JERUSALEM — Israel's parliament passed a contentious law on Thursday that would permit the force-feeding of inmates on hunger strike, eliciting harsh criticism over the practice.
The law allows a judge to sanction the force-feeding or administration of medical treatment if there is a threat to the inmate's life, even if the prisoner refuses. It passed with a 46-40 vote in favor — a slender margin in the 120-seat Knesset. The remaining lawmakers were sent from the early morning vote.
While the law applies to all prisoners held in Israeli jails, Palestinian prisoners have used hunger strikes as a tool to draw attention to their detention without trial or charges. Scores of Palestinian inmates have held rounds of hunger strikes over recent years and, with many prisoners hospitalized, their failing health has caused tensions to flare among Palestinians.
Israel fears that a hunger-striking prisoner's death could trigger unrest. Israel in the past has acceded to hunger-striking prisoners' demands and at times has released prisoners.
"The hunger strikes of the terrorists in jail have turned into a tool they use to try to pressure and threaten the state of Israel and to cause it to release terrorists," said Israel's Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. "The new law allows us to prevent a threat to the prisoners' lives and to prevent them from putting pressure on the state."
David Amsalem, a lawmaker with the ruling Likud party who backed the law, said it "creates the right balance between the state's interest to protect the prisoner's life and his rights and sovereignty over his body."
Under the new law, Israel's prison service would need to seek permission from the attorney general to ask a judge to allow the force-feeding of a prisoner. The judge would then weigh a doctor's opinion, the prisoner's position as well as security considerations before ruling in the matter, according to Amany Daiyf, from the group Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which opposes the law.
Critics say force-feeding is unethical and amounts to torture. The Israeli Medical Association, which has urged physicians not to cooperate, plans to challenge the law in the Supreme Court.
"Israeli doctors ... will continue to act according to medical ethical norms that completely prohibit doctors from participating in torture and force-feeding amounts to torture," said Leonid Eidelman, the head of the association.
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel called the law "shameful," saying "it pushes the medical community to severely violate medical ethics for political gains."
The fate of the prisoners is deeply emotional for Palestinians, where nearly everyone has a neighbor or relative who has spent time in an Israeli jail. Palestinians view the thousands of prisoners held by Israel as heroes. Several hundred are held in administrative detention, according to the Palestinian prisoner advocacy group Addameer, where they can be held for months or years without charge or trial.
Qadura Fares, chairman of the Palestinian Prisoners Society, called the law "ugly" and said it violated the prisoners' right to conduct a hunger strike.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.