Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cyber Shrines & Cyber Martyrs: HAMAS Commemorates the 'Martyrdom' of Senior Military Commander Salah Shehadah

The text reads, from the top: "The General-Commander & Martyr: Salah Shehadah, Great Leadership, Magnificent Martyrdom."

The military wing of the Palestinian Islamist (political Muslim) movement HAMAS
( حركة المقاومة الاسلامية ; "Islamic Resistance Movement"), the Brigades of the Martyr 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam (usually referred to in shorthand as the Qassam Brigades) and the political wing(s) of the movement are currently commemorating the July 22, 2002 Israeli assassination of Salah Shehadah, one of the movement's founders and, until his death, the commander of the Qassam Brigades. He is also credited in his official biography as the "founder" of the Qassam Brigades. The military wing, though a part of the movement, has its own leadership which does not always heed the wishes of the movement's political leaders, particularly since Shehadah's assassination. The Qassam Brigades are named after an Arab leader who led resistance against British colonial rule in Mandatory Palestine (roughly, modern day Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, and Israel). Shehadah was killed with a one-ton bomb that destroyed the apartment building in the al-Daraj neighborhood of Gaza City where he and his family lived, killing him, his wife, and most of his children. In total, fifteen people were killed in the Israeli airstrike, nine of them children (the youngest a two-month-old baby), and scores of civilians were wounded. Although many of the founding members of HAMAS were assassinated in similar Israeli airstrikes between 2001 and today, Shehadah's sticks out for me because it took place as I arrived to Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories for my first major trip abroad.


Martyrdom poster, "On the Anniversary of the Martyr-Mujahid [Warrior] Salah Shehadah's Martyrdom." Underneath Shehada's picture, which is surrounded by light signifying his greatness as a leader, are masked Qassam Brigades' fighters.

A special section of the Qassam Brigades' web site, linked to from the front page, is dedicated to the memory of Shehadah. A biography, articles, commemorations, photographs, and video of or dedicated to him are available in this special section. The introductory page includes a brief memorial, reading, in part: "On the anniversary of the martyrdom of the leader, the [a HAMAS] founder, the shaykh, Salah Shehadah, who was the one who planted the first seed [idea] for the Media Office of the Qassam Brigades, let us pause and pay homage and respect to this outstanding leader who, with his martyrdom, revived the spirit of jihad [struggle] and resistance in the hearts of the believing mujahid [warrior] youth..."

في ذكرى استشهاد القائد المؤسس الشيخ / صلاح شحادة، الذي غرس البذرة الأولى للمكتب الإعلامي لكتائب القسام نقف وقفة إجلال وإكبار واحترام أمام هذا القائد الفذ الذي أحيا باستشهاده روح الجهاد والمقاومة في قلوب الشباب المجاهد المؤمن

According to an official biography produced by the Qassam Brigades, he was born Salah al-Din Mustafa 'Ali Shehadah on February 24, 1952 in the Shati Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. His first name was presumably chosen in honor of Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn al-Ayyub, known better in the West as "Saladin," the Kurdish Muslim sultan (ruler) from Tikrit, Iraq who recaptured Jerusalem from the European Christian Crusaders in 1187 and founded an empire that stretched from Iraq through Syria and Palestine to Egypt.


Shehadah is described as the founder of the first military system (or apparatus) of HAMAS, the body "which is known by the name 'the Palestinian Mujahideen [warriors of faith]', and which was tasked with forming and training clandestine military cells in the use of weapons and coordinating attacks on Israeli ("Zionist") military targets.

هو مؤسس الجهاز العسكري الأول لحركة المقاومة الإسلامية "حماس" والذي عرف باسم "المجاهدون الفلسطينيون"، ووجهت لهم تهم تشكيل خلايا عسكرية وتدريب أفرادها على استعمال السلاح، وإصدار أوامر بشن هجمات ضد أهداف عسكرية صهيونية

Receiving primary education in Bayt Hanun (Beit Hanoun), a city located in the northeastern corner of the Gaza Strip, he completed a bachelor's degree in social work at the Institute of Social Service in Alexandria, Egypt. Although he was admitted to post-graduate programs in medicine and engineering at universities in Turkey and Russia, the Israeli occupation of Gaza prevented him from accepting these offers. Shehadah began his work as a Muslim activist involved in da'wa (propagation, akin to missionary work and grassroots political activism) "upon his return to Gaza from Egypt."

بدأ العمل في الدعوة إلى الإسلام فور عودته من مصر إلى قطاع غزة

He worked in the field of social work for a time, but in early 1982 joined and eventually served as the director of the Office of Student Affairs at the Islamic University of Gaza an independent university founded in 1978 and today popularly associated with HAMAS.


Members of HAMAS' Executive Force and the Qassam Brigades in Gaza

Shehadah was frequently arrested and allegedly tortured by Israeli security forces during his long career as a political activist and resistance leader. He was imprisoned for over a decade (1988-May 14, 2000) after another Palestinian prisoner identified him as leader of the Qassam Brigades. He served an additional 20 months in "administrative detention" without charges being brought. This technique is frequently used by Israeli military authorities in the occupied Palestinian Territories and has been condemned by Palestinian, international, and Israeli human rights organizations.

