Why we Palestinians see ourselves in Khader Adnan

Those trying to undermine public anger over the hunger striker's death don't want to talk about the violent carceral regime that he struggled against.

Khader Adnan seen with his family in the West Bank town of Arraba, August 12, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Khader Adnan seen with his family in the West Bank town of Arraba, August 12, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

This article originally appeared in “The Landline,” +972’s weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.

In another life, Khader Adnan might have been an unassuming figure. A deeply religious Muslim with a distinctive long beard, Adnan ran a bakery in his West Bank hometown of Arraba, near Jenin. He was the father of nine children who adored him and husband to Randa Adnan, whom he praised as the bedrock of their family. His affiliation with Islamic Jihad, a hardline and militant faction, discomforted many fellow Palestinians, including other Islamists. Yet even those who disagreed with his beliefs knew Adnan to be a humble, attentive man who cared for his community and practiced his politics through solidarity.

But Adnan could never have lived an ordinary life. His upbringing in the northern West Bank was overshadowed by an oppressive military apparatus that stifled his movement and operated in his homeland as it pleased. In 1999, as a student activist at Birzeit University, he was incarcerated twice by the two authorities that managed the occupation — first by the Israeli army, then by Palestinian security forces. In the 24 years since, Adnan was arrested multiple times, usually under Israeli “administrative detention,” without a sliver of due process. Most definingly, he launched several months-long hunger strikes to protest his imprisonments, becoming an icon of resistance while exasperating his Israeli captors from his prison cells and hospital beds.

Adnan’s death on Tuesday at the age of 45, following an 86-day hunger strike against his last imprisonment, has rippled throughout Palestinian society. But aside from widespread social media posts and several demonstrations, there has so far been little uproar on the streets.

The reasons are dark and sobering. Death has become so omnipresent in the Palestinian reality that many have become numb to the constant collective grief. The prisoners’ movement, while still prominent, has lost much of its clout in recent years against an increasingly intransigent security establishment. The Palestinian body politic is so fractured that few leaders or incidents are currently capable of mobilizing the masses. All these are the products of an Israeli regime that, through sheer violence and impunity, has rendered Palestinian lives disposable and crushed any breath of Palestinian resistance — even that of a starving baker.

Israel and its supporters have pointed to Adnan’s membership in Islamic Jihad and his support for armed struggle to discredit the public anger over his death. But they cannot understand why so many Palestinians, even those who did not follow his views, would revere him as a national symbol. They don’t want to talk about the carceral state that can lock up any Palestinian without trial, no matter who they are or what they did. They don’t want to talk about the military courts that boast a 99 percent conviction rate based on “secret evidence” and the feeblest of legal grounds. They don’t want to talk about the daily abuses of Israeli soldiers and settlers across the West Bank who, after five decades, have no interest in leaving.

Every Palestinian knows these experiences all too well; it is why, across our social divides, we all see ourselves in Khader Adnan. We see the cruelty of our oppressors, the indifference of the international community, and the fragility of our bodies. But we also see in him our stubborn perseverance, our love for our families, and our longing for freedom.

Adnan now joins a long line of Palestinians whose lives we commemorate in the month of May: from the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, shot dead by Israeli snipers last year, to the hundreds of thousands dispossessed 75 years ago during the Nakba. Even as we reel from yet another tragedy, Palestinians are still fighting for that other life — one unencumbered by colonial rule, in which Shireen would be speaking on our televisions, and Khader would be baking our daily bread, with smiles on both their faces.