Israeli Government Approves Bill to Force Feed Prisoners on Hunger Strike

Israeli Medical Association says bill violates ethical standards and requires doctors to employ 'means bordering on torture.'

A protest against the force-feeding bill, in 2014.
A protest against the force-feeding bill, in 2014. Emil Salman

The cabinet on Sunday approved a controversial bill allowing the authorities to force feed prisoners who are on hunger strike if their life is deemed in danger.

Dr. Leonid Eidelman, head of the Israeli Medical Association, told Haaretz that if the bill passes, the association will advise doctors not to follow it.

"If the law passes, we'll call on doctors to ignore it," said Eidelman.

The cabinet's decision will allow the Knesset to pick up the so-called "Law to Prevent Harm Caused by Hunger Strikes" from the point it reached before the recent elections.  The proposed law can now be sent to the full Knesset plenum for its second and third readings.

The version of the bill approved by the cabinet did not include a number of changes intended to soften the law in light of the harsh criticism leveled against it. It is not clear whether these changes will be included in the final version presented to the Knesset.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who is promoting the law, said after its approval that he seeks to get the legislation passed as soon as possible.

"Security prisoners are interested in turning a hunger strike into a new type of suicide terrorist attack through which they will threaten the State of Israel. We will not allow anyone to threaten us and we will not allow prisoners to die in our prisons," said Erdan.

The bill was initially put on hold last summer, despite frantic attempts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to have it placed on the law books. Its final Knesset vote was scheduled for the night when the bodies of the three Israeli teens who were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank were found. After the bodies were discovered, the Knesset halted all activities for the night. The vote was never taken and, six months later, new elections were called.

The proposed law is intended to prevent security detainees from trying to “blackmail the government” or foment unrest among Palestinians in the event that a detainee dies in prison after a hunger strike, said sources familiar with the bill.

The Shin Bet security service expects a number of Palestinian security prisoners to start hunger strikes in mid-July, after the end of the Ramadan month of fasting.

The Israel Medical Association remains firmly opposed to the bill. Eidelman, the chairman, wrote to Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, saying the proposed law “places responsibility on the doctors to take actions despite the active objections of the detainee. This significant change – which is the foundation of the bill – contradicts and is in opposition to the standards of medical ethics accepted in Israel and by the entire world, and could almost certainly place doctors in the near-future in difficult and dangerous dilemmas.

"Parenteral (intravenous) nutrition administered to a patient capable of judgement against his will isn't ethical and requires humiliating means bordering on torture," Eidelman stated.   

The IMA chairman added that the bill was unrealistic and ineffective. “It creates an illusion that through [the law] it will be possible to prevent damage to the health of hunger strikers – and this is not true,” he wrote.

He previously said that if the bill passes, he will call on doctors to refuse to participate in the force-feeding.

“If this proposal enters the legislation, it will be a dark milestone and significantly damage human rights,” MK Basel Ghattas (Joint Arab List) said on Sunday. “It is an inherently inhuman act. Instead of dealing with the matter itself, they are trying to break the hunger strike of the detainees in an inhuman way.”

Meretz chairwoman MK Zehava Galon called the proposed law immoral and unethical. Such laws are not passed in a civilized country, she noted, adding that it was not intended for the benefit of the detainees, but to solve a political and image problem for the government. Galon also said a hunger strike was a legitimate tool of protest in any democracy.

Physicians for Human Rights also condemned the government for “a shameful bill that has received condemnations from the medical community in Israel and the world, and which will legally enable torture and serious violations of medical ethics and international covenants. Instead of force feeding them, Israel must deal with the demands of the hunger strikers – through ending arbitrary administrative detention. We call on the medical community to renew its struggle against the proposed law and for Knesset members to act in every way to prevent this proposed law, with all its harsh consequences.”

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) said force-feeding is forbidden because of its damage to the human rights of those who object to the treatment, as well as the right to autonomy over one’s own body. “Every decision on providing medical treatment, including feeding or nourishing a person, must be made by an independent medical team and in accordance with the Patient’s Rights Law, which forbids providing medical treatment to a person without their willful and knowing agreement. In the case of detainees, a hunger strike is a legitimate tool of protest and therefore the need for autonomy and nonintervention takes precedence.”

Jack Khoury and Yaniv Kubovich contributed to this report.