The Life, Final Hunger Strike, and Death of Khader Adnan (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- May 8, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Khader Adnan, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) activist, died in an Israeli jail on May 2 after a three-month hunger strike. His death provoked a rocket barrage from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Why did he die? Why the rockets from Gaza? Why was Israel’s response so limited and why did it provoke yet another protest by National Security Minister Ben Gvir?

A. Let’s look first at Khader Adnan. He was not accused of perpetrating or sponsoring terrorist acts. But he was a member of PIJ, the most extreme of the Palestinian resistance organizations, which is justifiably deemed a terrorist group.

PIJ is supported actively by Iran. It calls for Israel’s destruction. Khader Adnan incited his fellow Palestinians in this spirit. He died at age 45 after an 86-day hunger strike. Paradoxically, this hunger strike ended in death because this was Adnan’s first detention in Israeli jail on criminal charges--incitement and membership in a terrorist organization. On 11 previous occasions and during five previous hunger strikes over the past 18 years he had been held under administrative detention, which is a holdover measure from pre-1948 British mandatory rule.

Administrative detention does not require charging and trying a detainee. It relies on evidence which the Shin Bet can show a judge but does not wish to reveal in open court. Under this measure, detention is limited to six months--but can easily be renewed.

In the past, when Adnan was held in administrative detention and his hunger strike worried the authorities, they simply reached a deal to release him in return for his ending the strike. This time, his detention on criminal charges precluded deal-making; an appeal to a military court was rejected. He had to be charged and tried. Rather than end his hunger strike, which on previous occasions protested detention without trial, Adnan was determined to avoid the trial he was finally being offered, and to die a martyr. He refused to be hospitalized. Already on day 53 of his hunger strike he wrote a will, naming his wife and nine children as his heirs.

Q. Why wasn’t he hospitalized by force and force-fed? The Israeli authorities have done that in the past.

A. Force-feeding a hunger striker is a controversial (and brutal) measure. Ultimately, Adnan made crystal clear his wish to die of starvation. His case generated an ethical debate among his jailers: some argued that his free will must be honored; others cited the supreme Jewish value of life. Immediately (and unusually) upon his death, Adnan’s wife called upon her fellow Palestinians not to try to revenge his death by firing rockets at Israel--in effect an acknowledgement that he sought to die by suicide.

Q. The PIJ did not heed the widow’s request . . .

A.On the day of Adnan’s death, the PIJ, with a little mortar-fire help from Hamas, fired 100 rockets from Gaza toward Israel’s Gaza periphery towns and kibbutzim, injuring several. What happened next is an internal Israeli political drama.

Prime Minister Netanyahu convened a Security Cabinet meeting. He did not invite Itamar Ben Gvir, minister of internal security and an advocate of severely punishing Gazans for every infringement of the ceasefire with Israel. The security cabinet meeting led to a mild Israel Defense Forces response that killed a single Palestinian and was clearly designed to curtail the tit-for-tat with Gaza’s militants and avoid escalation.

In other words, the Security Cabinet elected to honor the usual ritual of exchanging fire briefly, then restoring the status quo ante. Put differently, this was a gesture to the absence of a genuine Israeli strategy for dealing with Gaza.

Meanwhile, Egypt helpfully mediated a renewed ceasefire. After all, Gaza-based Hamas did not want to jeopardize the employment of 17,000 Gazans who commute daily to financially beneficial work in Israel. And Hamas wants to continue receiving extensive economic aid from Qatar. Accordingly, it escaped unscathed from a round of violence started by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

This appeared to end the violence catalyzed by Adnan’s suicide hunger strike. Only Ben Gvir, plainly dissatisfied, openly criticized the government for not punishing Gaza more forcefully. Ben Gvir’s messianic-Kahanist constituents want blood, Arab blood; that is their strategy for Gaza. He and his Jewish Power coalition contingent declared they are boycotting both Cabinet meetings and Knesset votes until Netanyahu gets much tougher. Ben Gvir is daring Prime Minister Netanyahu to remove him and his six Knesset mandates from the coalition of 64.

Note that Ben Gvir’s own ministry, which runs the prison service, was ultimately responsible for Adnan’s detention and death, as it is for the incredibly high rate of murders among Israel’s Arab citizenry. Firing Ben Gvir would end the abomination of Kahanist-racist ministers in Israel’s government. But it would also bring down Netanyahu’s government.

