On 16 February 2014, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I) and Adalah sent a letter to the Israeli Attorney General (AG) urging him to withdraw his support for a controversial bill permitting the “force-feeding” of prisoners, Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons, on hunger-strike. Members of PHR-Israel’s ethical committee – Dr. Mithal Nassar, Dr. Butheina Bir Mans, Dr. Noah Bar Haim, Dr. Zeev Weiner, and Dr. Kobi Arad – wrote to the Director General of the Ministry of Health also demanding that the ministry withdraw its support for the bill. They stressed that, “The bill is absolutely illegitimate, but the Ministry of Health’s role in drafting and supporting it is doubly dangerous since it fundamentally contradicts medical ethics and professional standards by encouraging employees in the health system to abuse the trust and interests of those under their care for the sake of a political interest.”
The human rights organizations argued that the proposed bill violates human rights and medical ethics and legalizes practices that constitute torture by allowing hunger-striking prisoners to be forcefully fed and given medical treatment. It also puts physicians and the medical profession in the service of political-security goals, and is in breach of the Israeli Patients’ Rights Law and international human rights law.
According to recent reports, the AG has given the green light to a bill that would allow hunger-striking prisoners to be force-fed. The bill – which was initiated by the Ministry of Public Security, the General Security Services (GSS or Shabak), and the Israel Prison Service (IPS) – authorizes the courts to permit a doctor to feed or treat a hunger-striking prisoner by force, against his or her will.
The aim of the bill appears clearly in its text and in statements made by its sponsors that leave no doubt that it was tabled specifically in order to break the morale and of hunger-striking Palestinian political prisoners, via the use of force by the state or its agents. It violates the hunger strikers’ right to personal autonomy, without their permission and in spite of their protests, and therefore allows practices that fundamentally contradict the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); Israel has ratified both of these human rights treaties and is thus bound of their provisions.
The Israeli authorities have all the options available to reach a resolution to problems raised by prisoners before they reach the point of launching a hunger strike. If the purpose of bill is to prevent political harm being caused to the image of the state, it would be more effective to reconsider Israel’s policies of detaining and imprisoning Palestinians, to avoid making arbitrary arrests, and improve the appalling conditions within prisons.
Concerning the bill, PHR-I and Adalah stated in the letter that, “The authorities responsible for submitting the bill have emphasized on several occasions that it will help to reduce the political damage caused by hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners, and help the authorities not to surrender to the demands of the hunger strikers.”
PHR-Israel and Adalah further emphasized that, “It is inconceivable that solutions to the complex political situation will come about through duress and compromising the ethical code of medical professionals. We strongly object to any legislation that permits forcibly feeding and medical treatment, or that opens the way to violations of international human rights law.”
Moreover, if the authorities were genuinely concerned for the health of hunger-striking prisoners, as they claim, then it would be more effective for them to stop blatantly neglecting the medical needs of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Many Palestinian political prisoners, including Mohammad Taj, Akram Rikhawi and Dirar Abu Sisi, have gone on hunger strikes as a direct response to the neglect of their medical needs.
“The only way to prevent harm to health and to protect the dignity and the will of hunger-striking prisoners is to provide them with appropriate medical care, which will also increase the possibility of ending the hunger strike by agreement, before it reaches a medically dangerous stage.”
The organizations also raised the issue of the independence and status of medical professionals. A court order mandating the forcible feeding or treatment of prisoners strips medical professionals of their independence, and gravely harms the doctor-patient relationship. It also encourages breaches of medical ethics and absolves medical professionals of criminal liability for any damage they cause.
PROJECT FUNDED BY THE EUROPEAN UNION - JOINT PROJECT OF ADALAH, PHYSICIANS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS-ISRAEL AND AL MEZAN (GAZA)