Israeli doctors resist force-feeding prisoners

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JERUSALEM -- Proposed legislation to permit the force-feeding of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike is pitting Israel's government against much of the country's medical community, including the main doctors' association, which contends that the practice amounts to torture.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked lawmakers to fast-track the bill, as a hunger strike by dozens of Palestinian detainees entered its sixth week. At least 65 of 290 participating detainees have been hospitalized since the first group began a hunger strike April 24. Many are administrative detainees, held for months or years without charges.

There have been near-daily Palestinian demonstrations backing the prisoners, including one Wednesday in the West Bank during which dozens of university students threw stones at Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas.

Families of hunger strikers say they support the fast, despite the risks. "My husband is in Israeli jails without knowing why and when this nightmare is going to end," Lamees Faraj said of her husband, Abdel Razeq, a member of a small, hard-line Palestine Liberation Organization faction, who has been in administrative detention for nearly eight of the last 20 years.

Faced with the second large-scale Palestinian hunger strike in two years, Israel's government is pushing a bill to let a judge sanction force-feeding if an inmate's life is perceived to be in danger. A judge must not only consider the detainee's wishes, but also possible damage to the state, said Yoel Hadar, a legal adviser in the Public Security Ministry, which initiated the bill.

A death in custody could trigger prison riots or unrest in the Palestinian territories or elsewhere, so "we want the judge to take into consideration what will happen to the country if something happens," Mr. Hadar said.

There has been mounting opposition from Israel's medical establishment, with the Israel Medical Association urging physicians not to cooperate. "It goes against the DNA of the doctors to force treatment on a patient," spokeswoman Ziva Miral said. "Force-feeding is torture, and we can't have doctors participating in torture."

She noted that the World Medical Association, an umbrella for national medical associations, opposes the practice. The WMA said in 2006 that "forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable."

Israel's National Council of Bioethics has also weighed in, saying it opposes the proposed bill. Another group, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, contacted the World Medical Association last month, asking that it help stop the legislation. In a letter to the WMA, the Israeli group reiterated ethical concerns others raised and added, "The true motivation ... is to break the spirit and protests of the hunger strikers."

Despite such criticism, Mr. Netanyahu told his Cabinet this week that he'll make sure to find physicians to participate in force-feeding, noting that the practice is carried out at the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay detention camp for suspected militants, the Haaretz daily said. Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev declined comment on the report, but confirmed that the government backs the bill.

The U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights said it is unaware of prisoners being force-fed anywhere now except Guantanamo, but that it is often difficult to get access to prisons to verify their practices. But there have been past cases of force-feeding, including in the 1970s of prisoners from Germany's radical leftist Red Army Faction.

Existing law bars treatment of patients, including prisoners, against their will, with extreme cases referred to an ethics committee, said Amany Dayif of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.

Israel Prison Authority spokeswoman Sivan Weizman said she recalled one or two isolated cases of force-feeding prisoners in the 1980s. Qadoura Fares, an advocate for Palestinian prisoners, said three prisoners died from force-feeding complications then.

Since capturing the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has imprisoned tens of thousands of Palestinians for a range of politically motivated offenses, from stone-throwing and membership in outlawed groups to deadly attacks on Israelis. Palestinians want a state in the three territories and have staged two uprisings since 1987 in hopes of hastening Israeli withdrawal. Some 5,000 Palestinians are now imprisoned by Israel, including 191 in administrative detention.

Administrative detainees can be held for as long as six months without charges, with the detention and any extensions approved by a judge. The Shin Bet security agency can present evidence that is kept from defense lawyers.

Israel says administrative detentions are an important tool to prevent militant attacks. Rights groups say international humanitarian law permits administrative detention in exceptional cases, but Israel's excessive use is out of bounds.

Two years ago, some 2,000 administrative detainees and other prisoners began a mass hunger strike to end the practice and improve prison conditions. In negotiating an end to that, Israel pledged to scale back administrative detentions, said Ms. Dayif of Physicians for Human Rights. She said the cases dropped by a few dozen, but crept up again.

The second large-scale strike began in April. None of the 65 prisoners hospitalized so far is in a life-threatening condition, said Ms. Weizman, the prison spokeswoman. But Ms. Dayif put the number of hospitalized hunger strikers at more than 70, including 15 thought to be critical.

The families of the prisoneers wait and worry even as the strikers vow to continue.


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