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Commemorating The Nakba: Profiles In Palestinian Resistance


Palestinian resistance

Anniversaries of the foundation of the Israeli state in May 1948 are usually marked with grief over the loss of Palestine and the slaughter and displacement of its people in favour of a supremacist ethnostate. On this anniversary (May 15, 2024), as Palestine faces perhaps its greatest and certain bloodiest challenge since then under an unrepentant Israeli genocide, we decided to recall some of the notable figures in early Palestinian history – people who resisted and confronted with body and soul, word and deed, the ethnonationalist Zionist movement and the British occupation behind it.


Since capturing Palestine and much of the Fertile Crescent alongside France from the collapsing Ottoman sultanate, the British Empire had blatantly indulged the Zionist movement – an originally fringe ethnonationalist movement that sought to establish a Jewish ethnostate along European lines – at the expense of the largely Arab and mostly Muslim inhabitants, who had broadly lived in harmony with Christians and Jews for centuries. Both France, in Syria, and Britain, in Iraq and Palestine, faced repeated resistance during the thirty-year ‘mandate’ period between the World Wars. Often militancy from one region carried over to the others, since the colonial borders were not fully enforced: if today’s Palestinian resistance is a vanguard for a somnolent Muslim world as a whole, so too was it a vanguard for the colonised Middle East in the mandate period.

Then, as now with the United States, Zionist expansionism was blatantly indulged by the empire, which saw it as a solution to the mounting antisemitism in Europe and a civilizational outpost amid disdained Muslims. Riots over Jerusalem in 1929, for instance, saw Muslims and Arabs punished far more severely than Zionist Jews. Some Arabs, particularly elite families, tried to accommodate the mandates, but Palestinian resistance emerged and flourished largely among the peasantry and middle classes. The 1930s Palestinian revolt, occurring in tandem with political strikes in French-occupied Syria, had two trends: politicians tried, with little success, to negotiate their rights with regard to the Zionists generally favoured by Britain, while preachers and peasants fought in the field. Broadly speaking, early Palestinian resistance acquired a distinctly rural, populist, and religious flavour – it was then that the keffiyeh, the common head garb of the Palestinian countryside, became synonymized with resistance, as opposed to the fez favoured by the upper crust. Commanders often prefixed their names with “al-Mutawakkil al-Allah”, Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) dependent.

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During the Second World War in 1941, the more internationally connected resistance joined an ill-fated, German-backed coup against the British-installed monarchy in Iraq: this was swiftly dispatched when Britain called in its Transjordanian Arab paramilitaries, which would later become the Jordanian army. Finally in the late 1940s came the infamous “Nakba” or calamity: this began with fierce conflict between Palestinian and other Arab militants on one hand and the now-massive Zionist militia on the other, and ended with the newly formed Israeli state routing half-hearted campaigns by newly independent Arab states. Blow for blow, it was militant groups rather than professional armies that acquitted themselves better, laying a platform for a Palestinian resistance that continues to put neighbouring states to shame. Here we will cover and introduce to an English-speaking audience some remarkable pioneers of Palestinian resistance.

Qassam’s Movement

An obvious starting point for any account of Palestinian resistance is the Islamic revivalist Izzuddin Qassam, whose pioneering social and military activity laid the grounds for resistance. A former Ottoman chaplain from the Levantine coast who had fought the Italians at Libya, Qassam had during the 1920s participated in the Syrian revolt against France before making his way to the Haifa region. In contrast to the Palestinian aristocracy, he organized chiefly in the countryside, mixing Islamic spirituality with feverish underground activity and collecting hundreds of volunteers dispersed in small cells throughout rural Palestine. Jerusalem was not simply a city, he liked to say, but as the first qibla and one of Islam’s holy cities a question of Islamic creed. Though Qassam did not survive to see the fruits of his labour – just months before the 1936 revolt broke out, he was killed at a cave by a British patrol – his followers formed the resistance’s nucleus, and he has since been respected across the Palestinian political spectrum.

Among Qassam’s lieutenants were the preacher Farhan Saadi, whom the British occupation accused of a litany of crimes but who was actually executed, by a military court, on the relatively innocuous charge of carrying a weapon. Saadi was eighty years of age and in the midst of a Ramadan fast when he was executed, and his death left a considerable impression. Attia Awad, another follower of Qassam, maintained Qassam’s front in northwest Palestine until he too was killed in a major battle near Jenin in the spring of 1938.

