Force-feeding Debate Misses Point on Israel’s True Transgression

It’s easy to ponder forcing a feeding tube up a Palestinian prisoner’s nose when the fact he’s an administrative detainee doesn’t raise a thought.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Palestinian hunger striker Samer Issawi's case reached the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court in 2012.
Palestinian hunger striker Samer Issawi's case reached the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court in 2012. Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It’s impossible not to well up with national pride amid the humanism that’s threatening to flood the country. If you didn’t speak up this week about the force-feeding of Palestinian prisoners you were banished from the community. If you simply asked a question in order to understand the law, you were stared at as if you had come down from Mars.

Yes to feeding or no to feeding; there’s no middle ground. This is a watershed, the ultimate one, that totally distinguishes between the enlightened and the forces of darkness, between left and right, between the supporters of peace and the supporters of annexation.

It’s a battle that will characterize the country’s identity — not whether it’s Jewish and democratic, but whether it force-feeds or doesn’t. Is it “humane in a proportionate way”? Or maybe it’s a barbaric nation that sees torturing prisoners as a legitimate tool.

Ethics experts are enlisting and being enlisted to explain how much this is a humane or inhumane step. Two went even further. Prof. Yechiel Michael Bar-Ilan from Tel Aviv University and Prof. Michael Gross from the University of Haifa explained in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition that “a hunger strike to death’s door is a violent act.” No less.

And against a violent struggle we of course know what to do. Maybe it’s best to define hunger strikes as terror; this would finally let us put hunger strikers on trial for terrorism. In doing so, we could turn them from administrative detainees without the benefit of a trial into prisoners who receive due process.

It’s also possible to be surprised at the position of the Israel Medical Association, which compares forced-feeding to torture. “Israeli doctors will not cooperate with the law,” warned Dr. Leonid Eidelman, the head of the IMA. “This proposal is immoral, unprofessional and impractical.”

And what if it were “only” immoral, would he have cooperated? Remember the pure ethics in the 2008 release of prisoner Omar Abu Jariban from Sheba Medical Center while he was hooked up to a loose catheter. A few hours after his release, he was dumped near an intersection, where he died. The police officers involved were investigated and punished — but what about the doctors who released him?

And what about the shocking report by Doctors Without Borders that describes in detail the cooperation between doctors and the Shin Bet security service; for example, the granting of permission to continue with interrogations and torture despite the serious condition of the person being interrogated? Of course, there has been no public discussion of these “ethics” and no profound declarations by the experts.

So why should force-feeding be any different? Well, because the force-feeding of Palestinian prisoners has nothing to do with humane treatment or ethics. Or as MK Miri Regev (Likud) said in her characteristic honesty: “They can die in their homes if they want.”

Force-feeding is not an act to save detainees whose lives are in danger. It’s a political bulletproof vest that wards off the ethical challenge of administrative detention — the justification for the hunger strike. It’s much easier to ponder the tragic significance of forcing a feeding tube up a prisoner’s nose, when the very fact that he’s administrative detainee doesn’t raise a thought.

Force-feeding is meant to draw a line of responsibility. What happens in the territories belongs in the territories. Here we will be humane. We won’t let the occupation’s brutality spread to us. We will argue to the death how and whether it’s appropriate to save a hunger striker; after all, we’re human. But we won’t argue about the reason for the hunger strike and the detention. That belongs to the Shin Bet.

But deflecting the debate from administrative detention, torture and prison conditions provides a thousand witnesses that the occupation’s values are dictating the country’s identity. With their help we determine what is ethical, what is moral and what are rights. We determine what is “proportionate” torture and what is plain old ordinary torture. That’s how the Palestinians have become Israel’s real legislators.

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