Force-feeding Palestinian hunger strikers: When politics and medicine collide

Politicians say new force-feeding law protects sanctity of life, but NGOs believe it violates autonomy and human dignity and serves political purposes only.

Amnesty against force-feeding hunger stikers
The issue of force-feeding hunger striking Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails has come to the fore in recent days as Mohammad Allan was transferred on Monday to Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon from Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba amid fears from his supporters that Israeli authorities are trying to find a way to force-feed him to break his hunger strike, which is now approaching two months.
The matter is pertinent in light of legislation passed in the Knesset in July, which allows for the force-feeding of hunger strikers, with Knesset Interior Committee chairman David Amsalem (Likud) arguing that the bill “creates the correct balance between the state’s interest to defend the life of the prisoner and his right and sovereignty over his own body.”
The law allows the prisons commissioner to ask the attorney-general and the president of a district court for authorization to have a doctor force-feed a prisoner on a hunger strike.
Human rights organizations and several NGOS have come out in solidarity with the Israel Medical Association, which has spoken out strongly against the new law.
“The political establishment has put the medical services and the medical establishment in the Israeli hospitals in front of a dilemma that they shouldn’t have to face,” says Molly Malekar, project coordinator at Amnesty International in Israel.
She adds that it’s a very complex issue requiring a balance of ethics and medical judgment; Amnesty maintains that the bill is political and seeks to silence protest.
Before the Knesset passed what she describes as a “draconian” bill, Malekar says the doctors found a very sophisticated way to balance between safeguarding the hunger striker’s life and health and protecting his autonomy and freedom of speech.
“Let the medical system deal with it,” she urged. “They know how to do it.”
Dr. Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Principles project at the Israel Democracy Institute, sup - ports this sentiment, saying: “The vast majority of doctors think that the best way to deal with it is if there is confidence between the detainee and his doctor, and with this constant dialogue that they conduct they can save a life.” He adds that if the patient falls unconscious, the doctors will use the necessary means to revive him or her.
He compares forced-feeding to forcing radiation or chemo - therapy upon a cancer-patient against their will: “We limit the liberty of detainees, but this doesn’t mean we also limit their autonomy and dignity as a human being,” he asserts, while echoing Malekar’s skepticism that the motivation behind the law is sanctity of life.
“If I were to pronounce a hunger strike, they couldn’t enforce this law on me,” he says by way of illustration. “So I’m not persuaded that sanctity of life is the reason for this bill, because I don’t think my life is less holy than the detainee’s life.” The only way to force-feed any non-prisoner is according to the Patient’s Rights Law.
“We’re not really dealing with saving lives, but with a PR problem, a political problem,” he continued. “The law is to prevent bad publicity for Israel and to fight the detainee’s ability to get achievements in their struggle to be freed from administrative detention.”
The International Commit - tee of the Red Cross also has weighed in on the matter.
“As regards Mr. Allan’s hunger strike, any solution must take into account the need to protect his moral and physical integrity. The detainee’s choice must be respected and his dignity preserved,” said Jacques de Maio, the head of the ICRC’s delegation in Israel.
Researchers from the Institute for Zionist Strategies Yael Baklor-Kahan and Adi Arbel, however, describe the law as “the lesser of two evils,” arguing that hunger strikers aim to challenge the state’s sovereignty and sometimes the goal is to achieve the release of a prisoner or to alter his conditions.
Indeed, authorities released Islamic Jihad leader Khader Adnan from custody last month after a deal was reached for him to end a 56-day hunger strike. Kahan and Arbel say they view a prisoner’s hunger strike as a “tool to prevent the state from enforcing its law” and as abuse of the freedom of expression granted them by the state they operate against. They add that death caused by a hunger-striking security prisoner could have serious security implications, sparking violence that could result in many Palestinian and Israeli casualties.
Forced-feeding opponents counter this argument, saying there is no record of a hunger striker dying in the state of Israel, but that five prisoners have died from being force-fed – one in 1970, two in 1980, one in 1984 and one in 1992.
“For decades, prisoners have had very long hunger strikes, but never has a prisoner died,” said Fuchs. “Only when they were force-fed did they die.”
Doctors, he said, should be left alone to deal with the hunger strikers, opining that prisoners who reach the hospital should be treated the same as anyone else in the same state