Yael Baklor-Kahn and Adi Arbel
The proposed law to allow force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners was recently approved by the Knesset. Discussion of the topic led to public debate for and against the proposed law. The purpose of this paper is to present the topic in an organized fashion, to analyze the dilemmas it raises, and to present a considered opinion about the proposed law.
The issue of force-feeding hunger strikers is not a new one and represents an area of public disagreement in Israel and abroad. Until this new law, Israel’s legal position towards the issue was laid out in the law detailing the rights of the ill, a law which set conditions and standards for providing care to a person against his will.
The issue has also not yet been settled in international law. The World Medical Association stated in the Tokyo Declaration that a physician may not make his professional skills available for the purposes of interrogation; the Malta Declaration stated that forced feeding of prisoners is not ethical. On the other hand, in 2005 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that one may force-feed a prisoner who is in mortal danger.
As part of this opinion paper we will present the legal and moral justification for the new Israeli law which allows forced feeding of security prisoners when their life is in danger. The justification for this law rests on a number of presuppositions:
- All hunger strikes represent means of protest and not suicide attempts.
- The State of Israel must concern itself with the health and safety of prisoners.
- A prisoner’s hunger strike is a means of protest intended as a challenge to the sovereignty of the State. Sometimes the goal of the hunger strikers is to obtain release from prison or a change in prison conditions. Therefore a prisoner’s hunger strike should be seen as a tool meant to prevent the State from enforcing its laws.
- The hunger strike of a prisoner who wishes to die is a suicidal act which contradicts the sanctity of life and acts as a means of escaping justice. Therefore it is right to prevent the act, just as additional steps are taken to avoid other suicide attempts in prison cells.
In keeping with these presuppositions, it can be seen that hunger strikes by security prisoners are a means of political protest in the Jewish-Arab conflict. A hunger strike is a weapon of propaganda in which prisoners try to exploit the freedom of expression granted by the State they act against. Moreover, a death resulting from a security prisoner’s hunger strike could have serious security implications and could lead to violence which would cost many lives, both Israeli and Palestinian.
Despite what has been said above, the law includes clear guidelines which would limit the use of forcible feeding tools: forced feeding will only occur at the last stages of a hunger strike, only when there is clear and immediate danger to the life of the prisoner, and only with the agreement of the treating physician. It was also stated that the legal permission force feeding must be issued by the president of the district court or his deputy.
Therefore it can be said that the new law is in accord with the principle of the sanctity of life and allows the State of Israel to safeguard its sovereignty and protect its citizens while upholding the values it holds as a Jewish and democratic state.