Perhaps the most formidable of Qassam’s lieutenants was Khalil Issa (Abu Ibrahim the Elder), who came closest among the generally decentralized resistance to a strategist and often flitted back and forth from Damascus. Unlike the more clement Qassam, he tried to eliminate traitors in the Palestinian ranks, earning him a ruthless reputation. This was emulated by Yusuf Abu-Durrah (Abul-Abed), a labourer from the highlands who replaced Awad and was known for trying collaborators. British propaganda leapt to vilify him, but Abu-Durrah’s court was locally reputed to be quite fair and his aide Yusuf Alam, an especially capable commander. Their main problem was their relations with the minority Druze at Mount Carmel, who leaked their whereabouts to the British army.

Gentlefolk and Adventurers

A contrasting approach to Qassam’s was that of the elite Hussaini family, who as provincial notables had been key players in the Ottoman government but also tried to politically represent the Palestinians under British rule, competing with the more accommodationist Nashashibis. The most notorious Hussaini scion was the ambitious mufti Amin Hussaini, who tried to wangle his local influence into becoming first an official and then a “shadow” ruler of Palestine, often resorting to cutthroat tactics and unsavoury alliances both as a politician and insurgent leader. The mufti’s best-known lieutenant, operating in Lydda, was Hasan Salameh (Abu Ali).

profile in resistance: former mufti of Jerusalem

Mohammed Amin al-Husseini – Former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (PC: Getty Images)

The mufti’s cousin Jerusalem mayor Musa Kazim was also a notable politician, and is believed to have been mortally wounded by British police leading a march in 1934. But it was Kazim’s gallant son Abdul-Qadir Musa Hussaini who enjoyed the most unambiguous esteem. Maintaining a dignified distance from internecine Palestinian squabbles, Abdul-Qadir cut his teeth fighting at Jerusalem, where he was seriously injured, in the autumn of 1936. Here he fought as second-in-command to Saeed As, the former military commander of the 1920s Syrian revolt, who was himself killed.

Saeed and Fawzi Qawuqji arrived from Syria with a storied reputation, to be welcomed by Palestinian politician-turned-commander Ibrahim Nisar. As former Ottoman soldiers, the trio had taken different paths: Qawuqji had loyally served the Ottomans till the end, but Saeed and Nisar had joined a British-backed Arab revolt. After the sultanate’s collapse, Saeed and Qawuqji fought for the shortlived Arab monarchy in Syria that was overrun by France and then led the Syrian revolt in the 1920s. Nisar then joined Palestinian politics before taking up arms and attacking Anabta in 1936. Qawuqji, a restless adventurer whose main focus was obtaining independence from colonialism, had meanwhile trained the nascent Saudi army before resurfacing – as a “known scallywag”, in the alarmed parlance of British authorities – in Palestine to assist the resistance there. In the autumn of 1936 Saeed and Qawuqji in battles near Tulkarm and Jerusalem respectively, but as “outsiders” their impact was limited: Saeed lost his life and Qawuqji, in particular, would be the victim of relentless slander by the mufti.

Palestinian Commanders

Apart from career soldiers, the Jerusalem front included Muhammad Ashmar, a conservative preacher from Damascus who had also fought against France. They also sent southward Abdul-Halim Shalaf (Abu Mansour), a descendant of the famed Islamic scholar Abdul-Qadir Gilani, who proved a particularly enterprising commander after replacing martyred field commander Issa Battat. In May 1938 Abdul-Halim raided his hometown Hebron, and the subsequent autumn he went so far as to capture Birsabaa, where he set up a small but well-organized garrison and a functioning Islamic court whose justice and efficiency were noted even by British travellers.