Q. Hold on. Let’s reverse course for a moment and get back to administrative detention without trial. Why does this anti-judicial and anti-democratic practice continue?

A. Not only does it continue, but recent rounds of West Bank violence and incitement have brought the total number of Palestinian administrative detainees (citing the Israeli NGO HaMoked) to over 1,000. This record number is presumably not only a reflection of growing West Bank instability and unrest. It also almost certainly testifies to the growing sophistication of Shin Bet terrorism detection measures and the need to shield them from exposure to Palestinian scrutiny by court testimony.

This is what the United States uses Guantanamo for. In Israel right now it’s on steroids.

Q. What have we learned?

A. There are a number of important insights and lessons here.

First, ironically, or perhaps perversely, the debate among Adnan’s jailers over whether to force feed him and keep him alive or honor his wish to die of starvation reflects the tension between ‘Jewish state’ and ‘democratic state’ currently afflicting Israeli society. Some of the jailers would have force fed him in the name of the ‘sanctity of life’, a Jewish value. Others, who prevailed, cited his democratic human rights, including the right to end his life.

Khader Adnan was a ‘serial hunger striker’ who used this practice to attract attention both to Israel’s reliance on administrative detention and to himself as a leader of PIJ. He died because Israel ‘changed the rules’ and arrested him under a procedure that did not permit his early release, as in the past. His death was foreseen by the authorities. So was the PIJ rocket response from Gaza. So was Egyptian mediation with Hamas to arrange a new ceasefire.

There was no Jewish blood specifically on Adnan’s hands. If an Israeli, whether Jewish or Arab, had incited to Israel’s destruction--at least one Arab political party in Israel does this on occasion in one form or another--the High Court of Justice would ensure they enjoy freedom of speech. Presumably, Adnan was incarcerated for something similar. This is not to excuse PIJ’s threats and vile terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians or to argue that Adnan did not belong to a terrorist organization.

Q. By suicide, did Adnan at least make a point about Israeli justice?

A. Whatever the circumstances, the spotlight that briefly focused on the practice of administrative detention as a consequence of Adnan’s death by suicide and PIJ’s rocket response from Gaza should give us pause. Detaining over a thousand Palestinians without trial and without allowing them to confront their accusers is just plain immoral. Israel has to find a better way.

Then too, four months of Itamar Ben Gvir’s tenure as national security minister should by now have taught his supporters that he has failed at the most central and consensual task he promised to undertake: reducing criminal violence within Israel’s Arab sector. The praiseworthy progress made here by the previous, Bennett-Lapid government, has been erased. The Arab death rate in Israel--including numerous honor killings of women by husbands and brothers--has doubled. Ben Gvir is all bravado, incitement and blood-curdling threats against Arabs but--ask the Israel Police--no results.

Adnan’s death and the events that followed enabled all involved, and the public, to take Ben Gvir’s measure once again. No wonder even PM Netanyahu prefers not to involve him in key security decision-making on issues like responding to violence from Gaza. Ben Gvir has begun threatening to resign, and Netanyahu has begun threatening to fire him. That neither one acts on his threats reflects the political imperative of holding their ill-begotten coalition together. But for how long?

Q. Bottom line?

A. Finally, in this business there is justice and then. . . there is justice. More or less in parallel with Adnan’s suicide by starvation in an Israeli jail, Israel released and deported to Jordan a member of the Jordanian Parliament, Imad al-Adwan. Two weeks ago, MP al-Adwan was caught red-handed at the Allenby Bridge smuggling in his Mercedes more than 200 weapons, along with 100 kilograms of gold, from Jordan into the West Bank. His interrogators in Israel discovered that this was not his first attempt to smuggle weapons to militant West Bank Palestinians; 11 earlier smuggling missions simply escaped detection and succeeded.

So this man has the blood of many Israelis on his hands. Yet he was hastily deported back to the Hashemite Kingdom because Israel’s relations with Jordan are too important to jeopardize by holding him. In other words, Israel’s tight security coordination with Jordan is too vital to endanger by incarcerating a single very dangerous Arab.

To get Adwan back, Jordan agreed to cancel his parliamentary immunity and try him. Don’t hold your breath waiting for heavy punishment. In Jordan, Adwan is popular.