Palestinian Hunger Striker Khader Adnan’s Death: An Explainer

Responses to common questions about Adnan’s death while on hunger strike against Israeli detention, the increasingly violent aftermath, and what Adnan meant to Palestinians.

Alex Kane
May 9, 2023

Khader Adnan plays with his daughters in the West Bank village of Arrabeh after his release from Israeli administrative detention following a 66-day hunger strike that began in December 2011.

Oren Ziv/Activestills

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Early in the morning on May 2nd, Khader Adnan was found unconscious in an Israeli prison cell, and later declared dead. A member of the political wing of Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, Adnan had been on hunger strike for 87 days to protest his jailing by the Israeli military on charges of affiliation with a terrorist group, support for terrorism, and incitement to violence. Adnan is at least the seventh Palestinian prisoner to die from a hunger strike since 1970.

His death sparked Palestinian protests and international outcry. At the United Nations (UN), for instance, experts said his death was “a tragic testament to Israel’s cruel and inhumane detention policy.” Hours after Adnan’s death, militant groups in Gaza fired rockets into Israel, injuring at least 12. In response, the Israeli air force bombed Gaza, the coastal enclave battered by repeated Israeli bombing campaigns and a devastating air, land, and sea blockade. The initial airstrikes killed a 58-year-old man and injured five others. The following day, Egyptian, Qatari, and UN officials brokered what appeared to be a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian fighters. But one week later, Israel bombed the homes of Islamic Jihad commanders in Gaza, killing 10 civilians—including four children—and three Islamic Jihad members; the move threatens to set off a larger conflagration.

Jewish Currents put together this explainer to help readers understand Adnan’s significance in Palestinian society, the charges he faced, why he went on repeated hunger strikes, and how his death set off the latest round of rocket fire and bombings.

Who was Khader Adnan and what was his significance in the Palestinian national imagination?

Adnan was a 45-year-old baker, father, and longtime Islamic Jihad activist from Arrabeh, a town in the northern West Bank near the city of Jenin. In 1999, the Israeli army arrested Adnan and detained him without charge or trial in a practice known as “administrative detention.” Over the course of his life, Israeli forces arrested Adnan a total of 12 times, keeping him imprisoned for a cumulative eight years.

In December 2011, after being placed in administrative detention for at least the third time, Adnan began what would become the longest hunger strike in Palestinian history up to that point. For 66 days, he refused food, only taking in water (and later minerals and glucose), in an action that eventually pressured Israeli authorities to grant him a release date in April 2012. Unlike many other Palestinian hunger strikers, Adnan acted individually rather than at the direction of a political faction or in concert with other prisoners, increasing public admiration for him in Palestine, where an estimated 40% of the adult male population has been placed in Israeli detention since 1967. Inside prisons, his strike kicked off a series of additional individual hunger strikes, most of them also protesting administrative detention, which can be renewed indefinitely. Many strikers also won their freedom, if only temporarily, as a result.

Over time, Palestinians came to see Adnan as a national hero resisting an unjust system of military rule. “Although he wasn’t the only one who engaged in successful hunger strikes against administrative detention, he more than anyone else helped to put this issue in the Palestinian and broader public consciousness,” said Mouin Rabbani, a co-editor of Jadaliyya, an online Middle East-focused publication. “He became for many Palestinians the embodiment of the struggle against the injustices of Israel’s system of mass incarceration.”

Adnan was re-arrested and placed in administrative detention multiple times after his release in 2011. He went on hunger strike five more times between 2014 and 2023, which significantly damaged his health. Even so, when he was out of prison, Adnan spent his time traveling around the West Bank to visit the families of imprisoned Palestinians and attend the funerals of those killed by Israeli forces. His support for other Palestinians across political lines won Adnan even greater admiration. “Unlike some political leaders who focus on their own political party, it didn’t matter to [to Adnan] whether you were a member of Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Fatah, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and a former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization. “In his messages he never highlighted factional differences. His overall message was unity in struggle.”

What charges did Adnan face throughout his many arrests?

For most of the time Adnan was jailed, he did not face charges or trial. Instead, the Israeli army repeatedly placed him in administrative detention, under which he could be jailed indefinitely and was unable to see the evidence used to detain him. Currently, Israel is holding over 1,000 Palestinians in administrative detention, the highest number since 2003. Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, said the Israeli government regularly uses administrative detention to arrest Palestinian legislators and human rights defenders. “What’s only permitted in international law as a temporary exceptional measure has become a core part of Israel’s repressive toolkit. This sweeping use of administrative detention clearly violates international law.”

On February 5th, Adnan was arrested again, but this time, the Israeli military indicted him. “Each time he underwent a hunger strike under administrative detention, the international community highlighted his case. They charged him [this time] so they didn’t go through the backlash of administrative detention,” said Milena Ansari, international advocacy officer at Palestinian prisoner rights group Addameer. “Diplomats this time kept telling us, ‘There’s a list of charges, they have something against [Adnan].’”

