Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fight Delegitimization, Try Khader Adnan

Khader Adnan, a member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), has been on a hunger strike for 10 weeks protesting his lack of due process at the hands of the Israeli government.  The government has yet to assign him a trial date, and Adnan remains under administrative detention.  The hashtag #KhaderExists has been gaining traction on Twitter to build pressure on Israel to assign him a trial date.  

The issue of due process for those suspected of involvement in security threats to the state affects all liberal democracies.  In the United States, similar protests have arisen of the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.  For American and Israeli leadership alike, the cost of protests is lower than the potential cost of letting an alleged terrorist go free, only to commit an attack on innocent civilians. 

The Israeli government's response options to this hunger strike campaign are therefore a choice of bad or worse.  Giving Adnan a trial date capitulates to the protesters and may cause a spate of hunger strikes by other prisoners, delegitimizing the government's detention process as a whole.  Not giving Adnan a trial date will only draw more attention to the issue, and will just set the stage for more protests if he is convicted.  Additionally, given that the issue of Palestinian prisoners is deeply personal for thousands of Palestinians, Israel could risk mobilizing a larger Palestinian popular movement if Adnan dies.  From an Israeli perspective, this would not be an ideal second act for the Arab Spring.

Faced with these two choices, Israel has taken the seemingly rational decision not to assign a trial date.  If protests and delegitimization will happen anyway, it may as well occur in a framework where a suspected terrorist is not at risk of being freed, and where copycat hunger strikes can be mitigated.  Israel is calculating that popular mobilization is unlikely at the current time (not entirely unreasonable).  Most of Israel's partners and allies, including the United States, are unlikely to criticize this choice because they likely would do the same thing.

However, the #KhaderExists campaign is occurring not in a vacuum but rather in a multi-dimensional issue space in which Israel is fighting delegitimization on all fronts.   The protests are, of course, about far more than Adnan himself.  The protesters seek a comprehensive change to Israel's administrative detention policy as a whole, with some seeking far more.  At the same time, maintaining this policy may be handing opponents of Israel a victory anyway.  The government should understand that mitigating delegitimization is not an issue of hasbara, or in Adnan's case, ignoring the issue.  Rather, it is an issue of policy and how Israel chooses to approach the difficult business of being a democracy under constant threat from terrorism. 

It is unlikely that giving Adnan a trial date will allay protesters no matter how moderate or radical their demands.  However, it will reduce their ability to argue that Israeli policy is unbecoming of a liberal democracy.  Given the unique and substantial challenges facing Israel, the government must do all it can to mitigate attacks on its legitimacy.  Ultimately, this mitigation will come down to policy choices.  Giving Adnan a trial is therefore the better policy choice at the current time.

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