Israeli authorities hospitalized 40 Palestinian detainees Tuesday who were taking part in a weeks-long hunger strike, according to media and prison service officials.
The Palestinians are part of a larger group of prisoners who have refused food for nearly five weeks in protest of Israel’s use of administrative detention, which allows holding individuals without charge or trial for various periods of time.
According to prisoner service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman, the detainees were in fair health and were hospitalized for medical evaluation as part of standing protocol, not as a result of any marked deterioration in their health.
A total of 240 Palestinian detainees and prisoners are taking part in the hunger strike, consuming water but no food, Weizman said. They can opt for offered supplements but authorities cannot force these.
The strike comes as Israel debates legislation that would allow for force-feeding of striking prisoners. The protest has come to the attention of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon, and relatives of the detainees also have appealed to Pope Francis.
In the West Bank, the strike is marked with small, daily protests in a number of cities. On Wednesday morning, activists blocked the staff from entering offices of the International Red Cross in Ramallah in protest of the organization’s perceived silence.
In the past, high-profile hunger strikes have posed a serious challenge to Israeli authorities, drawing international criticism of the controversial legal procedure and threatening diplomatic crisis.
In 2013, Samer Issawi’s eight-month hunger strike put his life at risk and left Israeli authorities at a loss for a response. Concerned about a backlash if he died in custody, Israel released Issawi when his health was at serious risk.
Now, in an initiative fiercely criticized by both medical and political circles, Israel is considering legislation to allow force feeding hunger strikers in prison.
Last week, a ministerial committee on legislation gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow a judge to authorize feeding a striking prisoner as well as administering medical treatment against the inmate’s will.
According to the proposal, only the president or senior judge of a district court would be allowed to permit -- but not order -- such treatment. Prisoners would have the right to legal representation in related hearings, and prison doctors would not be forced to act against their conscience.
The bill, proposed as an amendment to the existing law regulating prison protocol, would have to pass three readings in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, before becoming law. It would not apply to the current strike.
Despite the built-in restrictions, Israeli medical professionals and activists strongly protest the bill they say contravenes universal medical ethics and international protocol defining forced feeding of prisoners as a form of torture.
The Israel Medical Assn. has long voiced its opposition to the legislation. Last year, most members of the national council on bioethics voted against it as well.
Following the ministers’ initial clearance of the proposal last week, Leonid Edelman, chairman of the Israel Medical Assn., and Avinoam Reches, head of the organization's ethics committee, sent Justice Minister Tzipi Livni an urgent letter asking for her to appeal the decision and revise the government’s position on the matter.
Also addressed to Israel’s prime minister, health minister and attorney general, the letter reiterated the association’s “express objection” to the law that is both “ethically and professionally wrong.”
Force-feeding hunger strikers poses a concrete threat to their health and contravenes the principle of nonmaleficence -- "cause no harm" -- the basic code of medical ethics, they wrote.
The doctors also warned of international repercussions of such legislation that “has no place in modern society.” Moreover, they reject a law that “puts doctors on a front that isn’t theirs, in complete contravention of professional and ethical duties.”
In addition, the issue is highly political, as the overwhelming majority of hunger-striking prisoners in Israel are Palestinians who use it as a means of political protest.
In a joint letter to Israel’s attorney general in February, Physicians for Human Rights and the rights group Adallah said the law was proposed to “break the morale of hunger-striking Palestinian political prisoners.”
Critics also question the need for special legislation for prisoners, arguing the existing law already allows physicians to make decisions not in keeping with patients’ will in certain circumstances.
Other countries are grappling with the sensitive issue as well. Recently, a U.S. judge permitted the Pentagon to forcefully feed a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, although the practice remains highly controversial.
Sobelman is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.