News of the death of Sheikh Khader Adnan, after 86 days on a hunger strike protesting his administrative detention, has shocked the entire Palestinian population. His passing is being marked with nationwide strikes, protests, and a renewed determination for resistance.
The logic of a hunger strike is firmly founded in the theory and philosophy of nonviolence. It is an important tactic in a moral and spiritual battle, where an activist asserts the truth, legitimacy, and moral righteousness of one’s case, not by attacking one’s tormentors, but by voluntarily taking upon oneself the punishment and suffering. It is an eloquent and impressive assertion that draws widespread attention to a particular issue. It challenges one and all (including one’s enemies) to support one’s claims and, in the case of one’s enemies, to change their course of action. It represents a sort of “moral jiu jitsu” whereby the weaker party allows the full strength of their powerful opponent to fall on them, and rather than resist their opponent head-on, to let the weight of the opponent cause them to fall.
In this case, the injustice against which Sheikh Khader Adnan was protesting is that of administrative detention. Why should he have been jailed, without charges or trial? If Israel is accusing him of anything, they have all the machinery of an unjust military court system to try and convict him. Yet, they could not do that, because they had no proof that he had done anything wrong. Instead, they arrogantly and repeatedly jailed him for extended periods of “administrative detention.” This is an evil tool that represents the utter arrogance and unrestrained power that the Israelis hold over Palestinians, and which they have been using with increasing frequency. Any Palestinian, certainly anyone politically or socially active, is subject to the use or threat of this unjust measure. Currently more than 1,000 Palestinians are detained under administrative detention, without charge or trial. Merely a determination by the commander, or whoever he has delegated this power, that a certain individual should be kept in detention—for up to six months, renewable indefinitely. This device has been used during interrogations. After a prisoner refuses to “confess,” he is simply told that he can just be held indefinitely under administrative detention. Other prisoners who have served their sentence in full are often not released but continue to be incarcerated under administrative detention. The power over Palestinian lives that this device grants to Israeli authorities must be intoxicating, as it is almost unlimited.
To be sure, in typical Israeli fashion, a pseudo-legal procedure does exist, allowing one “to object” to their administrative detention before an Objections Committee. Anyone, however, who attempts to make such an objection will quickly realize it is a sham. This committee hears arguments and evidence in secret and in the absence of both the detainee making the objection as well as his or her attorney. It routinely rejects the objections it receives and “confirms” the decision of the military commanders. The whole process can be seen as a cross between a charade and a kangaroo court.
Khader, who had attempted the “objections” route, realized that going on a hunger strike as a nonviolent tactic was the only route open to him. He had become quite a warrior in this nonviolent battle. He fought several bouts, with lengthy hunger strikes five separate times. In 2012, he went on a hunger strike for 66 days; in 2015 for 56 days; in 2018 for 59 days; and in 2021 for 25 days, before his last strike. At one time, after a lengthy hunger strike, the Israeli authorities relented and promised not to renew his administrative detention so long as he suspended his hunger strike. He did so, and the army released him following the end of his period of detention. He was allowed to go to a Palestinian hospital, where he stayed long enough to gather his strength. Then, they reneged on their promise and issued a new administrative detention order.
When a prisoner goes on hunger strike, he does not wish to die but to live as a free person. He is reclaiming his agency and humanity, willing to pay a heavy price for his beliefs. When Khader’s health declined, he refused to accept medical attention in an Israeli jail until they agreed to a visit by an independent doctor, with a promise not to share his medical information with his jailors. The Israeli authorities refused and sent him back to his prison cell, where he was later found dead.
In his famous, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who was an inmate of the Nazi concentration camps, wrote that your oppressors can sometimes hold total power over you, but the one thing they cannot control, and which is totally within your power, is how you react to that oppression. Israelis can use all the power at their disposal, but they cannot control how one reacts. Khader Adnan chose to react nonviolently using the tactic of a hunger strike.
In a final, pathetic attempt to assert their power in this matter, the Israel authorities refused to release his body to his family for a decent burial. And, against his express wishes not to have an autopsy, they sent his body to the pathology institute of Abu Kabir.
The least we can do, as we mourn the death of this hero,is to work for an end to the brutal practice of administrative detention he died protesting. The battle after all is a moral and spiritual battle. Israel and its friends should be put to shame and pressured into ending this immoral practice. Even in South Africa under apartheid, such a practice was not permitted. We may not be able in the near future to end all injustice, or resolve all outstanding issues, but at the very least, we should work to end the inhuman practice of indefinite imprisonment without charges or trial.
Hunger strikes are documented in Nonviolence International's database of nonviolent tactics. Hunger strikes that lead to suicide are also discussed in NVI Director Michael Beer's book on Civil Resistance Tactics in the 21st Century which you can download for free.
Jonathan is happy to talk with book groups or congregations about his book, Beyond the Two-State Solution. (Available as a free download or paper copy for purchase online)