Israel's cabinet has given the green light to a controversial bill that would permit the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike if their lives are in danger — despite fierce opposition from human rights groups and the country's medical association.
The draft law will still need to pass two further readings in parliament but Israel's Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, a leading proponent of the bill, said that cabinet's approval on Sunday had sent a clear message that Israel would "not blink in the face of any threat."
Prisoners — mainly Palestinians — held under administrative detention orders in Israeli jails often refuse food as a means of protest.
Administrative detention orders permit suspects to be held for six months without trial but can be renewed indefinitely, meaning that some detainees are held for years without ever being charged or knowing the evidence against them.
Writing on his Facebook page, Erdan described hunger striking by prisoners as tantamount to a "type of suicide attack" and a "threat" to security. "Alongside attempts to boycott and delegitimize Israel, hunger strikes of terrorists in prisons have become a means to threaten Israel," he wrote.
The "Law to Prevent Harm Caused by Hunger Strikes" bill was initially tabled in July last year during the height of a protest that saw 80 prisoners hospitalized after refusing food, but was put on hold by the government after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by Palestinian militants and war broke out in Gaza.
The Israel Medical Association, which opposed the bill from the offset, this week reiterated its position in a letter to Erdan stating that it deemed force-feeding as "humiliating" and "bordering on torture."
Speaking to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, IMA chairperson Dr. Leonid Eidelman said that if the law passed he would "call on doctors to ignore it."
In response to the comments, Israel's deputy health Yaacov Litzman said Eidelman had "crossed a red line."
"It's a disgrace that a person in a respected public position with great influence over the health system can call for the breaking of the law," he said.
On Tuesday, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said doctors would not be obligated to force-feed if they did not want to, but the state would find doctors who would do it. "When a prisoner tries to starve himself to death, there is not much difference between this and a situation in which a prisoner tries to hang himself," she said. "In such cases the guard has to go into his cell and save his life."
The World Medical Association has listed force-feeding as an unethical practice for several decades, saying it is "never justified," and the United Nations says it constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The US has used the practice in Guantanamo Bay since 2002, however.
"It's against all international law and good practices to prevent hunger strikes which are a legitimate form of protest," Sahar Francis, director of Ramallah-based NGO Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association told VICE News. "They can say this is about saving lives but in practice it's about stopping prisoners protesting against their treatment."
According to the NGO around 200 Palestinians are currently held on such orders although the number fluctuates daily due to new arrests and releases.
Currently only one Palestinian prisoner, Khader Adnan, is on hunger strike, but Israeli authorities say they have information that a mass protest is being planned by detainees to coincide with the end of Ramadan.
Adnan, now more than 40 days into his protest, has been in jail since last July with no charges brought against him. He became a figurehead of the Palestinian prisoners' hunger strike movement during a previous stint in administrative detention in 2011, when he went 66 days without food before being released. Israel has accused Adnan of being a "dangerous terrorist belonging to Islamic Jihad."
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