Israeli Hunger Strike Ruling Is a Political Law Disguised as Concern for Human Life

The High Court of Justice’s ruling on Sunday, which upheld a law allowing prisoners on hunger strike to be force-fed, praises human rights to the skies even as it approves an anti-democratic and unacceptable law.

Justice Elyakim Rubinstein’s opinion stressed the importance of protecting the lives of prisoners in state custody, and in his view, this justifies force-feeding security prisoners, even though the Israel Medical Association opposes the law and was actually one of the petitioners against it.

In their ruling, the justices wrote that the Patients’ Rights Law doesn’t provide “a complete solution to the complex situation of hunger-striking prisoners who have reached the point where their life or health is endangered,” because the hunger striker “isn’t a ‘patient’ in the ordinary sense, but a person who has voluntarily and wittingly put his health at risk in order to voice a protest or apply pressure to achieve some personal or public goal.”

Yet contrary to what the justices said, the existing law does contain an ethical solution to the conflict between the need to respect a person’s autonomy and the need to give him medical treatment, with the approval of the hospital’s ethics committee and subject to detailed stipulations that ensure a proper balance between these two needs.

Even the ruling itself admits that to date, hunger-striking prisoners and detainees have been given medical treatment in accordance with the Patients’ Rights Law, yet in most of the cases where the law’s provisions were followed, the striking prisoners agreed to accept treatment without coercion, following a dialogue between the prisoners and members of the ethics committee that developed on the basis of relations of trust between doctor and patient.

But despite the existence of this mechanism, the High Court accepted the state’s position that the arrangement in the Patients’ Rights Law is insufficient because it stipulates that in order to force treatment on a patient, there must be reasonable grounds for thinking the patient will retroactively approve the treatment. This condition usually can’t be met in the case of people who have chosen to go on hunger strike.

The court’s ruling didn’t give sufficient weight to the fact that the existing system worked in most cases. Even worse, it legitimized the suppression of political protest, using the “sanctity of life” as a pretext. The High Court found nothing wrong with the fact that the law also serves a “security purpose,” which is nothing but the desire to suppress protests by detainees who have no rights. In so doing, it shut its eyes and ignored the political context of the law’s enactment.

If the human rights of Palestinian detainees are indeed important to the state and the justices, they should refrain from ordering and approving administrative detentions, also known as detentions without trial, and certainly refrain from multiple, prolonged detentions of this kind. That would be the genuine, root solution that would prevent hunger strikes – not a political law disguised as concern for human rights and the sanctity of life.