One Palestinian’s Refusal to Eat Puts Israel in a Bind
By JODI RUDOREN and DIAA HADID AUG. 18, 2015 N.Y. Times
JERUSALEM — A single Palestinian prisoner’s determination to starve himself to death unless he is freed is flummoxing Israel’s legal, medical, political and security systems.
The prisoner, Mohammad Allan, a 31-year-old lawyer and Islamic Jihad member who has not eaten since June 16, regained consciousness on Tuesday, after spending four days on a ventilator and receiving fluids, salts and potassium intravenously. On Wednesday, Israel’s Supreme Court will consider his demand for immediate release from administrative detention, the controversial tactic in which more than 300 Palestinians and a handful of Israelis are being held without charge or trial.
The case has received extraordinary attention because it unfolded as Israel narrowly passed a law last month allowing the force-feeding of hunger strikers. That spawned outrage by its own medical association, whose doctors refuse to participate in the law’s application, and international human-rights groups that have also condemned the practice at Guantánamo Bay and in other Western nations.
Around 200 Palestinians gathered outside Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem to show support for Mohammed Allan, a detainee who was on a hunger strike at an Israeli hospital.
The law itself is fraught with complexity that makes it difficult to apply and, according to several experts on bioethics, was unnecessary because Israel already allows the treatment of competent patients against their will.
Conservative ministers pushed the law as essential to prevent Israel from being held hostage by hunger strikers, and to prevent an outbreak of Palestinian violence should Mr. Allan die. Instead, the ensuing debate has only underscored how Israel, so deft at deflecting rockets, has been stymied by nonviolent resistance efforts like the mounting cultural, academic and economic boycott movement.
“It’s much more difficult to fight the war of images and messages and pictures than to fight in the war zone itself,” said Yoaz Hendel, a right-leaning Israeli commentator who reluctantly supported the force-feeding law. “It’s a very serious dilemma — it’s between bad and worse.”
Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, said hunger strikes have been effective as “a very specific and focused campaign against administrative detention,” because so many Palestinians have family members who have been imprisoned in Israel.
“They recognize it could be their son or daughter — for that reason it has a very strong mobilizing capacity among Palestinians, and that’s something immediately recognizable for Israel,” Mr. Rabbani said. “That’s why when push comes to shove, the Israelis tend to make concessions in order to prevent a death — it puts Palestinian society on the verge of an explosion.”
Prisoners have been rejecting food as protest since the British suffragists a century ago. In the 1980s, 10 striking Irish Republican Army prisoners were allowed to die of starvation in British prisons, leading to worldwide condemnations and a reinvigorated I.R.A.
The United States, Australia, Austria, Germany and Switzerland allow force-feeding of prisoners, and the European Court of Human Rights in 2005 ruled that it was permissible in certain circumstances. But the Malta declaration of the World Medical Association called it “inhuman and degrading” and “never ethically acceptable.”
In Israel, at least eight Palestinians have been released in recent years after lengthy hunger strikes, said the prisoner-rights group Addameer. The most famous cases involved Khader Adnan, another Islamic Jihad activist, who was freed in June after a 55-day strike, and in 2012 after he went 66 days without eating.
“Medical feeding is intended on the one hand to save a person’s life, and on the other hand to prevent a situation in which terrorists will have an effective pressuring tool to use against the country,” Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister of public security and a prime backer of the new law, wrote recently on Facebook. “I am not prepared to see the streets of Israel fill with hundreds of terrorists who have gone on a hunger strike and were released.”
Ma’an, the Palestinian news agency, reported Tuesday that 250 prisoners held in administrative detention had started a hunger strike.
Mr. Allan, who has been held since November, rejected an Israeli offer for release on the condition he leave the region for four years, and he told his lawyers that if he is not let go after Wednesday’s court hearing, he will no longer take even water.
“He is willing to bang his head against a wall,” said Sawsan Zaher of Adalah, an Arab-rights group pressing Mr. Allan’s appeal, predicting that if a compromise is not reached, “in a few hours, tomorrow, maximum tomorrow night, he will be dead.”
If that happens, “the West Bank and Gaza will explode, and it will be like a shackle on Israel’s neck,” Ms. Zaher added. “It’s now at a crossroads: How do you deal with administrative detention?”
Israeli leaders have long been loath to address that underlying issue. Instead they made individual deals, like the one in which Hana Shalabi, the only female prisoner to conduct a long-term hunger strike, was deported to Gaza in 2012, or another deal that same year that ended a mass protest with the promise of improved prison conditions.
“Before this law existed, there was an ad hoc situation — all the hunger strikes ended without anyone being force-fed or dying, which is the optimal solution,” said Michael L. Gross, head of the political science department at the University of Haifa, who noted that “the hunger strikers are not asking for the world, they’re not asking for Israel to leave the West Bank.”
“What they’ve done, simply, is raise the stakes,” added Professor Gross, an expert on bioethics and armed conflict. “Hunger striking, on the spectrum of what’s available to the Palestinians — from terrorism to nonviolent resistance — you’d think you’d prefer nonviolent. The government, by closing that off, not only tries to delegitimize the Palestinian struggle, but it also seems to me they’re paving the way to more violent reactions.”
The new law requires a court order to initiate force-feeding after a doctor determines a prisoner’s life is at risk and the authorities have made significant effort to obtain consent. It calls for preserving a striker’s dignity and avoiding pain and suffering.
Medical experts said the popular public image of a feeding tube being forced into the mouth or nose of an emaciated prisoner is not accurate. In reality, a prisoner who has not eaten for weeks cannot even absorb food.
Some experts say the intravenous fluids Mr. Allan received without his consent after falling unconscious last Friday is a sort of force-feeding.
Yechiel Barilan, a medical ethicist at Tel Aviv University who testified in Parliament about the new law, said the entire episode has taken on the outrageous contours of a reality show, with all sides mainly trying to manipulate public opinion. The Israeli doctors who called force-feeding torture are “unacceptable,” he said, but “the policy makers have not studied the history and dynamic of hunger strikes” and exaggerate the security threat posed by releasing an emaciated Mr. Allan.
“If Osama bin Laden was on hunger strike, I’d say, O.K., don’t release him, even on his deathbed he could inspire terrorism But we are so intimidated by a person that we claim must be force-fed to save his life?” he said. “I find it a contradiction in terms.”