First, there is gnawing hunger, then constant vomiting and joint pain. 'I know what he is passing through every moment,' Adnan's wife said
In 2012, Khader Adnan, a mild-mannered baker from a town near the West Bank city of Jenin, became a renowned figure in international grassroots activism as he embarked on an individual 66-day perilous hunger strike, the longest a Palestinian prisoner of Israel had ever undertaken.
Comparisons were drawn to the famous Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands, who died in the H blocks in 1981 after refusing food for the same number of days. While Sands was striking for the right to be recognised by Margaret Thatcher’s government as a political prisoner, Adnan pursued “the battle of empty stomachs” as referred to by Palestinian local media to demand an end to the renewal of his administrative detention by Israel.
According to prisoner rights group Addameer, there are currently 422 Palestinian administrative detainees in Israeli prisons, including eight members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Administrative detention, illegal under international law, is a form of internment that Israel adopted from the British government. Prisoners are given up to six months detention period, subject to indefinite renewal, without a list of charges presented against them. As such, they are never formally tried in court.
Adnan managed to secure a deal after more than two months abstaining from food in February 2012, which was widely regarded as a victory over his jailers. The Israeli prison administration caved and agreed not to renew his detention, but would release him once he had finished the four-month term he was sentenced to.
That day, 17 April, coincided with Palestinian Prisoners Day, and the start of the 27-day mass hunger strike that over 1,500 prisoners took part in to improve their conditions in jail.
Adnan, 37, was rearrested for the tenth time since 1999 on 8 July last year, when Israeli soldiers - according to his sister who was with him in the car - celebrated with glee when they dragged him out of the car upon recognising him. A member of the Islamic Jihad group, Adnan was never officially charged with anything.
He was given a six-month administrative detention order, and on the same day he was due to be released in January, the Israeli prison service informed him that his detention had been extended for yet another six months.
When his detention was extended for the third time in May, Adnan immediately announced his strike to protest his internment, vowing only to subsist on water and salt until his release. The day was 5 May, and at the time of writing, he has entered the second month of his hunger strike.
Adnan’s second hunger strike is eerily similar to his first, in that local media and then international attention only picked up after he surpassed his 50th day. Currently, he is being held in isolation at the infamous Ramle prison hospital - referred to by prisoners as the "slaughterhouse". Adnan is now unable to stand and suffers from severe pain in his eyes.
It’s a case of déjà vu, but what, if anything, has changed this time around?
Differences between the two hunger strikes
Randa Adnan, Khader’s eloquent wife, proved to be a strong spokeswoman when her husband was incarcerated three years ago. Five months pregnant with the couple’s third child, the image of her in her white face covering, carrying one of her daughters while her father-in-law carried the other became familiar as they made their way to visit Khader Adnan in the hospital. This visit, the Israelis hoped, would pressure Adnan to call off his strike.
Three years later, Randa has asked the question that has now become apparent with Palestinian prisoners using the tactic of hunger strike:
“Perhaps you are wondering what the point of a prisoner going through all the pain of a hunger strike, getting released, and then being rearrested once again is,” she said, speaking from her home in Arrabeh. “In my opinion, as his wife, it is enough for a prisoner to breathe in the freedom - even if it is only for a moment - in spite of his jailers,” she stressed. “That in itself is an achievement.”
Randa asserted that the point of her husband’s strike, and those of the several other prisoners who followed suit in their individual hunger strikes, was not to ensure that he would not get arrested by Israel ever again, as “that’s very difficult to achieve”. Khader Adnan’s strike was so that Israel would not renew his administrative detention order while he was still in prison.
The differences between the first and second ongoing hunger strike have had their positives and negatives, according to Randa. One was how the first succeeded in ushering in hunger strikes by several administrative detainees that followed in the same pattern. Another was how Khader Adnan used his freedom to endear himself to the Palestinian people, said Randa, by visiting the families of prisoners and those killed by Israeli forces all over the West Bank.
“He considered these visits as only natural [given] the support that these same people showed him while he was imprisoned,” she said, adding that she accompanied her husband to many of these trips.
Yet there have been negative aspects that followed Adnan’s first hunger strike as well, such as the very lengthy partial hunger strikes that undermine a water-and-salt-only hunger strike. The latter is when the prisoner can truly exert control over his or her situation, as the pressure is on the Israeli prison administration once the prisoner’s life is in danger.
In that sense, the prisoner can gain small victories, such as agreeing to a medical check-up or taking vitamins and supplements in return for a phone call to their families.
But Israel now has experience in dealing with these strikes, and knows what to anticipate from a hunger striker during different stages.
“Khader told me about the gnawing hunger at first, then the constant vomiting that happens after he surpassed 40 days, then the dizziness and fatigue in his joints when his strike exceeded 50 days,” Randa said. “I know what type of pain he is passing through every moment.”
Whispers of possible mass hunger strike
Adnan’s lawyer, Randa said, is not speaking to the media. Yet other prisoner rights groups have organised protests and are closely following Adnan’s case.
Ragheb Abu Diyak, the director of the Palestinian Prisoner's Society branch in Jenin, believes that any agreement to be reached in return for an end to Adnan’s hunger strike will not come soon.
