Adnan’s Lone Strike Exposed the Difficulties of Collective Palestinian Struggle

Khader Adnan’s mission to expose the basic injustice in Israel’s military justice system and its casual denial of basic freedoms was logical, called for, and nothing short of courageous – but once again, he was forced to take the individual path, sending a message about the lack of a Palestinian collective struggle

Khader Adnan wasn’t suicidal by nature, just the opposite – he was extremely optimistic. During each of his six hunger strikes over the last 18 years, he believed there would be at least one responsible Israeli institution that would try to prevent his death by reaching a gentleman’s agreement with him. This optimism proved itself five times.

But Adnan was too optimistic. Every Israeli official that knew him – from Shin Bet field coordinators that keep track of every small beep of his and ordered his arrest, to military officers and Israel Prison Service doctors – knew how determined he was to adhere to his hunger strike.

Every one of them also knew that his health was precarious for a 45-year-old man. Adnan suffered from anemia due to a hereditary disease, and his previous hunger strikes led to complications requiring various surgeries. The fact that he reached 86 days without food or medicine – his longest hunger strike – indicates not only his determination, but also Israeli authorities’ conscious decision to avoid compromising with him even if it leads to his death.

Adnan’s determination was exceptional, and Israeli authorities knew it. Of the hundreds of Palestinian administrative detainees – some 1000 today, 790 at the end of 2022 – a few resorted as well to his method of protest, and were released shortly after they ended their hunger strike. Their releases were celebrated by the Palestinian public and presented as victories. But shortly after, the Shin Bet would order their rearrest, and they’d reenter the cycle of uncertainty that comes with indefinite detention.

Most of them wouldn’t go on hunger strikes again due to health deterioration following their initial strike and the knowledge that the Palestinian political system is too weak to do anything about the ease with which Israel throws hundreds into detention without trial.

Since 1967, there’ve been several mass hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners in protest of harsh prison conditions. At the end of 2011, Adnan was the first to go on a personal hunger strike against his administrative detention. His strike received a tremendous amount of attention, and he was eventually released – only to be arrested again three years later, and then again in 2018 and 2021.

Adnan’s hunger strikes were always portrayed as a victory. Because he was released shortly after each one. When others followed suit, their period of self-imposed starvation increased, beyond 100 days or more, until the Shin Bet agreed to promise that their detention order would not be renewed.

But this time around, Adnan wasn’t put in administrative detention. It seems the Israeli military apparatus had learned a lesson: It was unwilling to relinquish its ability to repeatedly deny his freedom, separate him from his family and upset their life. But this time, the military apparatus indicted him, not for terrorism or the use or possession of a weapon, but for membership in an illegal organization and incitement. Had he pleaded guilty, he’d probably have been sentenced to a year or a bit more in prison.

But Adnan decided to challenge the facade of normalcy of the Israeli military legal system. This is a system that has unlimited power to deny the freedom of thousands of Palestinians to speak, express an opinion, participate in a meeting, welcome a released prisoner, receive a phone call or accept a donation for education or medical treatment for the children of prisoners or killed activists.

Every Palestinian who’s ever been detained for serious offenses such as expressing an opinion, participating in a demonstration or conference or writing a combative post (which is usually the sign of a great deal of helplessness), understood the rules very quickly: Even if falsely incriminated, the sooner you admit, the shorter your imprisonment will be. Provisional releases ‘until all procedures are completed,’ are very rare in the military legal system.

The Shin Bet, Israeli police and military prosecution have exploited and continue to exploit their unlimited power to deny Palestinians freedom, including those not even suspected of using a weapon or picking up a stone.

The goal is clearly political: Israel paralyzes and silences any possible protest. It prevents Palestinians from engaging in political analysis or coming together in any joint effort that deviates from what it allows the Fatah and the Palestine Authority (PA) to partake in – which in most cases is nothing more than the usage of empty slogans and small demonstrations against violent Israeli outposts, often ending with Palestinians being shot and wounded. Sometimes even killed.

Most Palestinian initiatives for political activity against Israel’s military regime quickly fail or never come to fruition out of fear of detention or other forms of harassment.

The tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrating against the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul warn on a weekly basis that politicizing the legal system and eroding separation of powers will allow for political persecution. But the inhabitants of the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel in 1967 have lived under such ‘politicization’ and lack of separation of powers for 56 years: The Israeli military regime that was forced upon them serves as the executive, legislative (the military commander issues orders that serve as laws), and judicial (the military prosecution and judges) branches of government, with the authority to confiscate Palestinians’ land, invade their homes and restrict their freedom of movement.

Adnan’s mission to expose the basic injustice in Israel’s military justice system and its casual denial of basic freedoms was logical, called for, and nothing short of courageous. The problem is that Adnan, once again, chose the individual path, sending a message about the absence of a struggling Palestinian collective.

His individual strikes have been successful to some extent: His 2011-2012 individual hunger strike led to a general hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners demanding an end to administrative detentions and an improvement to deteriorating prison conditions. This strike led to a decrease in the number of Palestinians in administrative detention that year, from about 310 in January 2012 to 160 in November. Yet since then the number has climbed again.

The physical challenge that comes with hunger strikes – especially when it comes to young men who’ve been sentenced to only a few months in prison – and the weakness of the Palestinian political system both hinder prisoners’ ability to act as a collective. Thus, refusing to accept his freedom being taken from him and in light of what seems to be an adaptation to this reality by Palestinian civil and political establishments, Adnan chose to embark on an individual hunger strike once again.

Whether Adnan hoped to serve as an inspiration for others, we don’t know. His widow expressed her pain and frustration at the fact that his strike didn’t garner appropriate solidarity from the public. But that’s the catch: On the one hand, repeated individual hunger strikes eventually stop attracting attention and lose the ability to mobilize. On the other hand, this isn’t an ordinary community, and arbitrary arrests aren’t the only injustice that needs to be fought. After all, throughout their entire lives, Palestinians are subject to the absolute power and arbitrariness of the Israeli regime – and they continue to suffer from the fact that they and their political system are incapable of holding a continuous mass, popular struggle to remind the world that their reality is abnormal.