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Force-feeding within the wider spectrum of torture and complicity in Israeli jails

In a typically aggressive response to Palestinian prisoners expressing resistance through hunger strikes against administrative detention, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to implement a bill that would allow the force-feeding of prisoners whose lives are deemed to be in danger.

According to Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev as quoted in the Times of Israel, hunger strikes should be perceived in direct relation to possibility of damage to the state, hence the notion of force-feeding as a viable option. “People go on a hunger strike for political reasons … and the consequence could be political damage to the state. The state also has the right to stop the strike.”

Echoing Regev, legal adviser Yoel Hadar insisted that “A judge must not only consider the prisoner’s wishes, but also possible damage to the state.” Expressing apprehension with regard to the possible scenario of hunger striking prisoners dying in Israel jails, Hadar insisted that judges should anticipate the possibilities of Palestinian “riots” and seek to prevent hypothetical damage to Israel by embarking upon pre-emptive measures.

The bill has ignited a visible conflict, with the Israeli Medical Association urging physicians not to participate upon the principle that force-feeding is a form of torture. In accordance with the association, the Israel National Bioethics Council has also declared its opposition to the bill, declaring that “every effort must be made to stop this law.”

Haaretz reported that, in response to the expressed opposition, Netanyahu stated he would “make sure to find physicians who would consent to act according to the new law and force-feed prisoners.” As justification for the abhorrent practice, Netanyahu deemed it suitable to evoke the flagrant human rights abuses committed by the US in the imperialist military-occupied Guantánamo, Cuba.

Netanyahu’s declarations are reminiscent of Chile’s history pertaining to Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and the intricacies with regard to systematic torture and complicity. A recent documentary aired on Chilevisión explored the impunity of medical professionals affiliated to the dictatorship who, despite testimony from torture survivors, have still evaded accountability and retain their medical prestige working in specialised fields. Implicit in the various roles carried out, including supervision of torture and direct participation such as forcing detainees to watch themselves bleed to death, is the corruption of a profession based upon imparting dignity. Hernan Valdes, Chilean author and torture survivor from the centre known as Tejas Verdes, once wrote, “All I knew about evil until then was only caricature, only literature. Now evil has lost all moral reference.”

While Netanyahu boasts about finding willing accomplices and medical organisations opposing the notion of force-feeding, decades of complicity in various degrees slide towards oblivion. Undoubtedly, medics willing to collaborate in direct torture may be found, considering the prestige bestowed upon the profession by oppressive governments in return for the expertise which is incorporated into human rights abuses. Also, torture and medical complicity is far from an innovation in Israeli jails.

The issue of force-feeding may serve the immediate hype, which can be manipulated into a collective impression of influential actors employed by the state as opposed to torture. However, Netanyahu’s comments shed light on a far more ingrained reality that encompasses a widespread collaboration sustained by a complex impunity. As in other human rights violations perpetrated by the settler-colonial state, the media dissemination citing medical organisations’ opposition to force-feed Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike will ultimately serve to obliterate the violent processes associated with medical prestige and exploitation of the vulnerable.

Prestige, exploitation and abuse should be considered within the parameters of colonial violence against Palestinians, in order to arrive at the hypocritical concern of hunger strike protests perceived as detrimental to Israel. The establishment of the settler-colonial state upon fabrications of a barren land and equally adamant incorporation of violent methods of expulsion in order to sustain the mythical claims to Palestinian land have resulted in various caricatures of the indigenous population to be applied according to circumstance. Force-feeding as an additional torture practice will serve the state’s purposes of inflicting severe abuse against a detainee’s wishes, in order to retain victims incarcerated under administrative detention to be abused routinely until serious physical deterioration or inevitable death.

Palestinian prisoners whose rights are violated by Israel’s administrative detention policies fall into contradictory paradigms that exhibit both prominence and isolation. Hence the necessity of building upon decades of state-sanctioned torture to impose the manipulation epitomised by Israel’s concept of “saving lives” as part of a prevalent torture programme in which medical professionals participate. In this regard, opposition to force-feeding due to its designation as a form of torture is subject to other interpretations under the guise of respecting human rights. While the opposition would prevent an additional form of torture to be inflicted upon Palestinians, there is a discrepancy in the lack of contiguity with regard to the wider scenario relating to human rights violations allowed by the settler-colonial state.

The organisation ‘Physicians for Human Rights – Israel’ has clearly outlined the ramifications associated with force-feeding, including the “legalisation of torture through regulating and allowing the forced feeding and forced care of the hunger strikers; improper use of medicine and/or doctors for political advantage, contravention of domestic law, of patient rights declarations, and of numerous international conventions.” What organisations fail to consider is the imposition of force-feeding as part of a wider variety of torture practices supporting the indignity of administrative detention. Hence, focusing on a single, isolated aspect removes scrutiny from years of abusive incarceration in which medical professionals are complicit, in particular medical neglect of prisoners suffering from life-threatening illnesses who are prescribed painkillers instead of being given the proper treatment, the sanctioning of torture inflicted on Palestinian detainees by omitting details of abuse from medical reports and returning detainees for further torture sessions.

In this regard, it is worth questioning why medical organisations in Israel have expressed vociferous opposition to force-feeding while the wider spectrum of torture, complicity and prestige remains unchallenged. Unwarranted visibility might be the answer – force-feeding represents an obvious deterrent to Palestinian hunger strikers whereas the multitude of other torture practices carried out within cloistered spaces retain a higher level of imposed oblivion due to routine absence of documented evidence. Rather than safeguarding the prisoners’ well-being and wishes, opposition to force-feeding will serve as the means to further oblivion with regard to state-sanctioned torture and complicity, while safeguarding complicit practitioners from the possible eroding of privilege.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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