World Medical Association slams bill to force-feed prisoners

Organization urges Netanyahu to reconsider controversial measure aimed at hunger-striking inmates

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo of a prisoner in leg cuffs (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a prisoner in leg cuffs (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The World Medical Association urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reconsider presenting to the Knesset plenum a controversial bill that would allow Israel to force-feed prisoners on hunger strike. The bill was passed by the Knesset’s Interior Committee Tuesday and was finalized for vote in a speedy procedure, when most of the committee members were absent from the discussions.

The WMA asserted that force-feeding prisoners constitutes an act of violence completely contrary to the principle of individual autonomy. The organization added that the use of such a treatment was degrading, inhumane, and may even amount to torture.

WMA leaders went on to emphasize the importance of maintaining trust between doctor and patient, even under the circumstances of a hunger strike. They said Israeli doctors were capable of establishing such trust, as long as the Israeli government refrained from overstepping their authority by interfering with prisoners’ medical procedures.

The proposed legislation would allow a district court president or vice president to permit the forced medical treatment of a prisoner, if it is clear that without treatment the prisoner would be at medical risk.

Methods of treatment could include intravenous infusion or insertion of a gastric feeding tube. The final version of the bill also includes a clause under which a doctor who refuses to force-feed an inmate would be required by law to transfer the prisoner to a physician willing to perform the procedure.

The parliamentary debate over the bill, which will be presented for vote at the Knesset plenum next week, comes in the midst of a Palestinian prisoner hunger strike that began on April 24.

Seven weeks in, at least 65 of 290 participating detainees have been hospitalized. The prisoners are striking in protest at Israel’s use of administrative detention, which allows security forces to hold without charge detainees for indefinitely renewable six-month periods, in a procedure dating back to the British Mandate.

Some 5,000 Palestinians are being held in Israeli jails, with nearly 200 in administrative detention.

Politicians and public figures have expressed outrage at the proposed piece of legislation, as the practice of force-feeding is widely frowned upon in the medical and human rights communities both domestically and internationally.

As long as a prisoner is “capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment,” the World Medical Association’s 1975 Declaration of Tokyo forbids the use of force-feeding.

“During the discussions there was clear unanimity among all those who are not committed to the government that this bill stands contrary to international law, the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, laws on prisoner rights, and medical as well as legal ethics,” Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg said Tuesday.

Similarly, Israel Medical Association chairman Dr. Leonid Edelman asserted that Israeli doctors would never agree to such court-mandated orders. The association has repeatedly voiced its opposition to the bill, stating that the law in its current form violates medical ethics codes and international treaties. Israel’s National Council of Bioethics has also weighed in, saying it opposes the proposed measure as well.

On Tuesday, the government decided to worsen the conditions for about a thousand Hamas members serving time in Israel prisons, in a bid to increase pressure on the terror group to release three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped in the West Bank last Thursday.

The manhunt for Eyal Yifrach, 19, Naftali Frankel, 16, and Gil-ad Shaar, 16 — as well their abductors — entered a seventh day Thursday and Jerusalem has been seeking additional measures to clamp down on Hamas, both military and diplomatically.

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