Under Shehadah's leadership, the Qassam Brigades' capabilities were greatly expanded and by the time the Second Intifada ("shaking off", uprising) against the continuing Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian Territories began in late September 2000, it was capable of launching scores of attacks and other military operations. The Second Intifada is also popularly known as the al-Aqsa Intifada after the Muslim holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem, since it was a purposefully provocative visit to the platform where the mosque complex is located, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews, by right-wing Israeli politician and former general Ariel Sharon, called by many the "Butcher of Beirut" for his conduct during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut, which included the massacre of 800-2,000+ Palestinian women, children, and old men (all civilians) in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The massacres were committed by the Lebanese Christian Phalange, a party and militia allied with the Israelis during the 1980s, but they were sent into the camps, and their way at night lit by flares from, the Israeli army encircling the city and surrounding the camps. The Phalange, which was modeled after European fascist parties, under the leadership of the Gemayel family and its Maronite allies, had formed an alliance with the Israeli Likud government of prime minister Menachem Begen, who wanted to help his Lebanese allies install a pro-Israel Maronite regime in their country. An even more militant offshoot of the Phalange, the Lebanese Forces (LF), was responsible for massacres of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), including the months-long siege of the Tal-Za'atar refugee camp in northeastern Beirut. Thousands of Palestinian civilians were killed during the siege and in the massacre after the camp's fall to the LF on August 12, 1976. The LF, still under the leadership of the civil war-era warlord Samir Ja'Ja (sometimes transliterated into English as "Geagea"), is a member of the ruling Lebanese political coalition headed by Sa'd "Junior" al-Hariri.


Salah Shehadah and Qassam Brigades' members.

The Qassam Brigades have carried out hundreds of operations, both against military and civilian targets. Their numerous attacks on civilian targets can unquestionably be classified as terrorist attacks, since these operations either intentionally targeted civilians or wantonly disregarded their safety. This is the definition of "terrorism," an type of action that can and is perpetrated both by non-state actors such as HAMAS and state actors, unlike the ridiculous claims made by some. The Brigades have also carried out attacks on Israeli military targets, which successive Israeli governments also erroneously call "terrorism," a practice that has intentionally clouded and politicized the issue of terrorism vs. legitimate resistance to military occupation. Successive U.S. governments and governments around the world, such as Russia, China, and Arab autocracies, have done the same. HAMAS is a pragmatic Islamist party and national resistance movement, a movement which has engaged in campaigns of political terrorism as well as military operations targeting the Israeli military. Its focus is national, the issue of Palestine and the ongoing Israeli military occupation, which differentiates it significantly from the transnational jihadi ideology espoused by groups such as al-Qa'ida "Central."

The HAMAS leadership, which is to a great degree localized, is often divided with regard to strategy. Hardliners, led by the head of the political bureau in Damascus, Khalid Mesh'al, are often at odds with more pragmatic leaders in the Occupied Territories, such as the late Isma'il Abu Shanab (assassinated by Israel in 2003), the late HAMAS spiritual leader Shaykh Ahmad Yassin (assassinated by Israel in 2004), and Isma'il Haniyeh in the Gaza Strip. The Qassam Brigades, particularly after Shehadah's death, is largely run day-to-day by its own leadership which often disagrees with local political leaders in Gaza and the West Bank and which plans operations often independently of these leaders.

Martyrdom poster for Shaykh Ahmad Yassin

Nizar 'Abd al-Qadir Rayyan, a senior HAMAS leader and the liaison between its political and military wings in the Occupied Territories and particularly in the Gaza Strip, was assassinated in an Israeli airstrike on January 1, 2009 during the last Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Formally educated in Islamic religious sciences, he completed a doctorate in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Omdurman in the Sudan. In addition to being both a HAMAS political and military leader, Rayyan was also a popular preacher in Gaza and a professor of Islamic law at the Islamic University of Gaza. He was intimately involved with the Qassam Brigades. The Israelis also killed Rayyan's four wives and 11 of his children.

Martyrdom poster for Nizar 'Abd al-Qadir Rayyan bearing the name of HAMAS and the social movement it emerged from in the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza.



Sa'id Siyyam, interior minister in the HAMAS-led government formed in March 2006 following the party's electoral win the previous month, also straddled both the political and military wings of the movement. Although primarily a politician, as interior minister Siyyam also commanded the Executive Force, HAMAS' elite paramilitary unit, and Palestinian security forces either connected or loyal to the party.

Sa'id Siyyam: "The Martyr-Leader of HAMAS." He was killed in an airstrike with his son, Muhammad. It has been alleged that Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan assisted the Israelis in locating both Rayyan and Siyyam, since he was still bitter about the route of Fatah's militia and security forces in 2007 at their hands.


Muhammad Sa'id Siyyam

Siyyam and Rayyan were the field commanders largely responsible for HAMAS' crushing defeat of the rival Fatah Party of Palestinian president (though his term expired months ago) Mahmoud 'Abbas in the Gaza Strip in 2007. In doing so, they pre-empted a planned Fatah coup supported by the U.S. administration of then president George W. Bush, the Israelis, and some of the U.S.' Arab client states, such as Egypt. After being defeated militarily in Gaza, Fatah took over much of the West Bank. HAMAS and Fatah have persecuted each other's members in territory under their control since the mini HAMAS-Fatah civil war in 2007.

The commemoration of Salah Shehadah on the Qassam Brigades' web site is an excellent example of the creation of "cyber shrines," shrines dedicated to the party's martyrs, both its leaders and rank-and-file. Online commemoration such as this helps to create an interactive identity for these individuals, creating, in a way, "cyber martyrs" or martyrs that exist not only in the physical world but also in cyberspace. I briefly touch on this concept, which I am still developing, HERE .

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