It is a now famous story: A young Arab man, fed up with the injustices of life under a military regime, decides he’s had enough. By demonstrating his readiness to die to protest these injustices, the man powerfully asserts his own humanity and that of millions of his compatriots. His dramatic display of self-sacrifice inspires millions and his name becomes known across the Middle East and beyond.
The man in this story is Khader Adnan, a 33 year-old Palestinian baker and father of two from the West Bank town of Jenin, who narrowly escaped death last week after an unprecedented 66-day hunger strike to protest his detention without charge by the Israeli military.
Israeli authorities detained Adnan on December 17, 2011, exactly one year after a 26 year-old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest his treatment at the hands of callous government officials. As the world now knows, Bouazizi’s action triggered what has become known as the “Arab Spring” – a revolution in Tunisia and a wave of rebellion across the region, leading (thus far) to the ouster of four Arab dictators and threatening a fifth.
It is too early to tell whether Adnan’s act of defiance is a sign of a budding “Palestinian Spring,” but evidence of Palestinian discontent and mass mobilization have been percolating throughout the past year. Since last spring, several bold, albeit short-lived, protest movements have sprung up in opposition to the ongoing division within the Palestinian Authority between Fatah and Hamas, as well as against continuing Israeli occupation. More recently, Palestinians have begun to organize protests against the tentative (and largely farcical) peace talks being held in Amman.
While these movements have not yet gained traction, Adnan’s ordeal has taken things to a new level, and it comes in the broader context of the growing Palestinian non-violent protest movement known worldwide for its demonstrations in places like Bil’in and Nabi Saleh.
After his arrest, an Israeli military judge ordered that Adnan, who is affiliated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad – an organization that has committed heinous attacks against Israeli civilians – be held in “administrative detention.” Using administrative detention, Israel can hold Palestinians indefinitely – for months or even years – in a process that is as opaque and arbitrary as it is patently unjust. Palestinians are held this way without charge, without due process, without any chance to know why they are being held or what evidence may exist against them, with no opportunity to defend or exonerate themselves, and with no assurance of when they may be released. Over the years Israel,using this Kafka-esque tool, has detained thousands of Palestinians including Adnan, who in the past has reportedly served a total of six years in Israeli custody, primarily in administrative detention.
The day after his arrest, Adnan began a hunger strike to protest his detention and his treatment by Israeli authorities. He could not have known at the time where his decision would lead. Palestinian prisoners have for years used hunger strikes as a tool to negotiate with Israeli authorities, with both sides generally backing down before the situation becomes critical. But this time would be different. Israel wouldn’t back down, and, it turned out, neither would Adnan.
As Adnan neared death, protests grew and mainstream media coverage increased. Finally, as Adnan’s protest entered its 10th week – close to the point where his death would be a foregone conclusion – Israel finally sought a face-saving “compromise” that would prevent Adnan dying in Israeli custody and avoid an Israeli High Court ruling on the legality of administrative detention.
Clearly, Bouazizi’s protest and Adnan’s protest are not the same, and just as clearly, their impact has been different. Bouazizi died and sparked the Arab Spring. Adnan lived and, thus far, his action has not sparked a mass rebellion in Palestine.
But just as it is clear that Adnan is not Bouazizi, it is also true that Palestine – where the Arab Spring has seemingly gone unfelt – is not Tunisia. It must be recalled that Palestinians are triply cursed: by an Israeli occupation that deprives them of freedom and dignity in the most fundamental ways; by ossified political leaders who, due to a combination of circumstance, incompetence, and corruption have repeatedly failed their people; and by the chronic failure of a two decades-long peace process that, with international support, has not lead to peace but instead has allowed the further entrenchment of Israeli occupation and of Palestinian political dysfunction. And, of course, Palestinians have already waged two rebellions in as many decades, with depressing results.
In this context, Adnan’s act potentially takes on greater meaning, even if it is not the catalyst for an immediate uprising akin to what was seen in Tunisia or Egypt.
Adnan’s act shamed and challenged Israel. His readiness to die, not in a terrorist attack but shackled to a bed in an Israeli hospital – the very definition of Ghandi-style, non-violent protest – shined a deeply unflattering light on the reality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and on Israel’s casual inhumanity when it comes to the rights of Palestinians. It also underscored the threat that committed Palestinian nonviolent resistance poses to Israel. As Israeli Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad famously put it, Israel doesn’t “do Gandhi well”.
Adnan’s act also shamed and challenged Palestinian leaders. Forty-four years of Israeli occupation, punctuated by two decades of failed peace efforts, have already discredited the Palestinians’ ineffectual leaders and parties. The fact that Fatah and Hamas stayed silent while a Palestinian put his life on the line – seemingly preoccupied with squabbling over which faction would control what ministry or worried about a member of another faction gaining attention – underscored the pettiness and flimsiness of their leadership.
The fact that Adnan took his hunger strike to the brink of death – the first time a Palestinian has done so in the 44 years of Israeli occupation – could just be a fluke, but it could equally be a sign that just as Arabs across the region are feeling empowered, so too are Palestinians.
Historic events are always impossible to predict, including the Arab Spring, which caught nearly everyone unprepared. While it would be rash to view Adnan’s hunger strike and the intense publicity it generated in Palestine and beyond as a sign of imminent mass rebellion, it would be equally rash to discount the likelihood of an eventual “Palestinian spring,” however it may start and whatever uniquely Palestinian form it may take.
All of this points to the inherent -- if not organic -- link between the Arab Spring and the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians, like people everywhere, want dignity, freedom, and self-determination. Today there is still the prospect, faint as it may seem, of achieving these within the context of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Soon, that prospect will no longer exist, based simply on the continued expansion of settlements. Even if the option of the two-state solution is destroyed, the Palestinians’ quest for dignity and freedom will still continue, making the eventual and inevitable Palestinian Spring far more problematic for everyone involved.
Khaled Elgindy is Visiting Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Lara Friedman is Director of Policy & Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now.