Israel charged Adnan with terrorism-related crimes: Affiliation with a terror group, support for terrorism, and incitement to violence. But while Adnan was an activist affiliated with Islamic Jihad—a militant organization whose armed wing has carried out numerous attacks killing Israelis—none of the charges against him were tied to actual violence carried out by the group. Budour Hassan, a researcher at Amnesty International, said the indictment focused on Adnan’s visits to families of Palestinian prisoners and the funerals of those killed by Israeli forces. “The charges say that these visits to families of prisoners could be interpreted as legitimizing the acts of the prisoners,” he said. “The indictment does not reference him participating in violent acts itself. It’s based on ideological beliefs and things that he said.”

Such charges based on ideology or association are routinely employed by Israel to lock up Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. In a 2019 report, Human Rights Watch documented how Israel uses “broadly worded military orders to arrest Palestinian journalists, activists and others for their speech and activities—much of it nonviolent—protesting, criticizing or opposing Israeli policies.”

Who is responsible for Adnan’s death?

After Adnan died, the Israel Prison Services effectively blamed Adnan for his own death, saying the hunger striker had refused medical tests or treatment while imprisoned. But human rights advocates said ultimate responsibility for Adnan’s death lay with Israel. “He died as a result of an unjust system of detention and his legitimate nonviolent protest against it,” said Shakir.

According to Anat Litvin, the director of the prisoners and detainees department at Physicians for Human Rights–Israel (PHR–I), before his death Adnan had outlined three conditions he wanted met before he agreed to receive medical treatment at a hospital outside the control of Israeli prison authorities: medical monitoring done by PHR–I; permission for his family to visit him; and an agreement by the hospital not to transfer Adnan’s medical information to the Israeli prison authorities. “If they wanted to save him—if they thought his life was worthy of saving, and they should have thought that—they should have granted him [his wishes],” said Litvin. “There are scenarios in which he could have survived,” she added, but “nobody paid attention to what he wanted.”

How did Adnan’s death result in a military escalation between Palestinian militant groups and the Israeli army?

Islamic Jihad, the Iran-backed Islamist faction that focuses on armed resistance to Israel’s occupation, said that Adnan died as a “martyr” as a result of a “crime for which the Zionist occupation bears full and direct responsibility.” Militant groups in Gaza, including Hamas, the Islamist party that rules Gaza, coordinated their response, and ultimately fired over 100 rockets into Israel. Israel responded with tank fire and airstrikes.

Both sides stopped firing the next day after an Egyptian, Qatari, and UN-brokered ceasefire agreement went into effect. But the Israeli government’s decision to halt its bombing was harshly criticized by far-right members of the country’s governing coalition. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the far-right party Otzma Yehudit, said “the public did not give us a mandate” to cease bombing Gaza, and his party announced it would boycott Knesset votes in order to protest what it called the government’s “feeble” response to the Palestinian militants’ rocket fire. Mairav Zonszein, a senior analyst on Israel/Palestine for the International Crisis Group, said that “Netanyahu has been under a lot of pressure by Ben-Gvir and the far-right, but also from residents of the Gaza border communities that wanted a stronger response.”

One week later, Israel changed tack, launching a major escalation by bombing the homes of Islamic Jihad commanders. The attacks, which killed three militants and their families, including their wives and some of their children, were lauded by Ben-Gvir’s party as an “acceptance of our position,” though Israeli officials insist Ben-Gvir was not responsible for shifting the Israeli response. “These were premeditated air raids on civilian homes in which entire families were eliminated,” said Rabbani, the Jadaliyya editor. After the escalation commenced, Otzma Yehudit ended its boycott of Knesset votes. Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid praised the government’s decision. Meanwhile, Palestinian militant groups threatened to resume firing rockets in response to the Israeli attacks.

Zonszein noted that though “this is an extremely right-wing government [that is] expected to be forceful in Gaza,” the resumed bombing does not represent a major shift in Israeli policy on Gaza, which “is pretty much consistent regardless of the makeup of the government,” she said. “Israel doesn’t have any political strategy or solution. These are just cycles that continue over and over. They keep killing Islamic Jihad members and nothing really changes.”

Why is Israel still holding on to Adnan’s body?

One week after Adnan’s death, his body has not been returned to his family because the Defense Ministry decided to keep it. Adnan is now one of over 130 Palestinians whose bodies are being kept by Israel in freezers or unmarked graves.

Israel keeps the bodies of prisoners and other Palestinians killed after carrying out attacks as bargaining chips to be used during negotiations with Hamas over the return of the much smaller number of Israelis held by the group in Gaza. (Hamas currently holds the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed during the 2014 war, in addition to detaining two living Israelis with mental illnesses who crossed into Gaza in 2014 and 2015.)

Israeli officials have also said they hold Palestinian remains to deter future attacks and to prevent large funerals that could result in clashes with Israeli forces. Sometimes, Israel only returns the bodies of slain Palestinians under strict conditions that funerals be kept quick and private.

As a result of this policy, Israel is denying the Adnan family—and the families of the other Palestinians whose bodies are held by Israeli authorities—a proper funeral and burial. “They want to control how his wife and his kids mourn,” said Buttu, the Palestinian lawyer. “They want to control us in life and control us in death.”

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.