Almost six weeks into a large-scale hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, the Knesset on Monday passed the first reading of a bill that would permit — with a judge’s approval — the force-feeding of prisoners whose lives are in danger.
Despite the passage of the bill, politicians from both sides of the aisle expressed outrage that the state was considering using a practice that is widely frowned upon in the medical and human rights communities both domestically and internationally.
“This is a cruel and dangerous law that gives a stamp of approval to the torture of administrative detainees who have not even stood trial,” Meretz MK Michal Rozin said. “The goal of force-feeding [of prisoners] is punishment and deterrence, not concern for their health.”
“Hunger strikes are a legitimate form of protest, and we cannot also take from them the right to control their own bodies,” she added. “Instead of examining the righteousness of administrative detention they choose an act that is political, inhumane and degrading.”
Likud MK Moshe Feiglin urged his fellow MKs to reject the law “with disgust.”
“What is this idea to force-feed [prisoners]?” he asked. “If people want to die, then let them die, this isn’t our problem. In the same week that the ministerial committees decides to [permit euthanasia], we are going to prohibit criminals from doing the same thing?… I urge you to reject this bill with contempt.”
Arab MKs derided the bill as undemocratic, unjust and inhumane.
At least 65 of the 290 Palestinian detainees participating in the hunger strike have been hospitalized since the strike began on April 24. Many are administrative detainees, held for months or years without charges.
There have been near-daily Palestinian demonstrations backing the prisoners, including one in the West Bank on Wednesday during which dozens of university students threw stones at Israeli soldiers who responded with tear gas.
Faced with the second large-scale Palestinian hunger strike in two years, Israel’s government is promoting a bill that would allow a judge to sanction force-feeding if an inmate’s life is perceived to be in danger, arguing that the prisoners’ health as well as the potential political and public safety ramifications of a prisoner dying outweigh the ethical issues.
Speaking on behalf of the government, Agricultural Minister Yair Shamir recalled that his father, former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, almost died when he was imprisoned in Eritrea and conducted a hunger strike. Shamir said that he is grateful to the rabbi who saved his life by convincing him to eat.
“By Jewish law, if a person wants to kill himself you must stop him. I am sure that Muslim law also doesn’t allow a person to commit suicide,” Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev said. “If somebody thinks that the hunger strikes are because of the stress of prison life — this is a lie, Israeli prisons are spas compared to prisons in Arab countries.”
A judge must not only consider the prisoner’s wishes, but also possible damage to the state, said Yoel Hadar, a legal adviser in the Public Security Ministry, which initiated the bill.
A death in custody could trigger riots in prison, in the Palestinian territories or elsewhere, he said. “We want the judge to take into consideration what will happen to the country if something happens,” Hadar said.
However, there has also been mounting opposition from Israel’s medical establishment, with the Israel Medical Association urging physicians not to cooperate and the National Council of Bioethics saying it opposes the bill.
At the international level, both the UN secretary general and UNHCR have expressed concern over the bill. The World Medical Association, an umbrella group for national associations, has said in the past that “forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable.”
Despite such criticism, Netanyahu reportedly told his cabinet last week he’ll make sure to find physicians who will participate in force-feeding. Netanyahu noted that force-feeding is carried out at the US-run Guantanamo Bay detention camp for suspected militants, according to Haaretz.
AP and AFP contributed to this report.