Mondoweiss / May 4, 2023
The world lost Khader Adnan after 86 days of hunger strike, and Palestine lost an icon. Yet, in the words of activist Ashira Darwish, “Freedom means that he left the body that they destroyed.”
On May 2, Khader Adnan was found dead in his cell inside the Ramleh Prison Clinic. He is the first Palestinian prisoner to die on hunger strike in Israeli jail since 1967. He is also the veteran of seven other hunger strikes, which he underwent over the course of two decades, but his more recent hunger strikes (from 2011 onwards) are what launched him into national and international prominence as a symbol of Palestinian defiance and steadfastness. He is almost single-handedly credited with starting subsequent waves of Palestinian hunger strikes in Israeli prisons, becoming a central figure in what became known as “the battle of empty stomachs.”
Hailing from the town of Arrabeh outside of Jenin, the 44-year-old was married to Randa, and together they had nine children — five boys and four girls.
The man who demanded freedom
“Freedom means that he left the body that they destroyed,” Ashira Darwish, one of the Palestinian activists who first greeted Khader Adnan as he ran out of Ofer Prison following the success of his first long-term hunger strike in 2011-2012, told Mondoweiss.
Before becoming a target of Israeli abuses, Adnan studied economics at Birzeit University, graduating in 2001. He would return to the university to pursue his graduate studies, but he was arrested before completing his degree.
The first time Adnan declared an individual long-term hunger strike in Israeli prison was in 2011-2012, lasting 66 days. Adnan was just entering his 30s, and the revolutionary fervor of the Arab revolts against totalitarianism was bubbling over into Palestine. Adnan’s hunger strike was a spark that signaled the resurgence of the Palestinian prisoners’ movement in Israeli prisons, garnering the attention and solidarity of the Palestinian public.
“Khader Adnan is a name and personality that have become a staple in our household,” Dana Bulous, a lawyer and daughter of Jawad Bulous, Adnan’s legal representative during his first hunger strikes, told Mondoweiss.
“I first heard of Khader Adnan in 2012, when my father was appointed to represent him,” she told Mondoweiss in the wake of Adnan’s death. “I remember when my father said that there was an administrative detainee who had gone on hunger strike, and that I should accompany him on this case whenever possible,” Bulous said.
At the time, Adnan had been arrested by Israeli forces and put under administrative detention, the practice of being imprisoned without charge or trial, and for reasons that Israeli intelligence does not need to disclose to the detainee or their lawyer, as they are instead relegated to a “secret file.”
“Administrative detention is a cruel system which Israel routinely uses against Palestinians, especially in the West Bank,” Bulous explained to Mondoweiss. “From the beginning, it is an impossible situation for the prisoners, their families, and their lawyers.”
This process, designed and implemented by the Israeli military courts and judicial system, operates separately from Israel’s civil administrative and judicial framework, and effectively denies any detainee the chance to challenge, contradict, or even admit guilt of the crimes being fabricated against them.
“I saw how my father used to come back from visiting Khader, full of admiration and amazement, saying how over the 30 plus years of working with prisoners, he had hardly met anyone with the mind and conviction of Khader,” Bulous said.
“When I used to ask Khader, ‘how did you do it?’” Darwish recalled to Mondoweiss. “He said, ‘I have yaqeen [faith] in God,’” referencing the Islamic belief in the certainty that God will protect you.
Adnan was arrested a total of 13 times, which added up to nine years in prison, or nearly a quarter of his life. Khader Adnan became the testament to a new mode of resistance with two weapons in its arsenal — empty stomachs and solidarity.
“Khader would not accept anything other than his freedom. No amount of pressure could make him negotiate for anything less,” Bulous said. “It was either freedom or freedom.”
Freedom or freedom: a lifetime of hunger strikes
“When he first ended his hunger strike and was released, Adnan came to [al-Manara Square] where youth were protesting and on hunger strike, in solidarity [with other hunger strikers and detainees],” Darwish said, recalling the first time she met Adnan. “He was just the sweetest person.”
Throughout his activism, Khader Adnan, who was affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), often pushed for unity stances, insisting that Palestinians remain united in the face of a merciless colonial machine. When he was in chains and unable to join the movement on the streets, Adnan would resort to using his body as a tool of protest.
“Khader came and stood on this square for all the other detainees and hunger strikers,” Adnan’s wife, Randa Moussa, told Mondoweiss, referring to the countless times Adnan protested in al-Manara Square in downtown Ramallah.
Throughout those years of defiance, and after his many battles with his empty stomach, the 44-year-old was dubbed the “knight of hunger strikes,” a testament to his insistence on laying claim to the last domain of control over his body.
“Words are not enough to describe him, but generally we are speaking about someone with a history of struggle,” Amany Sarahneh, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Prisoners Society, told Mondoweiss.
Khader Adnan’s first experience on hunger strike was in the prisons of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Jericho, more than 22 years ago. Adnan testified to undergoing torture and mistreatment during that stint in the PA’s jails, which he was spending under allegations of inciting others to throw stones at French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin during a visit to Birzeit University. That first hunger strike lasted for ten days.
