The United States has achieved greater notoriety than Israel for its carceral regime, particularly with respect to its African-American population. According to a 2001 US Department of Justice report, the percentage of adult male African-Americans who had ever served time in a state or federal prison rose from 8.7 to 16.6 percent between 1974 and 2001; it further assessed that if the astonishingly higher 2001 incarceration rates persisted, no less than 32.2 percent of this demographic could expect to be imprisoned at some point during their lives. A study published last December found that “non-Hispanic Black males’ risk of imprisonment remained very high” at more than 16 percent.
Although similarly reliable statistics for Palestinians are unavailable, estimates that some forty percent of adult male Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have since 1967 seen the inside of an Israeli prison appear credible. During the 1987-1993 popular uprising, for example, these territories boasted the world’s highest per capita incarceration rate.
More pertinently, Israel has since its establishment in 1948 employed mass detention as a primary method of control over Arab populations under its rule, often on the basis of draconian decrees such as the 1945 Defence (Emergency) Regulations introduced by the British during the Palestine Mandate and subsequently incorporated into Israeli law. This has particularly been the case in the territories Israel occupied in 1967 and has been steadily annexing since. It takes considerable effort to identify a Palestinian family that remains unscathed by the imprisonment of at least one of its members. Many are held for one or multiple rounds of interrogation by the security forces and then released; the physical abuse attendant upon arrest can often be followed by various forms of torture, a practice outlawed by international law and convention, but which has been endorsed by Israel’s supreme judicial authorities and political leadership. Many others are charged, tried, and duly sentenced by the military court system, a thoroughly farcical judicial apparatus with a conviction rate comparable to the percentage of votes garnered by megalomaniacal dictators in sham elections. Its practices, including routine resort to secret “evidence”, denial of access to lawyers, the prosecution of minors as adults, convictions based on coerced confessions, and numerous other abuses and violations, collectively amount to systematic malpractice. Yet these too have been repeatedly legitimized by Israel’s supreme court and government.
Israel also regularly deploys administrative detention, another British practice it has adopted which consists of indefinitely renewable terms of imprisonment without charge or trial. In recent years Khader Adnan, who on 2 May died in prison at age 45 after a hunger strike lasting 87 days, became the symbol and embodiment of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s carceral regime, and its use of administrative detention in particular. Israel had since 1999 placed Adnan, a former spokesman for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) movement from the town of Arraba in the northern West Bank, in administrative detention on multiple occasions for a variety of terms. Its vilification of him as a terrorist notwithstanding, it never charged him with involvement in military activities or put him on trial for such in a court system where he like so many others could have been effortlessly convicted.
Adnan launched his first, successful hunger strike nearly two decades ago in order to be released from prolonged solitary confinement. But he gained national and global prominence in 2011-2012, when he conducted a 66-day hunger strike to protest his administrative detention. Confronted with growing Palestinian protests and international scrutiny as Adnan neared death while shackled to a hospital bed, Israel agreed to his early release. His success inspired other Palestinian administrative detainees to emulate his example. By 2015 their efforts frustrated Israel’s leaders to the extent that Minister of Public Security (and current Permanent Representative to the United Nations) Gilad Erdan denounced this non-violent tactic as “a new kind of suicide attack”. For his part Adnan embarked on several additional hunger strikes, one lasting 56 days, after further detentions in 2014, 2015, and 2021.
Adnan’s latest arrest was accompanied by a charge sheet rather than administrative detention order. One count was membership in a banned organization, a phenomenon which by Israeli standards most Palestinians have been guilty of at some point in their lives, but which Adnan’s wife Randa insists no longer applied to her husband. The second count was incitement, on the strength of activities such as paying solidarity visits to the families of political prisoners and expressing public support for those on hunger strike. Anticipating indefinite pre-trial detention culminating at best in conviction by a kangaroo court, Adnan resorted to his tried and true tactic.
On previous occasions, and despite its contempt for Palestinian life and fear of appearing weak, Israel when all else failed had a tendency to offer eleventh-hour deals if persuaded the alternative was a potentially explosive situation. But an apocalyptic eruption is precisely the strategic objective of key members of the current Israeli government, such as Minister of Finance and self-styled “fascist homophobe” Bezalel Smotrich, and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, a devotee of Meir Kahane who was in 2007 convicted by an Israeli court of incitement to racism and support for a terrorist organization. Ben-Gvir is a resident of the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba, arguably the most fanatic population center on the planet. Previous residents include Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of the 1994 Hebron Ibrahimi Mosque massacre whose portrait subsequently adorned Ben-Gvir’s living room.
Under these circumstances, negotiations with Adnan were never an option. Worse still, and in contrast to past practice, he was not transferred to a hospital equipped for emergency resuscitation after his situation began to markedly deteriorate, and the Israel Prison Service rejected repeated requests by Adnan’s wife and children to visit him. For their part Israel’s courts washed their hands of the situation. Never losing an opportunity to add insult to injury, the Israeli authorities have taken Adnan’s corpse hostage and as of this writing are refusing to release it to his family for burial.
Khader Adnan’s struggles against Israel’s carceral regime were the product of personal initiative rather than directives issued by a political leadership or campaign organized by the prisoner movement. The Palestinian Authority, which had itself arrested him on several occasions over the years, perceived his actions in prison as a threat that exposes its own impotence and failures. Islamic Jihad and the other factions for their part sufficed with rhetorical support, leading Adnan’s wife to issue a statement that those who forsook him during his final days had forfeited the right to avenge his death.
The above notwithstanding, it is difficult to overstate the political and emotive significance of the prisoner issue for Palestinians, given that imprisonment has played such a prominent role in ordinary lives as well as the development of the national movement. In the short term, the death of Adnan has once again placed the plight of Palestinian prisoners, particularly the old, sick, and long-term among them, prominently on the political agenda. It also adds considerably more oil to an already flammable reality.
[An edited version of this article first appeared in London Review of Books.]