Knesset passes controversial ‘force-feeding’ bill for prisoners
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Knesset passes controversial ‘force-feeding’ bill for prisoners

Doctors say they won’t comply after measure to break hunger strikes approved in raucous all-night session; so-called ‘Norwegian Law’ also okayed

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Palestinian prisoner Samer al-Issawi, who held a hunger strike for several months, flashes the 'V' for victory sign as he celebrates his release from an Israeli jail in the Arab Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, on December 23, 2013. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)
Palestinian prisoner Samer al-Issawi, who held a hunger strike for several months, flashes the 'V' for victory sign as he celebrates his release from an Israeli jail in the Arab Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, on December 23, 2013. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)

Knesset lawmakers okayed a controversial measure bill allowing Israel to begin force-feeding hunger-striking prisoners, after a stormy all-night session rife with strident sniping and a raucous outburst.

Prisoners in Israel, specifically those incarcerated for national security violations, in the past have gone on hunger strikes in a bid to change or improve their conditions, sometimes igniting widespread protests on the Palestinian street.

The force-feeding measure passed 46 to 40.

In the last Knesset, the proposed force-feeding bill passed a first reading in January but did not progress to the required second and third readings.

The bill was re-introduced by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan last month.

“I will promote the bill and not let [prisoners] harm the security of the state or succumb to any threats,” Erdan told Channel 2 news. “This is also a humane issue. Just as I expect a prison guard who sees a prisoner trying to hurt himself to prevent it — we must also prevent a risk of death by hunger-striking.”

Other coalition MKs also came out in favor of the measure.

“This bill will strike a proper balance between the interests of the state to protect the life of a prisoner and his rights and sovereignty over his body,” Likud MK David Amsallem said.

Minister of Public Security, Gilad Erdan, May 18, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister of Public Security, Gilad Erdan, May 18, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The measure has been derided by human rights groups and medical organizations. The head of the Israel Medical Association, Dr. Leonid Eidelman, said after the bill’s passage that Israeli doctors would not comply.

“Despite the law being passed, we will not feed prisoners by force,” he told Channel 2.

The most virulent opposition to the bill came from Joint List lawmakers. MK Dov Khenin called the law “brutal and dangerous.”

“They don’t want to protect the lives of prisoners,” he argued. “In the State of Israel no prisoner has ever died from a hunger strike; five prisoners, however, have died that were force-fed. This is a killer law and it allows for things to be done to prisoners that are forbidden according to international norms.”

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi called for doctors to refuse to allow force feeding. Under the measure a doctor must sign off on the force feeding before it can go ahead.

“A hunger strike is a nonviolent tool for a person to use in order to achieve a political or legal objective with his body,” he said. “The system wants to anesthetize the prisoners in order to feed them. This is an abuse of the weakness a man has while he is in prison.”

MK Ahmad Tibi participates in a panel discussion at the Israel Conference on Democracy, in Tel Aviv on February 17, 2015. (Amir Levy/Flash90)
MK Ahmad Tibi participates in a panel discussion at the Israel Conference on Democracy, in Tel Aviv on February 17, 2015. (Amir Levy/Flash90)

During Tibi’s speech, however, Likud MK Oren Hazan interrupted him, shouting that “Tibi is using his position as a member of Knesset to support and encourage terrorism against the state.”

After being told to stop three times, Hazan was ejected from the plenum.

According to the new law, in the case of a hunger strike, a representative from the prison service, with the approval of the attorney general, can request permission from the district court to give medical assistance to a prisoner.

In order to receive such permission, they must prove that, according to a doctor, the health of the prisoner will be in serious danger within a short period of time because of the hunger strike.

If the district court gives the prison service permission, the prison can then give the minimal amount of medical treatment necessary to sustain the life of the prisoner and prevent irreversible damage to their health — even if the prisoner refuses.

Before the treatment can be given, the law requires, every effort must be made to receive the permission of the prisoner.

The hunger-striking prisoner would then receive treatment in the presence of a doctor and will be carried out in such a way as to best preserve the prisoner’s dignity.

The Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel called the law “torture.”

“The goal of force-feeding is to break the spririt of a prisoner on a hunger strike,” the group said in a statement Thursday. “The State of Israel has numerous options to prevent hunger strikes, like stopping the practice of arrests without a trial and a reevaluation of conditions for Palestinian prisoners. Israel, however, chooses the criminal path, which brings about a flagrant violation of medical ethics and international law.”

A spokesman from the group told The Times of Israel they plan to file a petition against the law in the High Court once it goes into practice.

The ‘Norwegian Law’

The Knesset, which began its summer recess after the all-night session, also passed the so-called “Norwegian Law” early Thursday morning.

The approved bill will allow one minister from each coalition party to resign their Knesset seat — effectively granting government ministers’ parties an extra Knesset seat.

The bill, advanced by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), is intended to enable former Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, who placed ninth in the eight-seat party’s slate in the last party primary, to enter the Knesset in the coming term.

Shuli Moalem-Rafaeli of the Jewish Home party (Miriam Alster)
Shuli Moalem-Rafaeli of the Jewish Home party (Miriam Alster)

Opponents to the bill argued against the speed with which it was being put into law.

“The Norwegian Law is designed to do one thing — a separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches,” Meretz MK Ilan Gilon said during the plenum. “What are we doing here? With what audacity are we passing a law this quickly, who is it going to save?”

Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli called the law “a wheeling-and-dealing law courtesy of Netanyahu, and there is nothing farther from equality.”

She added, “This isn’t a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian law, but an ugly law — superficial and lacking seriousness.”

Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli speaks at the Knesset, February 27, 2013. (Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli speaks at the Knesset, February 27, 2013. (Flash90)

The bill passed in the Knesset’s Law, Constitution and Justice Committee Tuesday, but only after it was classified a “temporary order” — meaning it will only apply to the term of the current 20th Knesset.

The stipulation reflects criticism of the measure’s narrow purpose.

Jewish Home said in a statement last week that the law would “empower the coalition factions to strengthen their parliamentary activities in the Knesset, and will bring into the House active and worthy members.”

A broader “Norwegian Law” was proposed in past years to address what many believe to be a short-handed Knesset, with many parliamentary seats effectively inactive because their occupants serve as cabinet ministers.

Under current law, serving cabinet ministers are not allowed to serve as Knesset speaker or deputy speaker, to sit on committees or even to propose bills. Ministers are not required to be Knesset members, save for the prime minister.

By definition, this legislative manpower problem is felt most acutely by the ruling coalition. The current 61-seat coalition conducts its parliamentary work without the 20 lawmakers serving in cabinet posts and the seven in deputy ministerial positions. The 59-seat opposition suffers no such pressures.

Meanwhile, the 120-member strong Knesset is itself relatively small compared to the parliaments of similarly-sized democracies. Austria, with roughly Israel’s population at 8.6 million, has a parliament with two houses and 245 members. Switzerland’s similarly bicameral federal legislature has 246 members serving its 8.2 million citizens. And Sweden, home to 9.8 million Swedes, has 349 lawmakers in its single house.

But critics have complained that Shaked’s bill, in which only one minister may resign their Knesset post in each coalition faction, does not address that broader problem.

Last week, Zionist Union MK Mickey Rosenthal criticized the bill’s narrower purpose.

A previous proposed version of the bill “forbade double service in a comprehensive way for all ministers, deputy ministers and the prime minister, in order to allow members of Knesset to focus on their [parliamentary] work and not sprint between five committees.”

But Shaked’s bill, dubbed in the Knesset the “little Norwegian law,” has a “personal goal,” Rosenthal charged: enabling Moalem-Refaeli to enter the Knesset. “When United Torah Judaism complained that it won’t be able to benefit from this ‘bonus’ for Mr. Ya’akov Asher” — the party’s next in line — “they allowed a single deputy minister to resign [from the Knesset] as well.”

UTJ does not hold full ministerial posts, but only deputy positions.

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