JERUSALEM — A high-profile Palestinian prisoner died in Israeli custody on Tuesday after a nearly three-month-long hunger strike, Israel’s prison service announced, at a time of already soaring tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.
Khader Adnan, a leader in the militant Islamic Jihad group, had begun staging protracted hunger strikes more than a decade ago, introducing a new form of protests against Israel’s mass detentions of Palestinians without charges or trials. On Tuesday, the 45-year-old became the first long-term hunger striker to die in Israeli custody.
Palestinians called for a general strike in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and protests were expected later in the day. Palestinian militants fired a volley of rockets from Gaza toward empty fields in Israel. Islamic Jihad said in a statement that “our fight continues and will not stop.”
Adnan’s death comes as Israel is led by its most right-wing government ever.
Prisons and Palestinian prisoners are overseen by Cabinet minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultra-nationalist politician who previously tightened restrictions on the Palestinian inmates, including shortening their shower time and closing prison bakeries.
Ben-Gvir said Tuesday that prison officials must exhibit “zero-tolerance toward hunger strikes and unrest in security prisons” and ordered prisoners be confined to their cells.
As Israeli-Palestinian violence has spiked, the number of administrative detainees has risen to more than 1,000 over the past year, the highest number in two decades.
For administrative detainees, hunger strikes are often the last recourse. Several have staged hunger strikes lasting several months, often becoming dangerously ill. Previous Israeli governments have at times conceded to some of their demands to avoid deaths in custody.
This time, warnings about Adnan’s deteriorating health were ignored, said the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights Israel.
The group and Adnan’s lawyer said they had asked Israeli authorities to move him from his cell to a hospital where his condition could best be monitored. The rights group said a doctor who visited Adnan several days ago warned that his life was in danger.
“We lay the responsibility for his death at the feet of the Israeli authorities,” said Dana Moss, from the rights group. “Hunger strikes are one of the few nonviolent tools left to Palestinians as they battle against Israel’s unfair legal system, set within a context of long term occupation and a regime of apartheid.”
Dawood Shahab, an Islamic Jihad spokesman, called Adnan’s death “a full-fledged crime, for which the Israeli occupation bears full and direct responsibility.”
In the West Bank, Mohammed Shtayyeh, the prime minister of the Palestinian self-rule government also held Israel responsible. He portrayed Adnan’s death as “premeditated assassination by refusing his request for his release, neglecting him medically, and keeping him in his cell despite the seriousness of his health condition.”
Israel’s prison service said Adnan had been charged with “involvement in terrorist activities.” It said he was in a prison medical facility, but had refused medical treatment “until the last moment” while legal proceedings moved forward. It said he was found unconscious in his cell early Tuesday and transferred to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Around 200 people gathered outside Adnan’s home in the occupied West Bank town of Arraba, holding signs bearing his image and called for revenge. Adnan’s widow, Randa Musa, told those gathered outside that “we do not want a single drop of bloodshed” in response to his death.
“We do not want rockets to be fired, or a following strike on Gaza,” she told the crowd.
Palestinian prisoners are seen as national heroes and any perceived threat to them while in Israeli detention can touch off tensions or violence. Israel sees Adnan and other Palestinian prisoners as security threats accused of involvement in deadly attacks or plots.
Over the past decade, Adnan became a household name in the Palestinian territories, as a symbol of steadfastness against Israel’s open-ended occupation, now in its 56th year. He staged several lengthy hunger strikes over the years, including a 66-day protest in 2012, and two other strikes in 2015 and 2018 that lasted 56 and 58 days respectively. Israel released Adnan after the 2015 strike.
He is credited with turning hunger strikes into a tool of protests by Palestinian detainees and a useful bargaining chip against Israeli authorities.
According to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, which represents former and current prisoners, Adnan was arrested 12 times and spent about eight years in Israeli prisons, most of that time under administrative detention.
The number of administrative detainees has grown in the past year as Israel has carried out almost nightly arrest raids in the West Bank in the wake of a string of deadly Palestinian attacks in Israel in early 2022.
Israel says the controversial tactic helps authorities thwart attacks and hold dangerous militants without divulging incriminating material for security reasons.
Palestinians and rights groups say the system is widely abused and denies due process, with the secret nature of the evidence making it impossible for administrative detainees or their lawyers to mount a defense.
Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank have been locked in a bout of fighting for the past year. About 250 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire and 49 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks on Israelis.
On Tuesday, Israeli officials said an Israeli man was lightly wounded in a suspected Palestinian shooting attack in the West Bank.