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Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sports, supports torture. She is not alone. Joining her is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while practically all ministers and members of Knesset in his coalition have followed suit. The Israeli government, in other words, supports torture, and thus is similar to the governments of Egypt, Syria and many of its neighbors in the Middle East. Israel, apparently, is not a villa in the jungle, as so many of its pundits would have us think.
By torture, I am referring specifically to the recently passed law legalizing forced feeding, which according to the World Health Organization, the Red Cross and the United Nations is considered a cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and a flagrant violation of international law.
Of course, the Knesset’s legislation on this matter is not unique even in the midst of western liberal democracies. Among the countries that deploy forced-feeding against hunger strikers is also Israel’s ‘enlightened ally’, the United States. While the U.S. has been force-feeding inmates in Guantanamo for many years now, this practice actually has deep roots in the American imagination. Already at the beginning of the last century the suffragette Alice Paul, who was incarcerated for demanding women’s right to vote, embarked on a hunger strike in prison and was subsequently, force-fed by government officials. As can be seen in the feature film Iron Jawed Angels that documents the women’s movement’s struggle, force feeding is a horrific form of torture.
Israel’s new law is not, at least for the time being, directed against its own citizens, but rather against over 5,700 Palestinian political prisoners from the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
About 400 of these have been held in administrative detention without trial, some of them for up to eight, ten and eleven years. The presumption of innocence, which is supposed to underlie all progressive and democratic judicial systems, should have been applied to them. It was not. And there goes the villa metaphor.
Over the past years, many Palestinian political prisoners have embarked on hunger strikes as a form of non-violent protest against the authorities, while currently it is estimated that over 100 prisoners are on strike. Examining Prime Minister Netanyahu’s justification for pushing forward a bill to legitimize forced feeding reveals, however, a contradiction in his twisted logic.
The administrative detainees are being held in prison contrary to international law and contrary to the principle of due process. These men have not been granted the fundamental right to a fair trial, because prisoners like Muhammad Allaan, who has been on hunger strike for 60 days, are not considered by the Israeli authorities to be fully human, namely, individuals who bear rights. At the same time, though, the Prime Minister’s justification for advancing a force-feeding law stems from the moral imperative requiring us to save human lives. On the one hand, then, the Palestinian political prisoners are treated as sub-human, but, on the other hand, to justify the law they have to be portrayed as fully human. There is one aspect of this legislative move that is, however, consistent: the desire to harm outspoken Palestinian subjects and to violate their basic right to bodily integrity.
But the contradiction between the sub-human and human is not the sole logical distortion espoused by the Israeli legislators who supported the bill. It is crucial to highlight that in their struggle against Israel’s violation of their basic right to due process the prisoners launched a hunger strike, a recognized form of nonviolent protest. However, and perhaps ironically, the way the Israeli government has chosen to deal with this non-violent protest to its own anti-democratic practice of administrative detention is by instituting yet another serious violation of international law: torture – one of the most severe forms of dehumanization.
Not all, however, is dark. As the great philosopher Hannah Arendt teaches, even in the most difficult times one encounters human action that sheds light on the darkness. Dr. Leonid Eidelman, chairman of the Israeli Medical Association, called upon all Israeli doctors to refuse to perform force-feeding even if the law requires them to do so. Force-feeding of hunger strikers, Eidelman argued, breaches the principles of preventing damage and maintaining the patient’s autonomy over his or her body, thus violating the physicians’ code of ethics. The code of ethics, he intimated, is above the law.
Eidelman is right. The question now is whether all Israeli doctors will heed his call for civil disobedience and refuse to obey the law. The chances, unfortunately, are extremely slim.
This article was first published in Al Jazeera.