Hunger Striker in Israel Unconscious as Battle Rages over Force-feeding
August 16, 2015
Daniella Cheslow / McClatchy Foreign Staff
Under Israeli law, people can be detained without charges and held for years without trial. To protest these conditions, a Palestinian detainee named Mohammed Allan has refused food for 60 days. He recently lapsed into unconsciousness. Doctors have refused the government's entreaties to force-feed him. The procedure, employed by the US on prisoners at Guantanamo, has been called a form of torture. Which should rule, medical ethics or security concerns?
TEL AVIV (August 14, 2015) -- A Palestinian prisoner who's refused food for 60 days lost consciousness Friday after a battle that pitted Israeli doctors against their government in a dramatic test of a new law that permits force-feeding of hunger strikers.
Despite the new law, two teams of doctors refused to force food down the throat of Mohammed Allan, saying the procedure violated medical ethics. On Friday, doctors connected Allan, 31, to a respirator as he lay shackled to a bed in a hospital in southern Israel, his lawyer, Jamil Khatib, said.
Allan is fasting to protest his nine-month arrest without trial or charges, a measure called administrative detention that Israel uses to detain suspected terrorists. Israel says presenting charges and evidence could jeopardize its network of informants.
The drama recalls similar fights over force-feeding of detainees at the US prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There, US military health workers force-fed as many as 46 detainees during a hunger strike in 2013, and are still tube-feeding an undetermined number of prisoners.
One detainee, Abu Wael Dhiab, challenged the procedure in federal court, claiming it violated his rights and was painful. The US military released Dhiab to Uruguay in December but he, his lawyers and US news organizations have not dropped their federal court bid for the release of videos showing him being forced from his cell to prison camp forced-feelings.
Allan was arrested in November 2014, Khatib said, on suspicion of conducting military activities with the Islamic Jihad. Allan was imprisoned for 30 months in 2006 for his activities with Islamic Jihad, Khatib said.
Israel passed the law permitting force-feeding of prisoners in July after authorities released Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan from administrative detention after he'd fasted for 56 days. Hundreds of Palestinians have used hunger strikes to obtain early release or to improve their prison conditions.
In a posting on Facebook Thursday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan defended the law. "Medical feeding is aimed on the one hand, at saving human life, and on the other, to prevent a situation in which terrorists will have an effective pressure tactic against the state that will lead to their release from prison," he said.
The Israeli Medical Association, however, is seeking to have the law overturned.
"It's a very harmful law," said Dr. Tami Karni, a surgeon in Tel Aviv and the chairwoman of the association's ethics bureau. "They want us to do something against our own patients."
In his Facebook post, Erdan said Israeli physicians need to realize the security implications of their stand.
"I am not willing to see the streets of Israel filling up with hundreds of terrorists who went on hunger strike and were released. The time has come for the Israeli Medical Association to understand this as well," he wrote.
Allan was first hospitalized in the Soroka Medical Center in the southern city of Beersheba. An ethics committee at the hospital authorized taking blood samples as a first step to force-feeding him, but doctors declined to comply.
Karni said she visited Allan in Beersheba last Saturday and was "tortured" to see his gaunt body wasting away while he refused to allow doctors to touch him, even to replace the adhesive securing his intravenous tube. He spoke to her in halting Hebrew and through a translator, in Arabic.
"He spoke very clearly. He explained that he didn't want to die but that he is ready to die for the things he wanted," she said. "This is not a medical problem, and it's not right to put a physician in this situation."
Allan was moved Monday to Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, where doctors continued to obey the prisoner's demand to starve. Hospital spokeswoman Ayelet Kedar said Thursday that doctors did not intervene because Allan was not yet in life-threatening condition.
"It's a victory," attorney Khatib said, referring to Allan avoiding force-feeding. "But it will be a real victory if he will be released."
Khatib said Allan's family will decide whether to approve doctors feeding him while he remains unconscious.
There are 370 Palestinians in administrative detention, according to the Israeli human rights organization B'tselem. In recent weeks Israel also applied administrative detention to three Jewish terrorism suspects, according to Eran Schvartz, spokesman of Honenu, which provides legal aid to Jewish suspects.
Karni, the doctor who visited Allan, said 70 Palestinian hunger strikers were hospitalized across Israel last year for two months. The inmates agreed to ingest vital salts and electrolytes, unlike Allan, who drank only water. She admitted the situation left her conflicted.
"It's like standing under a 20-story building that you know someone is about to jump from, and instead of stopping his jump we are being told to wait and then try to save his life after he falls," she said.
Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.
Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.
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