Held in Israeli jails without charge, Khader Adnan starved himself for 25 days in 2004, and then for 66 days in 2012 – inspiring several fellow prisoners to join – before authorities relented and released him.
The Palestinian “icon” went on three more hunger strikes totalling 139 days in 2015, 2018, and 2021. Each ended with his release.
But on Tuesday morning, the 45-year-old was discovered unresponsive in his cell, his death eliciting shock and anger across Palestinian society, raising fears of reprisals, and shining a spotlight on Israel’s use of “administrative detention” to hold suspects without charge.
Israel’s Prison Service said that efforts to revive him had failed, adding that the prisoner had been refusing medical treatment. The Palestinian government said Israel was “directly responsible” and accused it of “premeditated murder”.
Qadura Fares of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society told i that Mr Adnan was a “symbol of the struggle of the Palestinian people”.
Protest marches were held across the occupied West Bank on Tuesday, including in Mr Adnan’s home city of Jenin, and businesses were shuttered for the day. Demonstrators confronted police in Hebron. Rockets were fired from Gaza.
Mr Adnan was a member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a faction with political and military wings that Israel considers a terror organisation, joining as a student and serving as a spokesman for the group.
He was arrested and imprisoned at least 10 times since 2004 for his PIJ connections, serving around eight years in jail in total, according to the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy think-tank.
The father of nine was held in administrative detention, a controversial status that allows prisoners to be held indefinitely without charge. More than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners are being held in Israeli jails under administrative detention, according to Israeli statistics.
To protest this practice, Mr Adnan embarked on a series of hunger strikes, a mode of resistance popular among Palestinian prisoners since the 70s.
The prisoner’s resilience – and success in repeatedly winning his freedom – made him a Palestinian hero, at a time when the peace process was collapsing and hopes of statehood were fading.
Phrases from his letters from jail such as, “dignity is more precious than food”, passed into popular folklore. The prisoner’s face was drawn on the walls of refugee camps. Crowds gathered to demand his release when his health was failing.
Fellow prisoner and hunger striker Maher al-Akhras said Mr Adnan was an “icon” who transcended factional rivalries.
“He was always on the frontline, and was never biased to his party,” Mr al-Akhras told i. “He always called for unity and consoled everyone regardless of their affiliation.”
But the sixth strike would prove to be Mr Adnan’s last and he became the first Palestinian to die on a hunger strike for more than 30 years. His supporters want to know why Israel did not save or release him this time.
“Adnan was left to die in his room, and the Israelis made no attempt to save his life,” Mr Fares told i.
Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said Israeli authorities had refused requests from Mr Adnan’s representatives to transfer him to hospital and showed “absolute disregard for his life”.
Israel’s Prison Service rejected this account but did not respond to enquiries.
For the first time, Mr Adnan was not being held under administrative detention during his final spell in prison, said his lawyer Jamil Khatib. He was facing charges for “incitement” and membership of PIJ, a designated terror group that fought with Israel in Gaza last year.
Mr Adnan’s defenders query why he never faced trial during 20 years in the Israeli justice system, and say the charges relate to political expression rather than involvement in violence.
Palestinian factions and prisoner groups have threatened reprisals. Rockets were fired from Gaza on Tuesday, with three people reported injured. Israel has cancelled military exercises close to the strip and placed prison staff on high alert.
Israel has not yet returned Mr Adnan’s body to his family, says Mr Khatib, despite the urging of the Red Cross for a swift handover. His funeral is likely to be a mass gathering and a potential flashpoint.