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Israeli doctors versus the state in showdown over force-feeding

The government hoped that transferring Mohammed Allan to a different hospital would make force-feeding him easier. But a doctors’ protest is gaining ground.

Illustrative photo of Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli military prison (By ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)

Illustrative photo of Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli military prison (By ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)

A confrontation between the Israeli government and doctors treating hunger-striking prisoners is reaching a fever pitch, testing the medical community’s independence against government efforts to quell a nonviolent protest by Palestinian detainees.

The backdrop is a law passed last month sanctioning the force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners, in order to combat a growing means of protest against administrative detention without charge or trial.

The test case for the new law appears to be Mohammed Allan, a 33-year-old Palestinian lawyer detained since November of last year. Allan is on the 54th day of his strike. As my colleague Yael Marom at Local Call reports, he is drinking water but refusing any minerals, vitamins, and medical treatment of any sort. It emerged this weekend that authorities would seek to force-feed Allan, and the resulting showdown over his treatment has pit a growing group of doctors, armed with medical ethics, against the state and the military.

Doctors at Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva, where Allan was hospitalized until this morning, refused to treat him, citing international standards governing patient autonomy. Their stand  came despite the recommendation of a hospital ethics panel, which gave the doctors monitoring Allan “discretion” to take measures to save his life, even against his will. Israeli security services transferred Allan today to Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital, whose director, according to Ynet sources [Hebrew], “holds a different viewpoint with regards to force-feeding than the Soroka doctors.”

But the protest appears to be spreading. Doctors at Barzilai have also declared their refusal to treat him against his will, and, as of Monday afternoon, a fierce debate on the matter was in full swing at the hospital.

These doctors have the force of the Israeli medical establishment behind them. The Israeli Medical Association has come out vehemently against the law, unequivocally declaring force-feeding to be a form of torture in accordance with international standards. The body filed a petition against the law with the High Court of Justice three days after it passed, and indicated on Sunday evening it would also ask for the court’s urgent intervention to prevent Allan’s force feeding. Its chairman, Dr. Leonid Eidelman, said last year that doctors should disobey force-feeding orders, and that the association would not be able to defend force-feeding doctors should they face international criminal charges.

The representative body’s petition to the High Court quotes the World Medical Association’s position on medical ethics and the law: “When law is in conflict with medical ethics, physicians should work to change the law. In circumstances of such conflict, ethical responsibilities supersede legal obligations.”

The oft-used practice of administrative detention — known in the American context as indefinite detention – is a brazen affront to the rule of law. Administrative detainees can remain in prison for years at a time, without ever hearing the charges against them. In recent years, several long-term hunger strikers, Khader Adnan the most prominent among them, have secured their release through negotiations with the state, which has an interest in preventing the unrest that could accompany their deaths. These protests, which resulted in the release of men Israel once claimed were too dangerous to walk free, have laid bare the holes in the government’s arguments in favor of the practice.

The state passed the force-feeding law to block the hunger strikers’ challenge to the foundation of administrative detention. This is a powerful tool in Israel’s control over the Palestinian population, and it’s not one the state is about to give up. 

Choosing sides

It’s not hard to find examples of state-sanctioned torture corrupting medical institutions. In a particularly topical one, the American Psychological Association is now the midst of a dramatic reckoning over its role supporting and enabling the U.S. Bush-era torture program. Just this past Friday, its members passed a ban on psychologist involvement in national security interrogations.

Israel’s occupation has become an entrenched part of the country’s infrastructure, implicating its most fundamental institutions. (The medical association itself is not immune to criticism.) National security arguments, no matter how spurious, don’t tend to face many objections from the mainstream. This is what makes this clash between the Israeli medical establishment and the government so refreshing.

When the state breaks the law, its institutions and citizens must chose between becoming accomplices or dissidents. May all of Israel’s doctors choose right.

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