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Palestinian hunger strikes draw attention to Israeli detention practice

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ARRABA, West Bank — A stream of visitors passes through a simple concrete house in this sleepy village, bearing tribute plaques, floral bouquets and plaudits for a soft-spoken man who has become the latest icon for the Palestinian cause.

Khader Adnan arrived home Wednesday after his detention without charge in an Israeli military prison, an early release he brokered by refusing food for 66 days and bringing himself to the brink of death. To many Palestinians, that made Adnan, an alleged activist of the militant group Islamic Jihad, a victor over the Israeli occupation, as well as an inspiration: A half-dozen other Palestinian political prisoners are weeks into fasts of their own, and at least 1,200 more embarked on hunger strikes last week.

The tactic is not new. But some backers say the campaign, which has drawn international attention, could force changes to what they deem unfair and illegal Israeli detention policies — if, that is, large numbers of detainees go as far as Adnan did.

“The new phenomenon is that these people, they are ready to die,” said Shawan Jabarin, director of the Palestinian human rights organization al-Haq.

Israel, eager to ward off the negative publicity and any possible unrest in the event of deaths, struck release deals with Adnan and a second detainee, Hana Shalabi, who fasted for six weeks. And although Israeli officials say they are not considering policy changes and express confidence that the new campaign will not last, they acknowledge that it could force them to make uncomfortable decisions.

“You can’t have a situation where everyone who goes on hunger strike, to use a Monopoly term, gets a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” said one Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

Advocates of prisoner rights say detainees have little other option. Although those who began fasts last week are protesting various policies, including isolation, the campaign sparked by Adnan has centered on the Israeli military’s use of detention without charge or trial for terrorism suspects, which can be renewed indefinitely. Evidence is based on secret intelligence and withheld from detainees and their attorneys, limiting their ability to mount a defense.

Thousands of Palestinians have been held under “administrative detention” over the decades. There are about 320 administrative detainees, almost 50 percent more than one year ago but down from more than 800 in 2007, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group.

An Israeli security official who works in the military justice system and spoke on the condition of anonymity to comply with military rules said the practice is used only in cases in which the detainee presents a “clear and imminent danger,” and when divulging evidence could expose informants or intelligence-gathering methods, jeopardizing national security. Suspects can appeal the detention orders, the official said.

“We’re fully aware of the problem, but there is no other option,” the official said. “We can’t trust this information going outside, even to a person’s lawyer.”

Critics say that if military prosecutors are confident enough in their evidence to imprison a suspect, they should prove their case in an open court. Sahar Francis, director of the Palestinian prisoner advocacy organization Addameer, said that although limited use of administrative detention is legal under international law, Israel uses it too liberally.

“They use it in every case where they don’t find evidence against the person, and they use it as a kind of punishment,” Francis said.

‘An icon of Palestinian will’

Criticism of Israel’s use of the practice has grown inside and outside the country with Adnan’s case. His backers have spray-painted his bearded and bespectacled visage on walls across Israel and the Palestinian territories, made him a cause celebre on Twitter and compared him to Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican Army member who died while on hunger strike in 1981.

“He is an icon of Palestinian will. . . . Imagine what kind of victory this could produce!” Qadura Musa, the district governor, said last week as he visited Adnan’s family home. Nearby, Adnan’s wizened father distributed some of the 60 pounds of honey-drenched sweets that, along with two new sofa sets, he had bought in preparation for his son’s return.

The Israeli military has said that Adnan is an operative with Islamic Jihad, which it considers a terrorist organization, and it circulated a video clip of him at a 2007 rally in which he encourages suicide bombings. The government said he was not suspected of direct involvement in terrorist attacks, and the security official suggested that Adnan was detained for being part of a “terrorist infrastructure.”

In an interview, Adnan declined to discuss his affiliation with Islamic Jihad, whose black-and-yellow flags fluttered on the rooftop of his house. He said that he is a baker by trade and that he believes Israel belongs to Palestinians, who he said have a right to fight occupation using violent as well as nonviolent means.

“I have an ideology, and you cannot jail me for that ideology,” said Adnan, adding that he has been imprisoned several times, for a total of about five years.

In jail ‘without knowing why’

Administrative detention is a resonant issue among Palestinians. About 40 percent of Palestinian men have served time as political prisoners, according to prisoner rights groups, and families often include multiple current or former detainees.

Among the current administrative detainees is Thaer Halahleh, who has lost more than 50 pounds in a hunger strike that has lasted more than 50 days. His father, Aziz Halahleh, said in a telephone interview that his son was determined to reach “freedom or martyrdom” and viewed either option as a victory. The father said he approved of the strategy because he, too, had spent 19 months in administrative detention a few years ago and “went in and out of jail without knowing why.”

Back home in Arraba, Adnan said he began his fast to protest what he called brutal treatment by the Israeli military, which he said arrested him in front of his children and insulted his wife and mother during interrogations. He said that he never expected to forgo food for so long but that he discovered he was “facing a very stubborn, vicious government of occupation.”

Now, he said, he will tend to his bakery and work to inspire others. Just how, he would not say.

“I was hoping to send a message to all the free people of the world,” Adnan said. “I think the message was clearly delivered.”

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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