The most respected Palestinian leader of the revolt was farmer Abdul-Rahim Muhammad (Abu Kamal), another veteran of the Ottoman army who fought around Tulkarm. With an upright and pious reputation among friends and foes, he refused to eliminate the mufti’s rivals by famously noting that he fought not for the Hussainis but for the homeland. Somewhat of a contrast was his rival for military command, Arif Abdul-Raziq (Abu Faisal), a mufti loyalist who delighted in a cloak-and-dagger guerrilla organization and signed off his communiques as “Qassam’s ghost”. A shadowy but skilful commander, Arif’s most notable achievement was to seize control of Jerusalem’s Old City from under the British noses at the revolt’s peak. British troops, for their part, recognized his cunning in a shanty: “Arif had a little mare, its fleece as white as snow; and where that mare and Arif went, we’re jiggered if we know.”

Abdul-Rahim and Arif competed for military command, and in an attempt to reconcile them Muhammad Saleh (Abu Khaled), another of Qassam’s original followers, arranged a feast at his base near Yaffa. But he was killed when British planes bombarded the feast, and his family took up the gauntlet – first, his cousin Abdul-Fattah Mustafa, who was also killed by an airstrike, and then his brother Abdul-Rahman. Often it was local networks of family and friends that would keep what was still a very decentralized revolt ticking.

But with Britain beefing up its forces and gaining the support of both Palestinian collaborators like the Nashashibis and defecting commander Fakhri Abdul-Hadi – whose militias were euphemistically called “peace bands” – and Zionist militias, the revolt faded by 1939. Birsabaa was recaptured in the spring, and Abdul-Rahim was killed in the field: the British officer who led the attack, Geoffrey Morton, doffed his cap to his slain opponent and noted, “Abdul-Rahim had a special respect among his people, and among us.” Morton also noted with surprise the dignified fate of Abu-Durrah, who was captured, and his second-in-command Yusuf Alam killed, in the revolt’s last stage. Similarly to Farhan Saadi, and contrary to British propaganda that had dismissed him as a lowly butcher, Abu-Durrah went to the executioner’s block with cool sangfroid and the abiding respect of his people.

The Impact of the World War

By this point, the Second World War had broken out. The more internationally-minded Arab dissidents – including Mufti Amin, Fawzi Qawuqji, Khalil Issa, and Arif Abdul-Raziq – decamped to Germany, which they hoped would end the Anglo-French occupation. The principal German experiment was to back a 1941 coup led by rightwing Iraqi officers against the British-backed monarchy in Iraq – ironically the same monarchy that had been expelled from Syria by France twenty years earlier. Qawuqji and Amin’s nephew Abdul-Qadir rushed to support the Iraqi junta, but it was a wasted expedition: Britain’s Transjordanian paramilitaries attacked from the west, brushing aside Qawuqji’s frontline at the Rutba fort in Iraq, and recaptured Baghdad.

After the World War came the final, grisly episode of the British occupation: the Zionist takeover of Palestine. Pressured in part by a mixture of advocacy and terrorism but also in part by their own colonial blinkers, Britain had stoutly favoured the now massive and well-armed Zionist militias, whose own ruthless haste to expel the Arabs was given urgency by the recent Holocaust. In effect, the Holocaust forced the international community – now dominated by Britain, France, and the United States – to accommodate Zionism, making the Palestinians pay for European antisemitism.

Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni [PC: Wikipedia]

Palestinian, and broader Arab, participation was for its part quite makeshift: the mufti, as the most influential leader, was neck-deep in intrigue, not least against Qawuqji, who returned to lead the “Inqadh Army” that combined Arab officers with Palestinian militants. The lawyer Nimr Hawwari attempted to found an Arab youth militia, but this failed to take off. The mufti’s own force was led by his nephew Abdul-Qadir, who laid siege to Zionist-occupied west Jerusalem in the winter of 1947-48. Hasan Salameh attacked in the nearby Lydda region, and Abdul-Qadir’s lieutenant Kamel Iraiqat lay in ambush to cut off Jewish reinforcements to Jerusalem, presenting the Zionists with their stiffest challenge.

Eclipsed in the Nakba

But with supplies running low and Arab armies – then led by the ineffectual monarchy in Cairo and the outright British-backed Hashimi monarchies in Iraq and Jordan – failing to deliver expected replenishments, the siege could not last. In an outburst celebrated because it has epitomized Palestinian relations with Arab states since, Abdul-Qadir exploded in anger at the generals: they were traitors, he fumed, and he would return to the field for martyrdom. That is exactly what happened: he was killed at the Qastal fort outside the city. Amid widespread grief, the front collapsed despite the best efforts of his peasant lieutenant, Ibrahim Abu-Dayyah, whose serious and eventually mortal injuries left half his body paralyzed until his death.

