Sixty three years ago, in the orchards of Ya’bud, north of the Palestinian town of Jenin, Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam received the bullet that was intended to take him away from his people forever.
However, as if time stood still, and as if the old preacher still holds to the side of the Istiqlal Mosque’s altar in Haifa, calling on the people to fight for their land, the name Izz al-Din al-Qassam is still heard all over Palestine.
Ya’bud, the last destination for the fighting Sheikh, still holds his grave. This shrine the Israelis have repeatedly threatened to destroy. Is it the fear of a man long gone or the fear of his legacy?
Despite all the changes in the political arena of the Occupied Territories and despite the changing faces of soldiers, languages and uniform colours, those who see Al-Qassam as the idealistic image of the sincere leader never gave up believing in him. His smiling face in the black and white picture is still attached to the street lights of downtown Ghazzah, Hebron and Jenin. The fresh paint on the walls of Ramallah and Nablus makes so much sense for the passers-by when they read it, saying ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam’. Many may not know that Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam was not a Palestinian, but a Syrian from the small village of Jaballah. For some, such an issue might be significant, especially after the major changes which occurred as a result of Arab nationalism. But for al-Qassam, such an issue was not even worth mentioning. Al-Qassam always saw the Arab and Muslim world as one entity. Each part of this entity, he believed, is as vital and valuable as any other part. Yet he always picked his battle according to the level of danger facing Muslims. When he was 14, his father, a devout Muslim, sent him to Al-Azhar, the principal Islamic institution in Cairo. The thirst for knowledge remained a feature of al-Qassam’s personality for the rest of his life. Once al-Qassam went back to Syria, he was more enthusiastic than ever to participate in jihad, to take up arms and fight imperialism. Soon enough he found a chance when Italian troops invaded Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Izz al-Din organized a campaign to raise funds, bought rifles, took some men and went to Alexandria in hopes of finding a way to reach Libya to defend it. After waiting for considerable time, the Sheikh took his men back to Syria, once the order to return came from the Ottoman capital. Denied the opportunity for one form of jihad, Sheikh Izz al-Din launched another by building a school with the money donated by the poor people of his village.
In 1922, Izz al-Din had to escape from Syria. Syria was then under French occupation and revolutionaries like Sheikh Izz al-Din were either sent into exile or executed. So he moved to Haifa in Palestine. There, he became Imam of a masjid and formed strong ties with the oppressed and downtrodden in the city. He provided support and help to the weak and needy. In 1928 he was elected head of the Association of Young Muslims but he continued working as a teacher in school.
Today, it is as if nothing has changed. The Palestinian leadership was divided between those who fought only for publicity and those who fought to defend their land and people. Sheikh al-Qassam was a heroic defender of the land, and as is the case with colonialists and imperialists, he was referred to as a ‘terrorist’ by the British occupiers of Palestine. In 1935, two weeks after the British police attacked Palestinian demonstrators in Jerusalem, al-Qassam ordered his small but organized units to launch the armed struggle. For him, it was time to put aside his alim’s robes and put on the fighter’s uniform. Several battles took place between British soldiers and the Sheikh’s fighters. In one, several hundred British soldiers surrounded nine Arab fighters including al-Qassam. At dawn on November 20, 1935, after a long battle in the olive orchards of Ya’bud, the last chapter of Sheikh al-Qassam’s life ended to open a new chapter for the Palestinian resistance. When some of the Sheikh’s friends rushed to the battlefield in the morning, they saw Izz al-Din al-Qassam, Yusef al-Zybawi and Hanafi al-Masri lying in a pool of blood, and knew that the battle was over. However, today Palestinians continue to flood the West Bank and Ghazzah with flyers which carry the smiling face of al-Qassam followed the Qur’anic verse ‘Count not those who are slain in the way of Allah as dead. Nay, they are living and their sustenance is with Allah’ (2:154).
For such, the battle has just begun.
Muslimedia: March 16-31, 1999