A Palestinian Hunger Strike That Showed the Power of Weakness

This week Khader Adnan, who has been detained without trial for the ninth time, stopped his hunger strike after 55 days, when Israel promised to release him. On the painful saga of a local hero.

Alex Levac

He wanted the first spoonful of food to be served to him by his mother and the second by his wife. A teaspoon of yogurt, then one of soup, after a 55-day hunger strike. It was late at night at Assaf Harofeh Hospital in Tzrifin, an army base near Ramle. In the street below, a small group of supporters, Jews and Palestinians, were calling out cries of encouragement. In the room were prison guards.

Events unfolded rapidly after members of his family were allowed to visit him in the hospital, for the first time since he had launched his hunger strike to protest his administrative detention – that is, arrest without trial. Within a few hours of their visit, an agreement was reached on his release. The 37-year-old Palestinian has served nine terms of administrative detention, a total of six years in prison; only once was he formally tried and convicted. Time and again, he’s arrested by the Shin Bet security service and by the Israel Defense Forces on suspicion of being active in the Islamic Jihad movement, but the authorities do not provide evidence in a court.

Khader Adnan Musa, who is referred to by the Israeli, Palestinian and international media as Khader Adnan, without his surname, has become a local hero. In an even longer hunger strike three years ago – it lasted 66 days – and at the beginning of the present one, we visited his home in the town of Arraba, near Jenin, in the northern West Bank. During his hunger-strike protests, his wife and his sister conduct the public campaign on the outside.

On Monday, the day after the most recent hunger strike by Adnan ended, we followed his wife, Randa Musa, around the West Bank. After missing the meal at the end of the Ramadan fast day, on the night between Sunday and Monday – when she had again visited her husband and joined the demonstration of support at the hospital – she’d gone for two days without food or sleep. Now she was on the way from her home to hold a press conference in Ramallah and give interviews in Nablus.

Randa, whose face is veiled, is in her thirties. She’s articulate and projects strength. The couple have six children, including triplet-girls 18 months old. We finally caught up with her in her sister’s drugstore in the center of Nablus, next to the central bus station, not far from the casbah. Randa was in the middle of a telephone interview with a radio station in Jordan. Two of her children were running about in the pharmacy.

On Sunday she was informed by the International Red Cross that permission had been granted for the family to visit Adnan in the hospital, following a serious deterioration in his condition. They set out at midday, Randa and her six children, together with Adnan’s elderly parents. The Red Cross sent an ambulance so that Nawal, the prisoner’s mother, who is in poor health and needs an oxygen tank, could make the trip, too.

Randa, it turns out, had tried to sneak in to see her husband two days earlier. After attending the Friday Ramadan prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, she slipped away to the hospital, but the prison guards prevented her from seeing her husband.

Randa says she was shocked at the sight of Khader on Sunday, after not having seen him for two-and-a-half months, and his having denied himself nourishment for 55 days. He was in a worse state than she’d expected. From behind the door she heard his powerful voice – “like a lion,” she says – but his appearance appalled her. Even before she entered the room, an argument broke out with the guards: They would allow in only some of the family, either the wife and children or the parents. But Adnan rejected the idea of a partial visit.

When they all entered, finally, they found him sitting on a chair, gaunt, exhausted and feeble. His hands and legs were no longer shackled. Earlier, on day 50 day of the strike, when his condition began to worsen, the humanitarian guards deigned to remove the shackles in which he had been constrained until then – with the authorization of the humane physicians at Assaf Harofeh, who obeyed meticulously the orders of the security authorities to shackle the hunger striker.

Adnan was unable to lift his head or shake hands with his family when they arrived. One of the triplets, who wanted to hug him, almost slipped out of his grasp. What he wanted most was to know what was going on outside – he’d been completely cut off – and what kind of reactions his action was getting.

He told his family that he would agree to stop only if he were released before Id al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. He insisted on the 27th day of the month, on July 12, Laylat al-Kadr (the Night of Power), when, according to tradition, the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammed, and the gates of heaven open and God grants the prayers of believers.

The army was insisting he could be released only on July 16, a significant four-day extension that might have made the difference between life and death. The current term of administrative detention was due to conclude on September 5, but no one guaranteed the prisoner before the hunger strike that this term of incarceration would not be extended, as indeed had happened this past May, leading him to launch the present hunger strike.

The family visit lasted exactly 45 minutes, by the book, like prison visits. Randa was in the middle of a sentence when she was ordered out, she tells us later. Before they left, she asked her husband how long he was capable of going on, so she could plan the continuation of the struggle. He replied that he was relying on her. She did not try to persuade him to end the strike. She was sure of his victory, she asserts. But as they left the hospital room the thought also crossed her mind that she might never see him again.

“I was very afraid that I was losing him. At that moment I felt the whole weight of the responsibility he placed on me,” she says.

By that time, it was evening, this past Sunday. So as not to disturb the patients in the ward, Randa went outside and stood below the window of her husband’s room. The social networks had brought a few dozen sympathizers to the hospital, mainly from East Jerusalem and Israel. They stood there in the dark and chanted cries in favor of Adnan’s struggle.

“The revolution is being led by human beings and was declared by Khader Adnan,” they called out, adding, “With blood and fire we will free you, ya Adnan!” They knew he could hear them.

In the meantime, negotiations in his room continued in his room, between MK Osama Saadia (Joint Arab List) and attorney Jawad Boulus on behalf of Adnan, and representatives of the IDF military advocate general’s unit. An agreement was reached at about 12:30 A.M. on Monday, under which Adnan will be released on July 12 and his administrative detention will not be extended.

Not for the first time or the last, the army and the Shin Bet demonstrated that they understand only force: Adnan would be released only by the force of his hunger strike.

The family was allowed back in the room, and fed him his first morsels of food after close to two months. Randa told us that at this point the attitude of the guards changed; they were more civil than before.

“I felt proud that we had triumphed,” she says. “I felt that we had not left Khader on his own.”

She adds that she has been thrilled by the manifestations of solidarity for his struggle, which were more intense this time than during his previous and longer hunger strike, and in particular by the support by Israeli activists, among them Knesset members.

“The Palestinians came because they were told to come, the Israelis came at their own initiative,” Randa says.

She doesn’t understand how her husband is able to go on these hunger strikes – he loves to eat. On Monday night, Arraba was already celebrating the imminent release of the town’s most famous resident. Nine days from now, when he comes home, Randa will make him meat-stuffed squash, as he has requested.

Epilogue: My colleague Amira Hass reported on Wednesday that his warders have again required that Adnan be shackled to his hospital bed, in spite of the fact he is to be released in a few days, and again, the medical staff has done their bidding. All by the book.