RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Israeli government wants to force-feed Palestinian prisoners who go on hunger strikes, an extreme medical procedure that Israeli doctors say they will refuse to perform because it is unethical and inhumane.
There have been thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons who have protested conditions and sought release by going on hunger strikes. Some merely wanted Coca-Cola; others fought for greater Palestinian rights. One of the best known is Khader Adnan, who finished his 54th day of forgoing food and vitamins on Sunday. His previous strike lasted 66 days.
Adnan is protesting the Israeli system of “administrative detention,” whereby Palestinians face secretive military tribunals and may be jailed for months and even years without facing formal charges or a trial. Often the detainees do not even know the specific charges. Administrative detention is intended to prevent a detainee from committing a future offense.
This was the fourth hunger strike launched by Adnan, whom Israelis have named as a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, a group they consider a terror organization. On Monday morning, Adnan’s attorney said Israel agreed to release his client from administrative detention in two weeks and that Adnan, who is hospitalized and cared for by Israeli doctors, will now begin to eat. The doctors did not force feed him.
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said in an interview that legislation to allow force-feeding, which was approved by Israel’s cabinet earlier this month, is needed to save lives and protect Israeli security.
“In the same sense that when a prisoner tries to commit suicide, it is the duty of a prison guard to stop him from tying a noose around his neck, it is also our duty to feed and save those who are killing themselves on a hunger strike,” she said.
Equally important, Shaked said, “we can’t be held ransom to these kind of tactics.”
Israelis fear an eruption of violence if a popular Palestinian prisoner, idolized in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were to die from hunger.
Shaked pointed to several other countries, including the United States and Australia, which have force-fed hunger-striking prisoners. The U.S. military did so at its prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, a sponsor of the legislation, told parliament that Palestinian security prisoners “are interested in turning a hunger strike into a new type of suicide terrorist attack through which they will threaten the state of Israel.”
“We will not allow anyone to threaten us, and we will not allow prisoners to die in our prisons,” Erdan said in parliament.
The force-feeding would be ordered by a court only if a physician believes that without it, in the language of the legislation, “there is a real possibility that within a short time the prisoner is at risk of death or irreversible disability.”
Qadura Fares, president of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society in Ramallah, which represents detainees and their families, said, “I am surprised the Israelis are being so stupid.”
Fares said hunger strikes are one of the last tools of resistance that Palestinian security prisoners have. Trying to take away this form of protest — to starve oneself to achieve a political aim — will induce many more prisoners to go on hunger strikes simply to make the Israelis force-feed them, Fares said. The result, he added, will be embarrassment for Israel before the international community.
“In the old days, the Israelis were smarter, not so radical, more practical,” Fares said. “They would coax hunger strikers to have a bit of food, or take vitamins, or drink a bit of fluid that was a kind of nutritional shake.”
In this way, a compromise could be reached, said Fares, who led a hunger strike in 1992 while a prisoner.
Fares warned the Israelis: “Imagine 6,000 Palestinian prisoners on hunger strikes. There will not be enough doctors in Israel to force tubes down their throats.”
Hamad Rabia, 31, works in a bakery in the Kalandia refugee camp in Ramallah. He went on a hunger strike in 2007 for six days. “Of course, I had a little water,” he said. “You would die without water.” He was striking because the prisoners wanted longer visits with their families.
What would happen if the Israelis forced food down the prisoner’s throats? “They will all go on hunger strikes,” he said.
Leonid Edelman, head of the Israeli Medical Association, whose membership includes 90 percent of doctors in the country, said his group “will do everything we can to fight this proposal.”
Edelman said declarations by the World Medical Association were clear that physicians should not force-feed prisoners. The WMA Malta Declaration says: “Forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable. Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment.”
Edelman said the new legislation makes no sense. He said Israeli doctors generally have good relations with the Palestinian prisoners they treat — and that the doctors can advise patients what damage their hunger strikes are doing to their bodies and what danger they are in.
Edelman said it is “absolutely forbidden” for an Israeli doctor to stick a feeding tube down a mentally competent patient’s throat who refuses the treatment. He said Israeli doctors could be prosecuted abroad for such a practice.
He said that there have been more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners on hunger strikes in the past two years and that none died. “The point is they don’t want to die,” Edelman said. The prisoners are protesting, not committing suicide.
Avinoam Reches, a former chairman of the Israeli Medical Association’s Ethics Bureau, said that the whole idea for anesthetizing and feeding unwilling patients is “insane” and that Israel has outlawed the force-feeding of geese (to produce liver pâté) as cruelty to animals, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Three Palestinians died during hunger strikes in 1980 after they were forcibly fed, probably because food was delivered to their lungs and not their stomachs, said Amany Dayif, head of the prisoners and detainees department of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.
Dayif said the proposed law is not about saving lives but politics. She said a hunger-striking patient who became unconscious and was in danger of dying could be treated.
Sufian Taha in Ramallah and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.