Partly hemmed in by logistical and political difficulty and partly by his own well-meaning limitations, Qawuqji was unable to relieve the Palestinians, and by the summer of 1948, his front in northern Palestine had collapsed. Salameh was killed in the west, but as the war progressed, the experience of Palestinian troops was put to less and less use: Khalil Issa was given a subordinate role in the north, and in the south Abdul-Halim Shalaf similarly played second fiddle to the incoming Masri army. Some of this might stemmed from the sociopolitical disadvantages of otherwise capable Palestinian commanders – in Nazareth, for example, Issa’s former lieutenant Abdul-Ghaffar Ibrahim kept pressure on the Zionists, only to be betrayed by the city’s elite Fahoum family who resented his peasant forces.

The last effective militia on the Muslim side was the Ikhwan, an Islamist sociopolitical group founded by Hassan Banna in Masr. Abdul-Halim had met Banna and joined the group, the first of many Palestinians – right up to today’s Hamas – to link up with the Ikhwan. They were led by Sinai native Kamel Sharif and – by the admission of the Masri army expeditionary commander Fouad Sadek – played a valuable supporting role, often relieving besieged garrisons and making vanguard attacks. But with the politically feuding Arab states now involved in Palestine, they too played a subordinate role, and ultimately could not prevent the Nakba from befalling the Holy Land.


In spite of their eventual defeat, the resistance in Palestine left a major impact: Palestinian identity has been as shaped by resistance to European and then Zionist colonialism as by anything else. Many of the Arab fighters in this article were eclipsed by a rising tide of Arab autocrats. Fawzi Qawuqji and Khalil Issa wrote accounts of the struggle. Kamel Sharif, who also wrote widely on Palestine and Islam, participated in the 1956 Suez war against his old enemies Britain, France, and Israel: like his namesake Iraiqat, Sharif also assumed a senior position in the Jordanian state. Muhammad Ashmar, strangely for such a historically conservative preacher, endorsed a candidate from the communist party in the 1954 Syria election on the apparent assumption that the Soviets were preferable to the West, but otherwise kept out of politics. Nimr Hawwari returned to law to represent dispossessed Palestinians. Abdul-Halim Shalaf and Abdul-Ghaffar Ibrahim lapsed into quiet retirement; while Arif Abdul-Raziq met an appropriately murky end, in Bulgaria of all places.

But by the late 1960s, Palestinian militancy was again on the upswing, and since then has surmounted enormous challenges to confront a massively stronger opponent in Israel. In some cases, there were direct links: Abdul-Qadir Hussaini’s son Faisal, Abdul-Rahim Muhammad’s son Jawad, Hasan Salameh’s son Ali, and Ibrahim Nassar’s grandson Tayeb Abdul-Rahim were notable Palestinian commanders. But more often it was the example of resistance that sparked the imagination, often in poetry: Fadwa Tuqan, for instance, recalls her fascination with the gallant adventurer Qawuqji, while Abdul-Karim Karmi mourns the martyred Farhan Saadi.

The example set by Palestinian resistance is best seen, however, in the character of Izzuddin Qassam. Successive generations of Palestinians across the political spectrum, from leftists like the Shaabia (Popular Front for Liberation) to Islamists like Hamas, have lauded the shadowy preacher whose urgent, restless revivalism lit the torch for generations of Palestinian fighters.


Further Reading:

Memories of Revolt: The 1936-1939 rebellion and the Palestinian national past, Ted Swedenburg. University of Arkansas Press, 1995.

Palestine in the Interwar Period: Between internationalization and revolution, Labeeb Bsoul. Lexington Books, 2023.

The Commander: Fawzi al-Qawuqji and the fight for Arab independence 1914-1948, Laila Parsons. Hillel and Wang, 2016.




Palestine in the Islamic Consciousness

Fourteen Centuries Since Badr: Recalling Islam’s First Decisive Battlefield –

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Ibrahim Moiz is a student of international relations and history. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto where he also conducted research on conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has written for both academia and media on politics and political actors in the Muslim world.

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