A high-profile Palestinian prisoner died in Israeli custody on Tuesday after a hunger strike of nearly three months, Israel’s prison service announced. His death set off a barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip and raised fears of a further escalation.
Late Tuesday, the Israeli military said it had started air strikes on Gaza targets, in response to earlier rocket salvos from the coastal strip, run by the militant Hamas group. There was no immediate word on casualties or damage and the aerial bombardment stopped in the early hours.
The case of the Palestinian prisoner has also drawn attention to the tactic of hunger strikes – used by prisoners around the world yet considered a particularly crucial tool for Palestinians held by Israel with few other means at their disposal.
Khader Adnan, 45, a leader of the militant Islamic Jihad group, helped introduce the practice of protracted hunger strikes by individual prisoners as a form of protest. Palestinian detainees have mostly used hunger strikes to challenge administrative detention, a controversial tactic in which more than 1,000 Palestinians and a handful of Israelis are currently being held without charge or trial.
Adnan first grabbed international headlines and inspired solidarity protests over a decade ago, when he staged a 66-day hunger strike against his administrative detention. That galvanized hundreds of other prisoners to join the strike, which ended with a deal for his release. He was later arrested again.
Through all levels of Palestinian society – from squalid refugee camps in Gaza to wealthy businesses in the West Bank – Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention are celebrated as national heroes. Israel considers Palestinian prisoners to be terrorists.
Adnan, who was arrested a dozen times and spent nearly a fifth of his life in Israeli prison, became a potent symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s open-ended occupation, now in its 56th year. His use of hunger strikes as a bargaining chip against Israeli authorities – during two other strikes in 2015 and 2018 that lasted 56 and 58 days, respectively – motivated many other desperate Palestinians in administrative detention to refuse food.
Israel’s prison service said Adnan had been charged with “involvement in terrorist activities” following his February arrest. Last week, an Israeli military court denied him bail. A hearing on his appeal was repeatedly postponed.
After the news of his death broke, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired 26 rockets at populated areas in southern Israel, sending shrapnel flying. Three foreign workers were wounded at a construction site in the city of Sderot, Israel’s rescue service said, without identifying their nationalities. One of the foreigners, a 25-year-old man, was reported to be in serious condition. A few hours later, the military said six mortars shells were fired at Israel, most of them falling short and not reaching Israeli territory.
“This is an initial response to this heinous crime,” said a coalition of Gaza-based Palestinian militant groups, led by the enclave’s militant Hamas rulers. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh called it an “assassination,” accusing Israel of medical neglect.
Early Wednesday, the Israeli military said its aircraft struck military posts, training sites, weapons storage facilities and an underground tunnel belonging to Hamas. Palestinian residents reported several explosions by Israeli air raids in northwestern Gaza City and other parts of the Strip. Hamas had earlier evacuated military and security targets in anticipation of Israeli strikes.
Air raid sirens sounded and Israeli municipal councils opened public bomb shelters. Field fires broke out. Shrapnel punched holes into pavement, shattered windows and charred cars. Four rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, authorities said.
The Israeli military responded with tank fire into Gaza and said it was planning further retaliation. A military official, speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations, said that the army assessed that Islamic Jihad fired the rockets with Hamas’ knowledge.
“The security establishment will act with determination and force against anyone who tries to harm the citizens of Israel,” said Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
A general strike was announced across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians flocked to military checkpoints in the occupied territory, slinging stones. Israeli forces responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. A suspected Palestinian shooting attack in the West Bank lightly wounded an Israeli man. Earlier Tuesday, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired another three rockets that landed in empty fields in Israel.
A march commemorating Adnan in the northern city of Jenin, a hotbed of Palestinian militancy, spiralled into violence Tuesday when Palestinian security forces prevented protesters from reaching the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters. As Palestinians fired into the air and chanted against the PA, long derided for its security co-operation with Israel, Palestinian security forces fired tear gas into the crowd.
With violence surging over the past year and the Israeli military launching near-nightly arrest raids in the West Bank, the number of Palestinians in administrative detention has swelled to the highest number in two decades. Israel says the tactic helps authorities thwart attacks and hold dangerous militants without divulging incriminating material for security reasons.
Palestinians and rights groups say the system is widely abused and denies due process, with the secret nature of the evidence making it impossible for administrative detainees or their lawyers to mount a defence.
As a result, Palestinian prisoners have turned to hunger strikes – whether in large groups with hundreds refusing food, or individually, for decades. Since the 1967 Mideast war, when Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, Israel has jailed thousands of Palestinians. The strikes are often aimed at protesting prison conditions – including the very fact of open-ended detentions – or winning concessions such as family visits.
Over the years, with starving prisoners’ shrivelled bodies drawing international condemnation, Israeli governments have at times accepted their demands to avoid deaths in custody. The most famous of these deals involved Adnan’s lengthy hunger strikes and releases from prison in 2012 and 2015.
But the current Israeli government, the most right-wing in the country’s history, has vowed to take a hard-line against the Palestinians. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right politician, has cracked down on security prisoners, shortening shower times to four minutes, closing prison bakeries and restricting exercise time and family visits.
Ben-Gvir demanded Tuesday that prison officials exhibit “zero-tolerance” and ordered prisoners be confined to their cells.
Rights groups blamed Israel for Adnan’s death, alleging that authorities ignored warnings about his life-threatening condition. Adnan’s lawyer said the Israeli prison service retaliated by placing him isolation after he began his hunger strike. He said Adnan had appealed to Israeli authorities to transfer him to a hospital.
“We lay the responsibility for his death at the feet of the Israeli authorities,” said Dana Moss from Physicians for Human Rights Israel. “Hunger strikes are one of the few non-violent tools left to Palestinians as they battle against Israel’s unfair legal system.”
The Israeli prison service said Adnan was in a prison medical facility, but had refused medical treatment “until the last moment” when his legal proceedings moved ahead. The prison authorities said he was found unconscious in his cell early Tuesday and transferred to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Hundreds gathered at Adnan’s home in the West Bank town of Arraba, near Jenin, holding posters bearing his image and calling for revenge. In a rare call for de-escalation, Adnan’s widow, Randa Musa, asked Palestinians not to respond with violence.
“We do not want a single drop of blood shed,” she told the crowd. “We do not want rockets to be fired.”