Israel's Plan to Force-feed Hunger-striking Prisoners Up for Public Critique

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The Home Front Defense Ministry published on Sunday the memorandum of a law on “treatment for hunger strikers.” The memo represents a revision to an existing prison protocol, which allows for force feeding of hunger-striking prisoners.

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The bill picked up steam in response to the prolonged hunger strikes among security detainees in 2012. Some prisoners’ lives were in danger due to the prolonged hunger strikes to protest their arrests or administrative detention without trial or indictment. The hunger strikes of that year garnered a great deal of public and media attention, as well as negativity toward Israeli political leaders and prison officials.

The memorandum has been issued for public critique, having been jointly formulated by the Justice Ministry, the Health Ministry and the Israel Prison Service. It was also approved by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein last September.

If the bill becomes law, it would allow for medical treatment to be dispensed to prisoners against their will, subject to certain restrictions. For example, the decision to treat a patient against their will would have to be made by the local district court president or vice president, and not by a prison service official. The prisoner would have the right to representation in such a process, either a private attorney or a public defender. Also, the court would not be able to obligate that treatment be provided, but only to allow for such treatment to be administered. In addition, no doctor would be legally forced to administer treatment to a prisoner against their will, only doctors who agree to provide such treatment would be used.

The courts, according to the bill, could allow treatment to be administered only if the prisoner’s life is in danger, and if there has been sufficient effort to explain the ramifications of continued hunger strike to the prisoner in question. The court is required to take into account the condition of the prisoner and the effects treatment would have, as well as the responsibilities of the Israel Prison Service and considerations of national and public security.

The two methods for force feeding that would be approved are intravenous, in cases where the prisoner is unable to swallow, or the use of a feeding tube. According to the bill, in its decisions the court would also need to consider the intrusiveness of the suggested procedure, and how it would affect the prisoner’s honor.

“We initiated the bill, but the Justice Ministry met with the relevant parties and changed it dramatically. The Health Ministry was a full partner in that, too,” explains attorney Yoel Hadar, the Home Front Security Ministry’s legal adviser. “There are considerations that would definitely justify this bill becoming law. The Home Front Security Ministry does not want prisoners to die as a result of hunger strikes. We know that the Israeli Medical Association does not support this bill, but if all other alternatives have been exhausted and the situation remains that either the prisoners’ demands are met or they are administered nutritional treatment to prevent death, then I think this bill would definitely meet the standards of the Hippocratic Oath. Deaths must be prevented.”

The IMA, however, staunchly opposes the bill. “We met on the subject with the Justice Ministry and made our position clear, and it’s the same as the World Medical Association’s,” says IMA Chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman. “Force feeding must be forbidden, as it’s a form of torture and humiliation. We oppose it by all means.”

Over the next 21 days, the memorandum will be subject to public critique. The bill, after any necessary changes, is expected to go to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation during the next Knesset session.

Palestinian hunger striker Samer Issawi's case reached the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court in 2012. Credit: Reuters

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