[This article is part of a bouquet developed by the Jadaliyya Palestine Page Editors to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba (15 May 1948), the day that marks the beginning of an ongoing struggle for Palestinian liberation and self-determination in the face of the violent establishment of the state of Israel on the land of historic Palestine. This day would mark the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians, the razing of over 500 Palestinian villages, the murder and internal displacement of countless more, and 75 years of settler-colonial rule. Read the rest of the articles featured in this bouquet at the bottom of this page.]
On Monday 2 May 2023, Sheikh Khader Adnan died on day eighty-seven of a hunger strike in Israeli captivity. His arrest on 5 February 2023 was his thirteenth arrest by Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) and this was his sixth hunger strike since 2004. Israel never charged Adnan with any acts of violence. The allegations against him were his ideological commitment to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and his participation in popular protests. Still, the IOF detained him for eight years, six of which were in administrative detention, a colonial vestige of British rule authorizing the captivity of Palestinians without charge or trial.
Adnan spent a total of 316 days on hunger strike, using what remained of his bodily autonomy to protest against the cruelty of Israeli settler colonial and apartheid rule. In 2018, in response to his wife, Randa Musa, who asked how he could possibly embark on another hunger strike, he replied,
How does a woman choose to give birth more than once, despite having felt the pain? There is beauty and love in giving life, just as we find life in resisting the occupation, in knowing the taste of freedom and being able to fight for it.
Palestinians hailed Adnan as an organic leader, grateful for his sacrifice, inspired by his humble and steadfast commitment to Palestinian freedom. Like nearly all Palestinians, I consider Adnan a martyr for freedom, and said as much in a tweet mourning him upon his death.
Sarah Jama, a newly elected member of Parliament representing Ontario’s New Democratic Party (ONDP), a 28-year old disability rights activist and long-time supporter of Palestinian freedom, retweeted my tweet. Mainstream Zionist organizations immediately piled up on her. B’nai Brith Canada condemned her for expressing solidarity with a “convicted terrorist” and accused her of offending the memory of his “innocent victims.” In less than twenty-four hours, Jama deleted the tweet, deactivated her Twitter account, and the ONDP issued a statement declaring that “the views of the tweet does not reflect the views of the MPP Jama or the Ontario NDP.”
There was no adjudication of the accusation leveled against Adnan and in the subsequent media coverage of the controversy, there was no discussion of the oppressive conditions against which Adnan protested. The entire story became about yet another accusation of antisemitism against a Black leader in solidarity with Palestinian freedom.
The coordinated bullying and harassment against Jama is emblematic of a deliberate tactic to make Palestinian life ungrievable in order to normalize the steady settler colonial elimination of Palestinians. By describing Adnan as a terrorist, Israel proponents frame any public empathy for his death as support for terrorism. The cost of speaking out is thus high and, for elected officials, could risk their lives, career, and personal safety. While this dehumanizing tactic framing Palestinians as always-already-guilty is infuriating, the lack of even tepid pushback is even worse.
On the very face of it, Adnan was not a “convicted terrorist.” If he were, he would be serving a life sentence in Israeli prisons rather than revolving in and out of them, captured randomly and administratively detained. Adnan was an organic leader and his multiple arrests were meant to defeat him and intimidate other Palestinians to surrender. However, even if he were convicted, we should scrutinize the jurisprudence of Israeli military courts which have a 99.9 percent conviction rate. These courts are illegitimate.
Beyond the empirical, is a return to a far more philosophical question captured in the aphorism, “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” Nelson Mandela, the revered first democratically elected Black president of post-Apartheid South Africa, spent thirty years in captivity for his role in acts of sabotage against the racist regime. Notably, a South African court convicted him. Mandela, like other peoples struggling for freedom, resorted to armed resistance. Colonial and racist regimes routinely maligned the use of force among non-state actors as criminal and terroristic. However, by 1977, an insurgent Third World created new law that recognized guerillas as combatants and established that people resisting colonization, alien occupation and racist regimes have the legal right to fight. The Palestine Liberation Organization was among the players that ushered this historic shift. Still, even after Mandela’s release and ascendance to power, the United States listed him as a terrorist for two decades until 2008. Today accusing Mandela of being a “convicted terrorist” would be incredulous precisely because history has vindicated his noble cause.
Unlike the case of South Africa, history has yet to vindicate the Palestinian freedom struggle. This has been further complicated by the role of nationalist Islamic organizations, like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which center armed resistance in their liberation strategy. The US-led Global War on Terror (GWOT), which has racialized Muslims as primordial zealots driven by a lust for violence, disappears the Palestinian homeland and its dispossession thereby obscuring the legibility of Palestinian use of force. The avail to any arms is considered ipso facto illegitimate without regard to their means or methods of armed attack- they are simply “terrorists”- whether they target an Israeli military installation or launch imprecise rocket fire. Thus, Adnan’s commitment to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad suffices to prove his culpability, rendering him a “convicted terrorist” who deserved to die in captivity.
Palestinians, however, who continue to endure settler-colonial and racist domination as a matter of fact, do not suffer from this myopic framing. Able to exercise more nuanced judgment, they do not disavow Adnan merely because of his affiliation to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, even if they oppose the formation politically, reject its tactics, and/or protest the organization’s vision for Palestinian society. They judge Adnan because of who he was: a baker by trade characterized by tenderness and humility. He was an activist with integrity who repeatedly bore the cost of acting upon it, who showed up to protests as a participant, and greeted journalists early in the morning in his pajamas. Both the Palestinian Authority and Israel have imprisoned him and he ultimately sacrificed his life in unflinching commitment for freedom by inflicting pain on no one besides himself. Adnan is a ubiquitous symbol of liberation who Palestinians have mourned collectively.
At the root of the tactics making mourning for Palestinians impossible is a demand that Palestinians be perfect victims, a violent demand upon a people struggling for freedom. Yet, as we have painfully witnessed, even such perfection offers no protection or recourse. An Israeli sniper shot to kill renowned and beloved journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh. He shot her despite the heavy vest bearing the words “Press” laid across her chest and in the sliver of exposed flesh between the top of her ear and her protective helmet. This was a precision shot. Not only did several media outlets confirm this could not have been Palestinian fire, but Israel even admitted culpability. Still, more than a year onwards, no one has been held to account for Abu Akleh’s assassination and no increased protection to Palestinians has been provided.
This context would have been illuminating for a public audience witnessing the Jama controversy. So too would any discussion of the conditions of Palestinian unfreedom against which Adnan protested. Perhaps then, a critical audience would have asked more questions like, why does Israel hold nearly 5,000 Palestinians captive? Why are over 1,000 Palestinians detained without charge or trial? Why does Israel detain 160 Palestinian children today and what is the right of return?
The elision of this context and the transformation of the discussion into a debate about whether Jama is an antisemite is a dangerous distraction on two counts: First, as a form of bullying allies into silence; and second, as a way to censor a discussion about the apartheid of our time and our complicity in its endurance. The swiftness with which the media and public officials accepted the accusation against Adnan as truthful indicates the sway of anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia. Racism and colonialism construct the belief of an always-already Palestinian threat as well as the expectation that Palestinians die. This logic is a key mechanism fueling the ongoing Nakba.
Adnan has left behind him nine children and generations of Palestinians, including those yet to be born, who proudly lift his legacy as a martyr for freedom. His example and sacrifice inspire us to struggle with joy and find “life in resisting the occupation.” We welcome all to join us in our noble cause.