A high-profile Palestinian prisoner has died in Israeli custody after a nearly three-month hunger strike, Israel’s prison service announced.
Khader Adnan, a leader in the Islamic Jihad militant group, is the first Palestinian prisoner to die since Palestinian inmates began staging protracted hunger strikes about a decade ago.
His death raises the potential for renewed fighting between Israel and Palestinian militant groups as violence surges in the West Bank.
Shortly after his death was announced, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired a volley of rockets into southern Israel. Palestinians called for a general strike in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and protests were expected later in the day.
The tactic has become a last recourse for resistance against what Palestinians see as unjust incarceration. The prisoners often become dangerously ill by refusing food but deaths are rare.
Dawood Shahab, an Islamic Jihad spokesman, called Adnan’s death “a full-fledged crime, for which the Israeli occupation bears full and direct responsibility”.
Palestinian prisoners are seen as national heroes and any perceived threat to them while in Israeli detention can touch off tensions or violence.
Israel has often conceded to demands to release prisoners or shorten their sentences after they staged life-threatening hunger strikes.
But Adnan’s death comes as Israel is led by its most right-wing government ever.
Prisons are overseen by Cabinet minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultra-nationalist politician who previously tightened restrictions on Palestinian inmates, including shortening their shower time and closing prison bakeries.
Mr Ben-Gvir said on Tuesday that prison officials must exhibit “zero-tolerance toward hunger strikes and unrest in security prisons” and ordered that prisoners be confined to their cells.
Adnan, 45, began his strike shortly after being arrested on February 5.
He had gone on hunger strikes several times after previous arrests. That included a 55-day strike in 2015 to protest against his arrest under so-called administrative detention, in which suspects are held indefinitely without charge or trial.
In most cases, Israel has eventually released them after their health significantly deteriorated. None have died in custody but many have suffered irreparable neurological damage.
Israel’s prison service said Adnan had been charged this time with “involvement in terrorist activities” but had refused medical treatment while legal proceedings moved forward.
It said he was found unconscious in his cell early on Tuesday and transferred to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Palestinian groups called for a general strike in the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and in cities across the West Bank on Tuesday, with schools and businesses closing for what organisers called a day of “general mourning”.
The Israeli military said the missiles fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip fell in open territory, causing no damage. The Islamic Jihad militant group said in a statement that “our fight continues and will not stop”.
Israel fought an 11-day war with Palestinian militants in Gaza, including Islamic Jihad, in May 2021.
Israel is currently holding more than 1,000 Palestinian detainees without charge or trial, the highest number since 2003, according to the Israeli human rights group HaMoked.
That figure has grown in the past year as Israel has carried out almost nightly arrest raids in the occupied 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 defence.