“We do not count on the Israelis to reach for a quick solution for Khader Adnan or any of the other administrative detainees,” Abu Diyak said. “On the contrary, they will most likely strive to complicate and prolong the chance to achieve a deal with hunger striking Palestinian prisoners.”
Abu Diyak said that in light of various legal and human rights organisations describing 2015 as the worst year for Palestinian prisoners in terms of their conditions, the situation is tense and worrying. Furthermore, as other high-profile prisoners announce or threaten to hunger strike, such as Hamas leader Abdullah Barghouti and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s secretary-general Ahmad Sadat, there have been whispers inside the prisons of launching a mass hunger strike.
“There are insinuations within the prisons of entering a mass open-ended hunger strike, with the inclusion of the 1,600 sick prisoners - a quarter of the prison population,” said Abu Diyak. “If that does happen, it will be a humanitarian disaster waiting to take place as the world continues its silence.”
Alone in the battlefield
During the two months Khader Adnan was refusing food in 2012, protests in the West Bank were muted. For the first time in years, demonstrations did not take place in indifferent city centres but outside the Israeli military prison Ofer, northwest of Ramallah. Those were greeted with parked Palestinian private security company cars on one end and tear gas and rubber bullets by the Israeli army on the other.
Inside Israel, Palestinians protested outside the Ziv Hospital in Safad, where Adnan was being held, too weak to move and shackled to his hospital bed. In Gaza, a small group stood on a main street holding posters of Adnan and were ridiculed by drivers - not for their posters, but for what they were wearing.
The frustration and despair built up, and flooded the social media world in the form of blogs and successful worldwide trending campaigns on Twitter.
Surviving hunger strikers and family members of the Irish prisoners recorded their messages of solidarity in videos. Protests were organised on university campuses in the US and Europe.
Petitions were signed, letters sent, and international rights organisations issued statement after statement condemning Israel’s practice of administrative detention and demanding the release of Adnan.
For Randa, is was exactly this sort of support from people across the world that she believes was one of the reasons Israel struck a deal with her husband.
“The pressure from the international community affects the Israeli prison system a lot more than the internal pressure, because the Israelis are obsessed with their image to the outside world,” she explained. “This time it’s as if Khader is the only one in the battlefield, just him facing off against the Israeli Prison Service with no mediators, no human rights organisations, and no lawyers by his side ready to undertake the steps that they did previously on his first hunger strike.”
The role of international human rights organisations such as Doctors Without Borders and Physicians for Human Rights this time around has been extremely disappointing, Randa says, adding that in 2012, they were at Adnan’s side and examined him regularly once his hunger strike went beyond the 50-day mark.
As for domestic support and solidarity movements, Randa knows what to expect given the political climate. Any movement in the West Bank, in her opinion, is an achievement.
“I consider the reaction on the Palestinian street to be adequate,” she said carefully. “The pressures exerted on activists does not come from the Israelis only. The Palestinian Authority monitors any protest closely, and follows activists around.”
‘To be at home with them again’
Two years after Adnan began his 66-day long strike, the couple had triplets, which they considered as a “blessing from God after the hardships of the first hunger strike.”
Israeli interrogators taunted Adnan in the early stages of his 2012 hunger strike by insulting his family, calling his two daughters bastards of another man, claiming that his wife was unfaithful to him. After his release, Adnan recalled that the interrogators were strangely frustrated as to why he named his first daughter Maali after his beloved sister and not after his mother as they believed to be the common Arab custom.
“They tried to use every detail about my life in a way that would hurt me,” he said at the time, “but that only strengthened my resolve”.
Now that the girls Maali and Beesan are older, seven and five years old respectively, they bombard their mother with questions about their father’s action and whether he will live after not eating for so long. The third child, three-year-old Abdel Rahman, and the year-and-a-half-old triplets remain blissfully unaware of their father’s ordeal.
“The first question Ma’ali asked me was ‘Why does Baba keep hunger striking? Why is no one else on strike with him?’ I honestly did not know how to answer her at first,” Randa recalled. “I replied that he is striking because he wants to be back with you, but she was unconvinced and told me that something bad might happen to him if he won’t eat.”
“Now the children understand with simplicity that their father is doing this for them, so that he can be at home with them again, and they are instilled with pride for him,” she said.
Not a mythical figure
The household’s atmosphere, Randa described, is very tense, with journalists filing in and out and Randa responsible for all six of her children, including her elderly in-laws who live with them. In addition to attending solidarity protests for prisoners, Randa also takes care of the bakery’s needs, the family’s only source of livelihood. All of these things have taken a toll on her, but she remains determined not to give in.
“To say that life right now is tough and daunting is not enough,” she said. “I probably only sleep an hour every night. Some days I don’t feel like eating. I also provide the food for my husband’s bakery. I am responsible with boiling the cheese at home and grinding the zaatar (thyme) before they’re taken to the bakery.”
“My husband is not a mythical figure. He is real and a well-loved humble man,” she said. “To me, Khader is the most important person in my life. His triumph is the most important in the world to me. Everything will be compensated, all I want is his well-being and his return to us, God willing.”