Medical associations and human rights groups in Israel and the West Bank are condemning a piece of legislation passed by the Israeli government as being akin to "torture".

The proposed "Law to Prevent Harm Caused by Hunger Strikes", approved on Sunday, permits the force-feeding of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners, if their lives are deemed to be in danger.

The controversial bill permits a prisoner to have a legal counsel present, and says force-feeding must be carried out under specific conditions, namely permission from a judge that must be given to a local district court president or vice president, and not a prison official.

Protesters hold posters depicting the faces of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, Thaer Halahleh, left, and Bilal Diab, right  [AP]

Several rights and medical groups expressed vehement opposition to the practice, even as the government says force-feeding tactics would only be used if an inmate's life is perceived to be in danger.

Physicians for Human Rights, a Tel Aviv-based group, said the law violates international norms and medical ethics, and is not about preventing death in custody. "No Palestinian prisoner in Israel has died due to a hunger strike," said Amany Dayif, PHR's director of the prisoners and detainees department. "In fact, in the history of hunger strikes, and between 1970 and 1992, five have died due to force-feeding."

Dayif said that having the practice of force-feeding preserved in law is a dangerous precedent. "A strike is a peaceful act by a person whose only freedom is the ability to use of his body," Dayif said. "This is a meant to serve as a warning to any prisoner who wants to use this tactic in the future."

Last year, both the National Bioethics Council, Israel's highest authority on medical ethics, and the Israel

The law is basically a means to institutionalise torture...on an industrial scale.

Gavan Kelly, former international advocacy coordinator for Addameer

Medical Association, sent a letter to high-ranking officials denouncing the practice as ethically and morally wrong.

Some Israeli government officials said the law ensured that Palestinian prisoners did not use hunger strikes as a "blackmailing tool", and that it is a necessary bill for avoiding unrest in the Palestinian territories should a detainee die from a hunger strike.

"Security prisoners are interested in turning a hunger strike into a new type of suicide terrorist attack through which they will threaten the State of Israel," said Gilad Erdan, Israel's minister of public security, who is promoting the bill. "We will not allow anyone to threaten us and we will not allow prisoners to die in our prisons."

Palestinian groups said they would be working with their Israeli counterparts to turn to the UN and its various bodies that deal with torture. "The law is basically a means to institutionalise torture...on an industrial scale," said Gavan Kelly, former international advocacy coordinator for the Palestinian rights group Addameer.

Kelly added that Israel was using force-feeding as a political tool because it has failed to deal with similar strikes in the past. "Officials will say they have the interest of the hunger strikers in mind, but the sole purpose of this law is to limit the political damage of the hunger strikes," he said.

The ministerial legislative committee first gave preliminary approval to the bill on June 9 of last year. The bill was then frozen when the Knesset was dissolved and elections were called for six months later. To become a law, a bill must pass three readings in the Knesset.

Now, the Knesset will be able to hold second and third readings of the proposed law, essentially picking up from where the cabinet left off before Israel's most recent elections.

A woman holds up a poster of Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan in a 2012 demonstration. Adnan had been in prison and on hunger strike for two months [AP]

Palestinian prisoners have held hunger strikes to demand an end to Israel's practice of administrative detention, which allows Israeli authorities to incarcerate them for extended periods without charge or trial.

Khader Adnan is a 37-year-old man from Arabbeh, near Jenin, has been on a hunger strike since May 5 to protest having been held without trial since July of last year. Adnan, who is affiliated with the Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian political party considered illegal by Israel, is currently at an Israeli hospital against his will, where he is refusing supplements, and is only drinking water.

In late 2011, Adnan had staged another hunger strike, one that lasted 66 days and eventually led to his release, spurring other administrative detainees to use the same tactic. In recent years, lengthy hunger strikes have proved challenging for Israel, as prisoners have used them as a tactic to extract concessions.

Palestinian hunger strikers 'in immiment danger'

When the bill was first introduced in 2014, more than 125 Palestinian prisoners had been going without food for more than two consecutive months. One prisoner, Ayman Tbeish, had been striking for more than 110 days.

In 2012, another wide-reaching strike eventually led to Israeli authorities agreeing to limit administrative detention to exceptional circumstances.

The detainees, held on secret information they were not privy to, had included Samer Issawi, who fasted for eight months before he was eventually released to his native East Jerusalem. Issawi has since been imprisoned again.

Rights groups have also said they would challenge the law in Israel's supreme court should it pass. 

Since 1969, incarcerated Palestinians have held approximately 23 hunger strikes, the longest lasting about nine months, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a Ramallah-based advocacy group.

Source: Al Jazeera