JERUSALEM — With nearly 300 Palestinian prisoners on extended hunger strikes and dozens hospitalized, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pressing for speedy passage of legislation that would authorize force-feeding if an inmate’s health is in grave danger.
The bill is opposed by the Israeli Medical Association, which calls it a violation of medical ethics, and by a government-appointed panel that said in a statement that the legislation’s provisions “contradict the principles of bioethics and should be rejected outright.”
In a consultation last week with ministers and prison officials, Netanyahu cited force-feeding at the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay detention camp to bolster his case. He asserted that despite opposition from the Israeli medical establishment, doctors willing to carry out the policy would be found, Israeli news outlets reported.
The bill passed its first hurdle in the Israeli Parliament on Monday, which voted to send it to a committee. It must be approved twice more before becoming law.
U.S. military officials at the Guantanamo detention center have used force-feedings for years to stymie hunger strikes among the prisoners there, but the practice received renewed attention last year when as many as 106 of the then-166 prisoners refused to eat to protest their continued incarceration without charges. By last July, the prison camp reported that 46 of those strikers were being force-fed, a process that requires running tubes through the prisoners’ noses into their stomachs. Liquid nourishment is then pumped through the tubes.
U.S. medical societies also object to the practice, as does the International Committee of the Red Cross, but the U.S. government says it’s more humane than allowing a prisoner to starve to death.
Israeli officials are using much the same argument as they confront a growing hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners held without charges demanding their freedom. The current hunger strike, which began April 24, is the first mass fast by prisoners against “administrative detention,” the Israeli practice of imprisoning someone without trial. Israel holds some 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in its jails, nearly 200 of them without charges or trial, according to the Israeli prison service.
Sivan Weitzman, the spokeswoman for the Israeli prison service, said 280 prisoners were on hunger strikes and 70 were being treated in hospitals, the largest group of hunger-striking prisoners to be hospitalized at one time. Weitzman said the prisoners were receiving supplements of water, minerals and vitamins, and that none was in critical condition.
“The prime minister is interested in moving ahead expeditiously,” said an official familiar with the moves to sanction force-feeding who spoke only anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter with a journalist. “We want to give the government more tools. You can’t have a situation where prisoners who are in jail for a very good reason will use the threat of a hunger strike to receive a ‘get out of jail free’ card.”
Netanyahu’s support for force-feeding is based on recommendations by Israel’s Shin Bet security service, whose director opposes any negotiation with the striking prisoners on the grounds that a deal would expose Israel to further pressure from more hunger strikes in its jails, the newspaper Haaretz reported Monday.
Jawad Boulous, a lawyer who’s visited hospitalized prisoners, said they were in a “dangerous” state, having lost much of their weight and suffering from pains, vomiting, bleeding and other symptoms. He said the prisoners were shackled to their beds and denied contact with the outside world except for occasional visits by lawyers.
The prisoners are demanding that they be freed or charged in court, but they were also prepared to negotiate lesser demands, such as limiting the period of imprisonment without trial, Boulous said.
Under the terms of administrative detention, suspects deemed security threats can be held indefinitely for renewable periods of up to six months on the basis of secret evidence that’s kept from their attorneys and them.
Israeli security officials say the detention is necessary in cases when there isn’t enough evidence to charge dangerous suspects in court and when legal proceedings could expose informers, jeopardizing sources of intelligence.
The force-feeding bill would authorize a judge to permit the measure when “there is a real possibility of imminent serious danger to the health of the prisoner.”
In a letter last month to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Medical Association said the practice “contradicts and runs counter to accepted norms of medical ethics accepted around the world” and endangers the health of inmates.
A government-appointed bioethics panel voiced the same opinion, saying in a statement that the bill’s provisions “contradict the principles of bioethics and should be rejected outright.”
The World Medical Association, an umbrella group for national medical associations, has taken a similar position, declaring that “forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable.”
A U.S. federal judge in Washington ordered a temporary halt earlier this year to the force-feeding of a Guantanamo prisoner, who recounted in court papers the pain he suffered when the tube was inserted. But the U.S. district judge, Gladys Kessler, lifted the ban after U.S. officials asserted that the detainee’s health had deteriorated seriously after the procedure was halted.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.