The second time he would starve his body was in 2004, when almost 4,000 Palestinian political detainees went on a 18-day hunger strike protesting abuses inside Israeli prison, demanding basic rights like family visitation and access to cigarettes, books, and newspapers. This would be Adnan’s third arrest by Israel, and he spent most of it in solitary confinement.
His third hunger strike, and the one that launched him into prominence, was in 2011-2012. His strike coincided with new policies enforced by the Israeli Prison Service that stripped prisoners’ rights.
This time, Adnan’s strike was a solo effort and would jump-start a trend of individual hunger strikes of Palestinian detainees protesting their individual conditions of imprisonment, especially pertaining to their administrative detention. After 66 days of starvation, Adnan was released from Ofer military detention camp on April 17, 2012.
Khader Adnan entered another long hunger strike in May of 2015, where he refused food for 56 days following an earlier ten-day hunger strike in February of the same year, when he was first arrested and put under administrative detention for two consecutive six-month periods. Part of the deal between Israeli Prison Services and Khader Adnan was that he would end his hunger strike if Israeli authorities were to release him and pledge not to arrest him again under administrative detention.
Yet only two years later, he was arrested again by Israeli forces in December 2017. He underwent a 58-day hunger strike into 2018, around the same time the Great March of Return was mobilizing in Gaza, after which he was released.
“Over the years, the Israeli state has cared less and less for the hunger strikers,” Bulous explained to Mondoweiss. “It has tried to ‘milk’ their lives to the very limit in order not to give into Palestinian hunger strikers.”
Adnan’s success that year did not end with his own release. A wave of “battles of empty stomachs” ensued among Palestinian political detainees. Hana Shalabi, Bilal Diab, Thaer Halahleh, Hasan Safadi, and Nizar Tamimi all entered hunger strikes, each extending for several months. Most of the hunger strikers successfully regained their freedom, even though some were deported or exiled to places like Gaza and Jordan.
During the Unity Intifada peak in May and June of 2021, Khader Adnan was arrested again by Israeli authorities and put under administrative detention. He went on a hunger strike for 25 days, after which he was released.
“After the 2021 hunger strike, Khader was in the ICU for three days,” Moussa recalled to Mondoweiss, listing the surgeries Adnan had to undergo after every strike, further weakening his body.
It was clear to the Israeli authorities that Adnan would refuse to engage with them while in chains even for a single moment, and yet on May 2 of this year, Adnan’s life was milked out of him. But his impact upon the community lives on beyond his victories in the battles of empty stomachs.
Beyond hunger strikes: defying injustice everywhere
Adnan’s successes in previous hunger strikes depended not only on his conviction and will to endure starvation but on the solidarity and external pressures generated by the Palestinian street and the international community. The prospect of a popular upheaval or uprising in response to violations against Palestinian prisoners has functioned as a kind of deterrent for the Israeli Prison Service.
“I see Khader Adnan’s purposeful killing as Israel’s strategy to further repress Palestinians and any sort of resistance,” Bulous explained to Mondoweiss. “Whether it is through peaceful tactics or non-peaceful ones,” she added.
Although Khader Adnan is mainly known for his advocacy for political detainees, Adnan’s struggle against repression and injustice was not solely directed against the prison guards attempting to obtain coerced confessions from him — he also stood against the repression and authoritarianism of the PA.
In February of last year, he was targeted in a drive-by shooting in Nablus, which the late Adnan said was an assassination attempt by the PA to remove him from the Palestinian political and public arena. He also emphasized that the PA’s assassination attempt aimed to eliminate Palestinian symbols of confrontation and deter Palestinians from resisting the occupation. According to his family, no one was held accountable for the attempted killing, and no investigation was opened.
“Khader was a community man, he knew how to mobilize,” Randa Moussa told Mondoweiss before his death, still praying and hoping her husband would make it out alive. “His strategy was the mobilization of the collective. He ensured that when we went to support detainees or hunger strikers or when we would attend vigils, that all of us would go, the whole family. It was a collective act,” she said.
“In the end, even when they killed him, we say they may think they killed him, but in reality his idea will never die,” the Palestinian Prisoners Society’s Sarahneh told Mondoweiss.
Adnan’s body was moved to the “Abu Kabir” facility, the only institute in Israel allowed to perform autopsies on bodies with cases of unnatural death. Israeli authorities pushed this effort forward against Adnan’s final written will. He did not want his body to be dissected after death but buried swiftly and without delay. According to his lawyers, this delay in his burial is another attempt at further targeting the symbolism and inspiration that Adnan has planted in his community.
As the world lost Khader Adnan, Palestine lost an icon and a symbol, while Randa and her nine children, Ma’ale, Hamza, Mohammad, Ali, Abedlrahman, Omar, Zeinab, Maryam, and Bisan, were left without a husband and a father.
As for Khader Adnan, and in the words of Ashira Darwish: “Now, he is free.”
Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss