Israeli Doctors Who Force-feed Palestinian Prisoners Risk Trial Abroad

Israel Medical Association says it could not protect member physicians outside country; Knesset bill would allow jails to ask court for permission to force-feed hunger-striking prisoner whose life is in danger.

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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Palestinians protesters hold portraits of Samer Issawi, a Palestinian prisoner who has been on hunger strike for more than 200 days, outside the Red Cross offices in Jerusalem on February 14, 2013.
Palestinians protesters hold portraits of Samer Issawi, a Palestinian prisoner who has been on hunger strike for more than 200 days, outside the Red Cross offices in Jerusalem on February 14, 2013.Credit: AFP
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

Doctors who force-feed hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners, even if protected by Israeli law, could be successfully prosecuted abroad, the Israel Medical Association chairman told Haaretz on Wednesday.

“Doctors who do that are liable to be denounced by the global medical community, and it will be hard to defend them if they are prosecuted,” said Dr. Leonid Edelman.

There are currently dozens of hunger-striking administrative detainees in eight of Israel’s hospitals. The prisoners have been deemed security threats and held without trial for lengthy periods of time. They are demanding to either be charged and tried, or released.

Force-feeding is considered torture and forbidden by the Israel Medical Association’s code of ethics and various international resolutions, including the World Medical Assembly’s Tokyo Declaration — Guidelines for Physicians Concerning Torture (1975) and its Malta Declaration on Hunger Strikers (1991). A physician who force-feeds a prisoner thus risks being prosecuted abroad, even if a law allowing force-feeding of prisoners passes in Israel, the association says.

On Monday, the Knesset approved the first reading of a bill authorizing the Israel Prison Service to petition a district court for permission to force-feed a hunger-striking prisoner whose life is in danger.

At a recent conference, the Israel Medical Association, senior physicians, heads of scientific unions, representatives of the Health Ministry, representatives of the Red Cross and the Prison Service chief medical officer all reiterated their position against force-feeding.

“Medical ethics trump the law,” said Edelman. “Even if they pass a law obligating us to do this, doctors must refuse. In dark regimes, doctors followed laws that contravened ethics and that led to the worst things in history."

Edelman, who held an 11-day hunger strike during the 2011 doctors’ struggle for better terms, said force-feeding is “terrible torture.” He said there are two ways to force-feed — through a nasal or oral feeding tube, or intravenously. Both methods are very difficult to impose on patients who resist, he said, and in both cases, patients have to be restrained so they are not injured. “Sometimes we have to do this to patients with impaired judgment, and we know how much force needs to be used. It's forbidden to do this to an aware patient against his will — it’s true torture,” he said.

Edelman said that aside from the moral and ethical questions, force-feeding does not always save lives and can even hasten death in some cases. “This type of nutrition doesn’t always restore the body’s balance immediately or even in the short term. A prisoner who’s close to death is liable to die even if we start to feed him.”

He said that the government must take into account that force-feeding might spark as great an international outcry as the death of a hunger striker. “The Red Cross has explained to the Palestinians that Israeli doctors are following all the rules, and that they cannot force feed because of the ethical constraints.” He added that the Red Cross representatives told him that countries like Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia tried to pass force-feeding laws, “but those governments dropped it because the doctors objected.”

Asked when the first hunger striker might die if the situation does not change, Edelman could not say. “This is a type of hunger strike that the medical community doesn’t know enough about. The prisoners are drinking, some are taking vitamins, some are even getting sugar from time to time. This isn’t as familiar from the literature as is total avoidance of food and drink. They don’t want to die,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Israel Medical Association sent a letter to all the internal medicine departments and emergency rooms where the hunger strikers are being treated to remind them of the ban on force-feeding. Starting Sunday, the association will open a hot line for doctors treating such prisoners.

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