantamount to torture?
The Israeli Medical Association said they consider force feeding to be a form of torture, and has said they plan to challenge the law in the Supreme Court. In the meantime they have asked doctors not to abide by the law.
“Israeli doctors … will continue to act according to medical ethical norms that completely prohibit doctors from participating in torture and force-feeding amounts to torture,” said Leonid Eidelman, the head of the association. The Medical Association would “order doctors to act solely according to the rules of ethics, and not feed or nourish hunger strikers against their will,” he continued
Human rights groups also vehemently condemned the legislation as unethical. Opposition politicians in Israel described the law as “cruel, dangerous and unnecessary.”
The Arab Joint List of parties, which is in the opposition, criticized the law as “a law to torture Palestinian prisoners, aimed at uprooting their legitimate struggle,” and said the government has a “distorted take on fundamental democratic values.”
The human rights question
In total, 10 human rights groups came forward to condemn the law. One group, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, said the law is not about protecting a prisoner’s dignity, rather meant to prevent violence sparked by hunger striking prisoners.
Prior to its passage, the UN called on Israel to stop the vote on the legislation. UN special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez and special rapporteur on the right to health Dainius Puras both condemned it. Mendez described the practice as ” tantamount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” even if it was supposed to be for the prisoner’s benefit.
” The way to end the hunger strikes is not to force feed hunger strikers but to address the underlying human rights violations against which they are protesting, namely, the practice of administrative detention,” Mendez said in a statement.
The UN has previously described force-feeding as “a breach of international law” in the case of the US force-feeding detainees at the prison in Guantanamo Bay.
A spokeswoman for the Israel Prison Service told Reuters there was currently one Palestinian held on administrative detention. People held under administrative detention in Israel can be held for renewable six-month periods without charge.
The spokeswoman also told reporters there are currently four “security prisoners” who had been on hunger strike for over a week.
According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the majority of prisoners who go on hunger strike are Palestinians in administrative detention.
Palestinians in jail are regarded as heroes, even those who are convicted of terrorist activities.
mes/jil (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)