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Israel under fire over contentious force-feeding law

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Bernat Armangue/AP/File

(Read caption) A Palestinian woman holds a poster with a drawing depicting Islamic Jihad member Khader Adnan with a locked mouth, February 2012. At the time, he had been on hunger strike for two months.

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Israeli medical associations and rights groups are up in arms after the country’s parliament passed a controversial law Thursday authorizing the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strikes.

After a drawn-out parliamentary debate, the law passed by a slim margin, with a final vote of 46-40 in the 120-seat Knesset. 

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While the legislation applies to all inmates held in Israeli jails, hunger strikes are most common among Palestinian prisoners, who use them as a tool to draw attention to their incarceration without trial or charges.

Palestinian prisoners have staged a series of hunger strikes in recent years, often leading to their hospitalization and waves of protests in the occupied West Bank. Some high-profile cases have also led to prisoners’ release, but under this legislation, that may no longer be possible. 

"The new law allows us to prevent a threat to the prisoners' lives and to prevent them from putting pressure on the state,” said Gilad Erdan, Israel's Public Security Minister. 

However, Israel's Medical Association has urged Israeli doctors not to abide by the law, saying force-feeding is a medically risky form of torture, Reuters reports. 

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel called the law shameful and horrendous, saying it "turns medicine into a tool of policing, punishment and oppression."

"It pushes the medical community to severely violate medical ethics for political gains, as was done in other dark regimes in history," the group wrote in a statement. 

Under the new law, Israel's prison service would need permission from the attorney general to ask a judge to allow the force-feeding of a prisoner. The judge would then consider a doctor's opinion, the prisoner's position, and security conditions before ruling on the matter, according to PHR-Israel’s Amany Daiyf. 

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The decision comes following the release of Khader Adnan of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group, who went on a hunger strike for 56 days during his confinement in June, demanding an end to his detention without trial.

Mr. Adnan carried out the longest hunger strike among Palestinians during a previous detention in 2012, refusing to eat for 66 days until Israeli authorities promised to release him.

The earliest well-known cases of force-feeding prisoners on hunger strikes date back to the early 20th century. 

After suffragettes unleashed riots across Britain demanding women’s right to vote, 1,000 women were convicted between 1905 and the outbreak of WWI, writes June Purvis, professor of sociology at the University of Portsmouth. Many of them used hunger strikes during their detention as a political tool, and the government responded with force-feeding. 

Fast-forward a century, and the method is still a hot topic in many countries.

In 2013, President Obama drew fire over his decision to force-feed Guantánamo Bay prison inmates on hunger strikes in Cuba, to which he responded, "I don’t want these individuals to die."

That same year, California prison officials won a court order saying they could force-feed dozens of inmates who had been on a hunger strike for six weeks over solitary confinement conditions. 

When Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed the contentious bill in June, the World Medical Association wrote, "There are far better results in handling hunger strikes than force-feeding."

In a public statement, the association urged Mr. Netanyahu to support initiatives for medical care for unhealthy inmates put forward by the Israeli Medical Association. 

"For the sake of the people involved and the safety and reputation of your country," the statement reads, "please reconsider this step which is already broadly criticized internationally, but worse, which will not help the problem you wish to solve."

Material from wire services was used in this report.