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TEL AVIV, Israel - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has moved to allow force-feeding of Palestinian hunger strikers, setting off a fiery debate with doctors’ associations who contend that doing so would amount to torturing prisoners who have spent weeks protesting detention without trial.
The government is trying to push through a bill that would allow a judge to okay force-feeding if an inmate's life is perceived to be in danger, according Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Critics of the bill say the practice amounts to torture.
Israel's Prisons Service says 65 Palestinian hunger-striking prisoners are in hospitals, though none has been reported to be in critical condition. Palestinian groups put the number of prisoners requiring hospital care at 78.
The hospitalization of prisoners has raised fears about a possible death in custody, which some say would set off riots.
The practice of forcing feeding hunger strikers -- which could potentially impact the 300 prisoners who Palestinian groups say have been hunger striking since April 23 -- is tantamount to torture, according to Amany Dayif, the director of prisoners and detainees at Physicians for Human Rights.
"The Israeli Ministry of Health is trying to advance the bill despite its position as a body which should be protecting the physicians from these kinds of proceedings," she said. “But to the contrary, it uses them for political and security reasons in order to break the prisoners' will.”
The Israeli Medical Association and the Israel National Bioethics Council also have opposed the practice, which is not only unethical but can prove deadly, Dayif added.
Some 200 out of the 5,200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are there under administrative detention, or detention without trial, according to Abed Al Anani, the general director of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club. More than 300 of the prisoners are on hunger strike, among them 175 administrative detainees, who can spend years in prison without being charged, he said.
"There is a fear that riots will ensue...in the case of the death of a prisoner."
Yoel Hadar of the Public Security Ministry, which launched the bill, said force-feeding would be a last resort and a needed safeguard for Israel’s security.
“There is fear that riots will ensue inside prisons, in the Judia and Samaria, Israel and even around the world in the case of the death of a prisoner on hunger strike,” he said, using the biblical name some in Israel use to refer to the occupied West Bank, which Palestinians hope one day will become part of an independent state.
Force-feeding also does not run counter to international conventions, he said, adding that it is practiced in Austria and Australia.
The Israeli government came under renewed pressure on Friday when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was concerned about the worsening health of Palestinian hunger strikers.
"The Secretary-General is concerned about reports regarding the deteriorating health of Palestinian administrative detainees who have been on hunger strike for over a month," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. "He reiterates his long-standing position that administrative detainees should be charged or released without delay."
Israeli security services contend that administrative detention is central to the war on terror and abolishing it would hamper efforts to stop terror attacks.
Ban Ki-moon’s statement will surely be welcomed by Palestinians whose loved ones are detained.
Hasan Al-Warydan, whose 36-year-old son Mahmoud has spent eight years in administrative detention and is one of the hunger strikers, supports his son’s right to protest what he considers to be illegal detention.
"It's my son’s right to go on hunger strike, and this is his way to protest his imprisonment in Israeli jail without filing charges and without any trial," he said, adding that Mahmoud had lost some 55 pounds while on strike.
"Instead of forcing them to eat, they should force the Israeli security services to release them," he said.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report