A Hunger Striker at Death’s Door Turns Up the Heat on Israel — and on the Palestinian Leadership

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Saif Dahlah / AFP / Getty Images

Maali joins a protest in support of her father, Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan, who has been on hunger strike for two months. The demonstration was held outside his home in the town of Arabeh near the West Bank city of Jenin on Feb. 17, 2012

Update 2.21.2012: Palestinian detainee Khader Adnan has reportedly agreed to end his hunger strike on its 66th day, following a deal under which the Israelis have agreed to release him in April and not seek an extension of his detention.

The West Bank’s Bobby Sands” is how some in the British media have begun referring to Khader Adnan, as the 33-year-old Palestinian detainee marks Monday as his 65th day of refusing food from his Israeli jailers. The world knew the name and face of Bobby Sands long before, on the 66th day of his own 1981 hunger strike, he became the first of 10 Irish Republican Army (IRA) fighters to die in a British prison after starving themselves to demand POW status. The IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, made the prisoners an international cause célèbre, even getting Sands elected to the British Parliament during a Northern Ireland by-election held in the course of his hunger strike. (Needless to say, he never took his seat.) By contrast, Adnan’s hunger strike appears to have been a solo act of defiance by a lone detainee with no other recourse, and only as his death appears to draws near has his plight begun to register on the international radar.

Israel has not charged Adnan with any crime, but its security forces say the baker from the town of Arabeh near Jenin — who is widely reported to be a member of Islamic Jihad, the more radical Islamist competitor to Hamas that has engaged in terrorist strikes in Israel — had been engaged in “activities that threaten regional security” when they detained him last December. Israel deals with such cases using a legal framework based on emergency laws left over from British colonial rule to detain any suspect for six months at a time without needing to provide evidence or lay charges against them. When a detainee’s six-month spell has expired, the detention can simply be renewed. Human-rights groups have urged Israel to charge or release Adnan, and a petition for his release goes before Israel’s Supreme Court on Thursday.

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has recently urged other countries to intercede on Adnan’s behalf, and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Saturday urged Israel to “preserve” the health of the detainee, who remains shackled to his hospital bed and although on a drip, is said by doctors who have examined him to be at risk of death at any moment now. Hamas’ Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh issued a statement of solidarity with Adnan’s hunger strike on Friday. But it appears to have been left largely to grassroots activists, including rank-and-file members of Fatah and Hamas, as well as others affiliated with neither, and even a handful of Israeli leftists, to organize street demonstrations against Adnan’s detention. Several thousand Palestinians turned out at demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza on Friday to highlight his plight. A number of other Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails are believed to have begun refusing food in solidarity with Adnan.

The case is reported to have caught Israel in a bind, the authorities recognizing that his death in custody could trigger a massive backlash in the West Bank, but also fearing that releasing him would inspire many of the more than 4,000 Palestinian prisoners and detainees currently held by Israel (according to the Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem) to follow his example.

Adnan’s current spell behind bars is his seventh since 1999, having spent a total of at least four years of his life behind bars — including a 12-day spell when he was detained by the Palestinian Authority in 2010, prompting his first hunger strike. His decision to refuse food this time is said by supporters to have started spontaneously as a protest against the conditions of his detention and the abuse he claims to have suffered at the hands of his captors.

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The case has drawn attention both to continuing Israeli security control of the West Bank and its use of administrative detention, and also to the disarray in Palestinian national politics, where the leadership of both Hamas and Fatah appear preoccupied with their long-running power struggle and the adjustments — including a recently concluded agreement on a unity government — forced on both by a turbulent year of Arab rebellion that has swept aside Abbas’ main Arab patron, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, and has prompted Hamas to withdraw its headquarters from Syria, raising tensions with its key donors in Tehran.

Even as they struggle over managing their respective shares of what remains of the Palestinian patrimony, Fatah and Hamas increasingly become mirror images of each other in their authoritarian administration of a population whose fate remains principally decided by Israel. The Palestinian Authority that they have agreed to jointly administer was set up 18 years ago as an interim administration to prepare the way for statehood, but with the peace process under which it was established having effectively stalled 12 years ago, it has become an administrative institution of the status quo.

Neither Fatah nor Hamas is offering a clear strategic response to the increasingly bleak scenario in which the Palestinians find themselves: negotiations with Israel under U.S. auspices remain a cul-de-sac; and the option of “armed struggle” has been a catastrophic failure that weakened the Palestinians’ political and diplomatic positions. Leaders on both sides now talk about “popular struggle” — unarmed protest action and civil disobedience backed by pressure on Israel from international civil society — as a viable alternative, but such efforts as are currently under way in that arena are organized independently of the Fatah and Hamas leadership at local level by grassroots activists (even if some are members of those organizations).

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All of this comes amid a tightening Israeli grip on territories occupied since 1967 and reports of a growing incidence of violence by settlers against surrounding Palestinian communities. And the Palestinians are in danger of falling off the regional agenda altogether at a moment when the Middle East is focused on the drama of the Arab rebellion and on the threat of confrontation between Israel and Iran. It may be telling, in fact, that it has taken Adnan’s hunger strike to get the Palestinian plight back into the headlines at all, right now.

A groundswell of public outrage over Adnan’s plight obviously puts pressure on Israel, but it is unlikely to be comfortable for President Abbas, who, after all, controls a West Bank Palestinian security apparatus that operates in conjunction with the Israelis’ own security structures. The Hamas leadership, also, may struggle to keep up with the tide of popular anger, focused as it is on an increasingly apparent internal split and on competition with Fatah over control of such levers of power as are available to those elected to lead the Palestinians.

Indeed, the real danger of Adnan’s hunger strike for the Palestinian political establishment is that he might turn out to be less of a Palestinian Bobby Sands than a Palestinian Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose suicide by self-immolation triggered the rebellion that has rocked autocratic regimes across the Arab world.

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