Israeli Medical Ethics Expert: Hunger Striking Prisoners Should Be Force-fed

Prof. Gil Siegal: 'The hunger striker waves the banner of autonomy, but realizing this right conflicts with realizing the sanctity of life.'


Doctors should save the lives of hunger-striking prisoners even against their will, an expert in medical ethics said on Monday, in response to the Israel Medical Association’s opposition to letting doctors force-feed Palestinian prisoner Mohammed Allaan, who has been on a hunger strike for 54 days.

“I’m embarrassed by a doctor who’d be willing to see a person die in the name of a political protest,” said Prof. Gil Siegal, a leading Israeli expert in medical ethics. He is a member of the National Bioethics Council, head of the Center for Health Law and Bioethics at Ono Academic College, a visiting law professor at the University of Virginia and an ear, nose and throat surgeon.

Doctors, he said, should already have intervened in Allaan’s hunger strike to give him life-saving treatment, despite his opposition. The IMA says force-feeding constitutes torture and treating a patient against his will violates medical ethics. Most Israeli doctors appear to share this view.

But Siegal disagrees. In an article posted recently on the DoctorsOnly website that has generated shock waves in the medical community, he said the IMA’s position is an import from other countries that has nothing to do with Israel’s character and needs.

“’Force-feeding’ is the wrong term,” he wrote in that article. “The proper term is ‘saving lives.’”

Allaan was transferred on Monday from Be’er Sheva’s Soroka Medical Center to Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center. Because he is not thought to be in mortal danger, the doctors could not force him to accept food or medical treatment.

“Israeli ethics has the right to autonomy,” Siegal explained in a conversation with Haaretz. “We aren’t a colony of the U.S. or a European colony. [Israeli ethics] is a cultural, societal, legal and ethical creation whose voice is unique and clear.”

Worldwide, Siegal said, medical ethics includes four main principles: the patient’s autonomy, refraining from harming the patient, trying to help the patient and equality between patients.

“This is the Anglo-American ethic, but it lacks two additional principles,” he continued. “The first is the sanctity of life, and the second is mutual responsibility and solidarity.”

“The hunger striker waves the banner of autonomy, but realizing this right conflicts with realizing the sanctity of life,” Siegal said. “Israeli law states explicitly that the sanctity of life take precedence in extreme cases. Anyone who rejects this is abolishing a binding Israeli creation and essentially bowing his head to foreign scholars of medical ethics instead of Israeli ones.”

“There are 200 years of American medical ethics that my colleagues are proud to quote,” Siegal added. “But in that same country, people die in the streets because they have no medical insurance. In Israel, no such things happen or will ever happen, because solidarity provides vital evidence for saving people.”