From Gandhi to Guantanamo: Israel Not Alone in Dealing With Hunger Strikes and Force Feeding

Israel is far from the first modern government that has struggled with the legal and moral difficulties of dealing with this form of protest.

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Activists participate in a mock force feeding while protesting outside the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., July 30, 2013 .
Activists participate in a mock force feeding while protesting outside the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., July 30, 2013 .Credit: AFP
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Imagine the absurdity of a prisoner hunger strike in a brutal and ruthless dictatorship. 

It would be pointless. Prisoners being held by a repressive regime who starved themselves wouldn’t accomplish much other than saving their captors the trouble of executing them. Hunger strikes are a form of political protest; without a modicum of free expression and the ability to get the stories out, the hunger striker would die in vein and anonymity. And if such a government wanted to keep a hunger-striking prisoner alive for propaganda purposes, it wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to force feed them, despite the fact that it has been declared a form of torture by the World Medical Association.

That’s why we only hear about hunger strikes making an impact in countries that value their status as civilized and enlightened nations, which care about their image being hurt by those denying themselves sustenance dying in captivity. In the case of the current ongoing crisis in Israel surrounding Palestinian hunger striker Mohammad Allaan, Israel’s government fears the eruption of unrest that would be triggered if he dies, as it wrestles with the problems involved with feeding him by force. 

Israel is far from the first modern government that has struggled with the legal and moral difficulties of dealing with this form of protest. The government of Great Britain has over the years been the target of the most famous hunger strikes. 

The master of successful targeted hunger striking was, of course, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s hunger strikes while fighting British rule over India succeeded tremendously - someone so prominent whose life was in danger put a tremendous amount of pressure on the British. Gandhi’s 17 hunger strikes, each specifically targeted to accomplish different goals, were all relatively short, ranging from one day to 21 days. 

The practice of protest fasting has deep roots in Indian culture, and Gandhi wasn’t the only hunger striker during the struggle for Indian independence. There were several imprisoned Indian hunger strikers including one man who died as a martyr in prison after 63 days of refusing sustenance in 1929 in protest of India’s treatment at the hands of the British. (Modern India is the home of the world’s longest known hunger striker - a woman who refused to eat and was force fed for 14 years protesting an unjust law in her country.) 

During Gandhi’s era, in the beginning of the 20th century, two other groups targeted the British government with hunger strikes while in prison were suffragettes fighting for women’s voting rights and Irish Republicans. The force feeding of suffragettes engendered a tremendous amount of publicity and sympathy when women were killed or injured by the practice, forcing the British to pass a law nicknamed the “Cat and Mouse Act” in which hunger strikers were released from prison when they became sick - and then put back in prison when they were healthy again. 

The British showed less mercy to the Irish in prison who were fighting for independence and several of them died in prison with or without being force fed. In the 1970’s and 80’s. After 27-year-old IRA member Bobby Sands died during his 1981 hunger strike along with nine others who starved themselves with him, they were feted as heroes by many. 100,000 people attended Sands funeral, IRA recruitment soared and the path began to be paved to acceptance of Sinn Féin as a legitimate political party.

Hunger strikes have also taken place in U.S. prisons - usually to protest incarceration conditions - but America’s biggest headache in this matter is clearly Guantanamo Bay detainee camp in Cuba, where hunger strikes have taken place non-stop. The practice peaked in 2013 with half of the inmates participating in six months of hunger strikes sparked by prison staff searching prisoner’s Korans for contraband but expanding into a more general protest against President Obama’s reneging on his promise to close the facility. At one point, 41 Guantanamo prisoners were all being force fed. When it ended, the 2013 hunger strikes, the New York Times concluded, had been successful as they had “refocused global attention on the prison, and pushed the Obama administration to revive the effort to shutter it.” 

Today, at Guantanamo, public attention is focused on Yemini Tariq Ba Odah, who, according to a recent article in Rolling Stone, hasn’t eaten voluntarily in more than eight years - since February of 2007. “As a result, he is force fed, usually in the morning and again in the evening. Guards remove Ba Odah from his cell, several at a time in protective gear, strap him to a restraint chair, and medical staff force a liquid supplement through his nose and into his stomach,” according to the Rolling Stone report. 

Last week, the Obama administration opposed a legal request to free Ba Odah on health grounds, but kept the reasons for its objection to his release under wraps. Ba Odeh had been captured by the Pakistani Army along the Afghan border and was accused of receiving weapons training in order to fight with the Taliban and has been detained at Guantanamo since 2002. 

Amnesty International has sharply criticized the move. "Tariq Ba Odah may die at Guantanamo without ever having been charged with a crime. If that happens, it will be because the White House was unwilling to step up and make good on President Obama’s pledges to close Guantanamo. This case is a bellwether for what's to come and a blow to President Obama’s legacy,” said Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA's Security and Human Rights Program in an August 14 statement that bears more than a passing resemblance to the arguments mounted against Israel for its continued detention of Allaan. 

"Ba Odah’s reported medical condition is deeply concerning. Eight years into a hunger strike and while reportedly being force fed, he reportedly weighs less than 75 pounds. Doctors say his weight indicates a life-threatening condition.

"The Pentagon reportedly fears that if Ba Odah is released, other detainees will go on hunger strike. That’s an outrageous reason for depriving anyone of their liberty and it has no basis in international law. The administration must charge Ba Odah or release him.”

"President Obama has long said that his hands are tied by Congress on Guantanamo. But Ba Odah's release was in his power to ensure. President Obama has effectively decided to continue detaining a desperately ill man that the government has never publicly indicated any intention of charging with a crime."

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