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The irony of exporting Israel's hunger strike 'expertise' to the U.S.

Can Israel help the United States treat hunger striking detainees at Guantanamo Bay more humanely? Probably. But one lesson that may be lost on the U.S. is that Palestinian hunger strikes in Israel have – for the most – part been successful.

Solidarity protest with hunger striking prisoner Khader Adnan, Ofer Prison in the West Bank, February 2012 (photo: Oren Ziv / Activestills.org)

When nearly 200 people were rushed to Boston hospitals after the marathon bombing earlier this year, doctors were prepared because of an Israeli disaster management training they had received years earlier.

When a building collapsed in Nairobi in 2006, Israeli army search and rescue teams flew in and freed trapped survivors.

Disaster medicine is the one of the few fields in which Israel truly excels to the point that it can make a positive contribution to the international community – and for that it deserves credit.

Another field in which Israel excels and powerful countries around the world seek its knowledge is urban warfare and counterterrorism. I’m going to go ahead and declare the arms trade a not-positive contribution to the world.

However, despite the polarity between medicine and warfare, healing and destruction, there is a point where the two converge.

Haaretz revealed on Monday that Israeli doctors have been invited to teach the Americans their policies and procedures for dealing with Palestinian hunger striking prisoners. The Americans are under pressure over force-feeding some of the 106 hunger-striking detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

When it comes to dealing with hunger-striking prisoners, (civilian) Israeli doctors have had decent success both in respecting the prisoner’s refusal to accept nourishment and also keeping them alive. There are other, unacceptable abuses like shackling hospitalized prisoners, but all in all, the Israeli doctors could teach the Americans a thing or two.

Force feeding hunger strikers is extremely inhumane and painful for the patient, described by the ACLU as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” In the video below, released by The Guardian Monday, Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) volunteers to undergo the “treatment” – it’s not a sight for faint eyes.

Furthermore, the World Medical Association has unequivocally stated that physicians should respect a patient’s refusal to accept food and/or water. “Forced feeding contrary to an informed and voluntary refusal is unjustifiable,” the WMA Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers reads.

The WMA declaration goes on to explain, hunger strikes “are often a form of protest by people who lack other ways of making their demands known. In refusing nutrition for a significant period, they usually hope to obtain certain goals by inflicting negative publicity on the authorities.”

The Israeli doctors would truly be doing a service if they are able to convince their American counterparts to stop force-feeding Guantanamo prisoners.

The irony of the Israelis teaching Americans how to ethically treat hunger striking detainees is that in recent years, although Israel has managed to keep long-term hunger strikers alive while mostly respecting their wishes to refuse food, the hunger strikes were ultimately successful.

Khader Adnan reached a deal to secure his release from administrative detention after hunger striking for 66 consecutive days.

After nearly nine months of an intermittent hunger strike, Samer Issawi, too, accepted a deal that will see him released later this year. Most all other recent cases ended with similar results.

Both the Palestinian and Guantanamo hunger strikers have similar demands: an end to their imprisonment without trial. In Israel-Palestine, their demands were met and victory declared. In Guantanamo, the chances of a similar victory are virtually nil.

President Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo in his first year in office. That didn’t happen for a number of reasons, primarily Congress and prohibitions on returning detainees to Yemen. Eighty-nine of the detainees in Guantanamo have been cleared for release, but the U.S. has nowhere to send them.

The Israeli doctors heading to the U.S. may succeed partially in teaching their American counterparts how to keep hunger striking prisoners alive while respecting their medical autonomy. But they will not be able to teach them how to break the spirit of those willing to fight for their rights with the only means available.

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    1. rsgengland

      The way he British dealt with IRA hunger strikers is the only way to deal with this phenomena.
      If someone does not want to eat , so be it.
      If any attempt is made to buy off the hunger strikers, it just encourages others to try the same again.

      Reply to Comment
      • I believe, perhaps to the chagrin of others, that an individual wishing to exit the world through fasting given his containment should indeed be allowed to do so, as a matter of respected dignity. It is not an easy thing to go without food; when many do it simultaneously, there can be little doubt there is a shared world view beyond our definitions of mental illness. I would say that even IV’s, if unwanted, should not be forced. Fasting unto death is in these cases a social political perhaps religious act; since no other is being harmed thereby, the act falls under protected dignity. However, I believe that in some Israeli cases the IV has been accepted; the fast continues to same end, more slowly, with more time for all to consider.

        I think that such deaths in Israeli custody could well ignite mass action; in Gitmo the reaction outside would be much more diffuse yet, in symbolism, unwanted.

        I do not support fasting as a resistence stragegy anywhere, nor condemn it. I see it as an evolved nonviolent confrontation with the faster’s world; as such, it deserves the full dignity of a nonviolent political act. Gandhi fasted close to non-recovery and was not force fed. His action generalizes beyond him.

        Reply to Comment
      • mondo

        Still to this day, Irish Republicans seriously benefit from the way the British dealt with the hunger strikers.

        Absolute disaster on the British front.

        Reply to Comment
    2. sh

      An occasion to celebrate: I agree with rsgengland.

      But he forgot to mention that the dreadful results of Thatcher’s obduracy produced a giant wave of support for Sinn Fein. It helped elect them, once they’d decided to stand, to the Northern Ireland Assembly where they are still the largest nationalist party. Their sacrifice lives on also as an example to other resistance movements the world over, with films and works of art commemorating what they did, along with the poetry of Bobby Sands himself, of course.

      Reply to Comment
      • Yes, fasting unto death in prison can be a political act, affecting the political landscape outside of prison. No matter what the incarcerated did, the act itself is nonviolent. And the emergence of Sinn Fein ultimately disarmed groups by providing a viable alternative to them. In that sense, although I know not the details at all, a prison fast unto death by a violent man (men) can ultimately help shift things towards a resolution of violence. At the time, this may have been far from clear. But the outcome may have been real.

        Reply to Comment
    3. sh

      I don’t think I managed a minute of that clip, but would like to point out that the success of the tactic Israel uses is also not 100%. True that a few were eventually released after prolonged periods of hunger strike, but others have been rearrested. The trick used in the case of so-called prisoner exchanges works for hunger strikers too.

      So let’s not forget Thaer Halahle, who was on hunger strike for 77 days and was released last summer, who was rearrested a couple of months ago and is again incarcerated. In total he has already spent more than six years in administrative detention but has never been charged with any crime.

      This is a clip made just after his release last summer, in which his wife speaks about the effects his multiple arrests have had on her life.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Watchful Eye

      972, this article is an immoral disgrace. It reads like a hasbara piece on “Israel’s contributions to humanity”, and fails to mention Israel’s daily torture practices of Palestinian prisoners and the inhuman holding conditions. Not to mention the omitting of the context in which Palestinians are criminalized as a population control mechanism, under a colonizing regime, while they are considered by international law to be “protected”. I’m mostly disgusted with the writer’s call to “break” a struggle for liberation by the colonized. 972: There’s enough of this on mainstream media, aren’t you suppose to be alternative?

      But say I was to go along with the writer’s twisted logic- I’d say, “think again”: http://english.pnn.ps/index.php/prisoners/5154-israeli-government-considers-force-feeding-hunger-striking-prisoners

      Reply to Comment