United Nations experts on human rights have urged the Israeli government not to continue force-feeding Palestinian prisoners against their will, as a bill on this issue is facing a Knesset reading on June 30. The UN Special Rapporteurs have called force-feeding a “cruel and inhuman” practice, and severely criticized the bill for demanding that doctors act against their professional ethics and beliefs.
“The desire of the inmates not to eat must be respected for as long as it is clear that they are making that choice voluntarily. Even if it is intended for the benefit of the detainees, feeding induced by threats, coercion, force or the use of physical restraints are tantamount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” said Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
The Israel National Bioethics Council has also expressed it strong opposition to this law. The Council, which was established by the government to serve as the supreme authority to issue recommendations to decision-makers on ethical matters, stated this week, “The council has determined that the proposal that a judge can order force feeding based on some consideration other than safeguarding the life of a hunger-striker goes against the principles of bioethics, and must be utterly rejected.”
The bill has also been strongly opposed by the Israel Medical Association and Physicians for Human Rights. With his characteristic insouciance on these matters, however, Netanyahu said that he would make sure to find physicians who would consent to carry out this measure. Netanyahu’s opinion comes at the same time that this issue is being discussed in the United States, where it has also been rejected by human rights advocates.
In the U.S., District Court Judge Gladys Kessler determined that the U.S. military can force-feed a Syrian detainee at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Judge Kessler said that she was faced with an “anguishing” choice: to issue another restraining order that would prevent the military from force-feeding Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian national, “despite the very real probability” that he would die as a result, or to refuse to extend the order “at the possible cost of great pain and suffering” to the prisoner.
Force-feeding, or feeding a person against their consent, involves placing the prisoner in a restraining chair, inserting a tube through his nose and down his throat, and pumping a nutritional drink into his stomach. This brief description doesn’t convey the pain and the serious health risks that this practice entails.
In 1914, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union in the UK, was appalled by the screams of women being forced-fed in HM Prison Holloway during hunger strikes in which she participated. In her autobiography she wrote, “Holloway became a place of horror and torment. Sickening scenes of violence took place almost every hour of the day, as doctors went from cell to cell performing their hideous office…I shall never while I live forget the suffering I experienced during the days when those cries were ringing in my ears.”
Force-feeding prisoners has been prohibited since 1975 by the Declaration of Tokyo of the World Medical Association. In its guidelines for physicians the declaration states, “Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such voluntary refusal or nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially.” The UN Human Rights Commission said it regards force-feeding at Guantanamo as a form of torture. The U.S. has repeatedly denied that charge.
Under U.S. jurisdiction, force-feeding is frequently used in the military prison in Guantanamo Bay. In 2004, Muslim prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison described in sworn statements that they were forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, both of which are strictly prohibited in Islam. In other cases, prisoners described being fed from toilets.
In March 2006, 250 doctors wrote an open letter in The Lancet warning that, in their opinion, the participation of any doctor in force-feeding practice is contrary to the rules of the World Medical Association. “We urge the US government to ensure that detainees are assessed by independent physicians and that techniques such as force-feeding and restraint chairs are abandoned,” said the doctors in the letter. The U.S. military started using restraint chairs for feeding hunger-striking prisoners in 2005 to prevent them from vomiting as a result of forced nutrition.
Presently, there are 189 administrative detainees being held in Israeli prisons, of whom 125 are on hunger strike. Those who didn’t join the strike were unable to do so because of illness or advanced age. Those on hunger strike have done so for more than 40 days, a situation that seriously threatens their survival. Should some of them die as a result of the strike, it would create a serious upheaval in the Palestinian streets. To ignore the prisoners’ plight and to conduct a barbaric practice on them does a disservice to Israeli democracy and its avowed respect for human rights.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.