Leading Israeli Experts: Hunger-striking Prisoners Should Be Force-fed

Following Palestinian's 65-day hunger strike, a dozen top experts in medicine, science and ethics oppose Israel Medical Association's position, saying sanctity of life trumps human dignity in Israel.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Mohammed Allaan's mother, Mazuza Allaan, at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon.
Mohammed Allaan's mother, Mazuza Allaan, at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

A group of leading professionals in the fields of medicine, science and ethics, from various academic institutions, published a position paper on Sunday differing with the opinion of the Israel Medical Association regarding treatment of hunger strikers. They believe that such patients should be fed even against their will.

The 12 signatories include the president of Ben-Gurion University, Prof. Rivka Carmi; the director of the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, Prof. Joanathan Halevy; former Israel Prize laureate and chair of the National Bioethics Council, Prof. Michel Revel of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot; and Israel Prize-winning philosopher Prof. Asa Kasher of Tel Aviv University.

The position paper was prepared because not all IMA members agreed with the organization’s viewpoint, according to Prof. Shimon Glick, dean of the BGU Medical School for International Health.

The paper’s signatories maintain that there should be no discrimination among patients based on age, nationality or political ideology, or due to the patients’ behavior and opinions. Treatment must be administered even to terrorists or attempted suicides. Politically motivated hunger strikers should not be an exception, according to medical ethics.

Glick claims that the opinion is also based on two court rulings, and accords with Israeli culture, in which the sanctity of life takes precedent over human dignity. According to the position paper, when attempts to convince a patient to end a hunger strike fail and there is a real danger to his life, the Patient’s Rights Law applies. Under supervision of the committee, the doctors will decide on the optimal treatment for the hunger striker, including forced feeding. Any medical treatment, including professional feeding, is not considered torture even if it’s against the patient’s will, on condition that it is meant to be lifesaving. “The purpose of forced feeding is to save a person’s life and not to cause him pain,” according to the paper. “Moreover, continuing the hunger strike is a greater torture than treatment, certainly if treatment is administered only after loss of consciousness, when much more aggressive means are necessary.” Glick notes that Palestinian prisoner Mohammed Allaan was fed after losing consciousness, thereby in any case violating his autonomic will.

The main solution in most cases is to try to find compromises in negotiations with the prisoner himself,” says signatory Prof. Michael Gross, head of the Department of International Relations at the University of Haifa. “They’re like others who go on strike and understand that sometimes can only achieve more moderate demands. But sometimes because of security consequences in case the prisoner is released, or medical consequences if they don’t treat him, there is ethical justification for forced feeding. Still, this shouldn’t be done using methods like those used by the Americans at Guatanamo.”

According to the paper, a doctor who believes that there is an ethical problem with forced treatment should refrain from treating the patient, but only after ascertaining that another doctor will take on the case. On the other hand, a doctor who believes that preserving life is more important than autonomy should administer the necessary treatment to save the life of a hunger striker even against his will, and should not just stand by.

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