London Review of Books Blog / May 8, 2023
According to a 2001 US Department of Justice report, the percentage of adult male African-Americans who had ever served time in a state or federal prison rose from 8.7 to 16.6 per cent between 1974 and 2001. A study published last December found that ‘non-Hispanic Black males’ lifetime risk of imprisonment remained very high’ at more than 16 per cent.
Although similarly reliable statistics for Palestinians are unavailable, it has been estimated that 40 per cent of adult male Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have seen the inside of an Israeli prison since 1967. During the 1987-93 popular uprising, the occupied territories boasted the world’s highest per capita incarceration rate. Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has employed mass detention as a method of control over the Arab populations under its rule, often on the basis of the 1945 Defence (Emergency) Regulations introduced by the British during the Palestine Mandate and subsequently incorporated into Israeli law.
It’s hard to find a Palestinian family in which no one has been arrested. Many are held for interrogation by the security forces and then released without charge; their detention often includes various forms of torture, outlawed by international law and convention but endorsed by Israel’s supreme judicial authorities and political leadership. Many others are charged, tried and sentenced by the military court system, a farcical apparatus with a 95 per cent conviction rate. It routinely resorts to secret ‘evidence’, denies access to lawyers, prosecutes minors as adults, and convicts on the basis of coerced confessions. These abuses, too, have been repeatedly legitimised by Israel’s supreme court and government.
Administrative detention is another British practice that Israel has adopted, imposing indefinitely renewable terms of imprisonment without charge or trial. Khader Adnan died in prison on 2 May, aged 45, after an 87-day hunger strike. A former spokesman for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement from the town of Arraba in the northern West Bank, Adnan had been repeatedly held in administrative detention since 1999. Despite vilifying him as a terrorist, Israel never charged him with involvement in military activities.
A 28-day hunger strike in 2003 led to his release from prolonged solitary confinement. In administrative detention in 2011-12, he went on hunger strike for 66 days. Confronted with growing Palestinian protests and international scrutiny as Adnan neared death while shackled to a hospital bed, Israel agreed to his early release. Other Palestinian administrative detainees followed his example. In 2015 the Israeli minister of public security, Gilad Erdan (now the permanent representative to the United Nations), denounced the non-violent tactic as ‘a new kind of suicide attack’. Adnan went on hunger strike several more times, once for 56 days, during further detentions in 2014, 2015 and 2021.
His latest arrest, on 5 February, was accompanied by a charge sheet rather than administrative detention order. The first count was membership in a banned organisation, which by Israeli standards most Palestinians have been guilty of at some point in their lives, though Adnan’s wife, Randa, insists it no longer applied to her husband. The second count was incitement, on the strength of such activities as paying solidarity visits to the families of political prisoners and expressing public support for those on hunger strike. Anticipating indefinite pre-trial detention culminating at best in conviction by a kangaroo court, Adnan resorted once again to hunger strike.
In the past, Israel tended to offer an eleventh-hour deal rather than face the potentially explosive consequences of allowing a hunger striker to die. But an apocalyptic eruption is just what is wanted by key members of the current Israeli government, such as the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a self-styled ‘fascist homophobe’, and the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a devotee of Meir Kahane who was in 2007 convicted by an Israeli court of incitement to racism and support for a terrorist organisation. Ben-Gvir is a resident of the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba, one of the most fanatical population centres on the planet. Previous residents include Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of the massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron/Al-Khalil in 1994, whose portrait hung in Ben-Gvir’s living room until 2020.
Under these circumstances negotiations with Adnan were never an option. Worse still, and in contrast to past practice, he was not transferred to a hospital equipped for emergency resuscitation, and the Israel Prison Service rejected repeated requests by Adnan’s wife and children to visit him. Israel’s courts washed their hands of the situation. It is now a week since he died and the Israeli authorities are still refusing to release his body to his family for burial.
Khader Adnan carried out his struggles against Israel’s carceral regime on his own initiative. He wasn’t following directives from a political leadership or participating in a broader campaign organized by the prisoner movement. His actions exposed the impotence and failure of the Palestinian Authority, which had itself arrested him on several occasions over the years. Islamic Jihad and the other factions offered only rhetorical support. Randa Adnan has said that those who forsook her husband during his final days have forfeited the right to avenge his death.
All the same, it is difficult to overstate the political and emotive significance of the prisoner question for Palestinians, given that incarceration has played such a prominent role in ordinary lives as well as the development of the national movement. In the short term, Adnan’s death has once again put the plight of Palestinian prisoners – especially the old, sick and long-term – high on the political agenda. It also adds more oil to an already flammable reality.
Mouin Rabbani is co-editor of Jadaliyya and a non-resident fellow at the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies