The Palestinian Islamist socio-political movement HAMAS (Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah; Islamic Resistance Movement) is today marking the sixth anniversary of the April 14, 2004 assassination of its senior political leader, the Gaza-based Dr. 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Rantissi. He was killed with his 27-year-old son Muhammad and bodyguard, Akram Nasir, while driving in an Israeli missile strike launched from an American-made Apache helicopter gunship. Eerily, al-Rantissi had earlier said in an interview that death was the same in the end, no matter how it came, and that he hoped his death would come "by Apache" instead of "cancer" or some other illness.
"I prefer Apache..."
He left behind another son, four daughters, and ten grandchildren. The Israeli air strike also killed several civilians, including a mother and her young daughter.
In an article by HAMAS' media wing dedicated to him, the group praises the "Mujahid (warrior) Doctor," who "embodied...wonderful characteristics" in his lifelong struggle against the Israeli occupation. Among these qualities, the writer(s) says, were his "striving" (jihadi) personality, steadfastness, patience, resistance against torture and imprisonment, and his selfless willingness to make personal sacrifices for "the cause."
Al-Rantissi is further praised in poetry, an important medium in Arab societies generally which has been harnessed by nationalist groups to inspire others to participate in political struggles. One such poem that is highlighted in HAMAS' dedication to him reads partially:
"O' Abu Muhammad (father of), O' Lion of Palestine...O' [the] Rumbling Voice of HAMAS...O' Voice of Resistance...O' Voice of Truth in the Face of the Oppressors...You shook the thrones of the oppressors...[You instilled] in the hearts of the youth a love of struggle (jihad) and martyrdom in God's path...You, who raised the morale of those warriors who strike (mujahideen) to the sky...O' you who destroyed the one who imprisoned you...O' Abu Muhammad, even the enemies of Islam had respect for your pride and character...O' you who raised the banner of Islam so it flew and taught us the meaning of pride and dignity, who taught us that our existence on Earth does not need to be only to shed blood and die [I've taken some liberties with the Arabic in order to convey a more accurate rendering in English], who taught us that through negotiations lies only the path of defeatism and the path to submission...who taught us to walk on the path of thorns and difficulty in order to uphold our dignity, who taught us not to abandon our principles nor our holy city of Jerusalem, who taught us to stick to out land and our rights at all costs and all that we must sacrifice..."
The "sun lit up the sky of Palestine," the poem says, with the heroic image of "Abu Muhammad, Dr. 'Abd al'Aziz al-Rantissi." He was "a second moon, which shone out onto the world in order to remove the darkness of night and illuminate the mujahideen and the resistance."
As with the commemorations of all their martyrs, HAMAS' media wing provides a biography of al-Rantissi, from which I have drawn to produce a biographical sketch. The retelling of the person's life is a part of the process of "cyber commemoration" that I have written about previously (with regard to another assassinated HAMAS leader, Salah Shehadah).
He was born, "a lion of Palestine," in the village of Yebna, between the cities of Ashkelon and Jaffa, two historically Arab cities that were incorporated after 1948-1949 into the new state of Israel. Following the 1948 war, al-Rantissi, who was six months old, and his family were forced to flee as refugees to Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. He and his nine brothers and three sisters, grew up in the large refugee camp that was established there. They were educated in a school for Palestinian refugees run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and he had to begin working at the age of 6 in order to help earn money for his family. It was this experience, the HAMAS commemoration says, that enabled him to grow up "strong, able to withstand difficult conditions." In other words, it was this early childhood experience that prepared him for his life of struggle. This description is frequently used in martyrdom commemorations by both secular and religious groups, both inside and outside of the Middle East. The martyr's character is said to have been clearly visible from an early age, adding to the hagiography.
Al-Rantissi (left) and Shaykh Ahmad Yassin
Al-Rantissi graduated from high school in 1965, after which he traveled to Alexandria, Egypt in order to pursue his university studies in medicine. He graduated with honors in 1971 and returned to the Gaza Strip, where he worked at Nasir Hospital in Khan Younis. He and other hospital employees later went on strike after they were prevented from returning to Egypt in order to complete their higher medical education. Al-Rantissi was ultimately able to return to Alexandria, where he earned a graduate degree in pediatrics, and he returned to work at the hospital in 1976. He served in the hospital's administration, held a seat of the governing body of the Arab Medical Society in the Gaza Strip, and was a member of the Palestinian Red Crescent (akin to the Red Cross). Al-Rantissi was fired due to Israeli government pressure in 1984 because of his political activism and he went to work at the Islamic University of Gaza.
A member of the Gaza-based branch of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan), which grew out of the Egyptian Ikhwan, al-Rantissi became one of the key leaders of a new religious-nationalist movement in the occupied Palestinian Territories, HAMAS, which emerged in 1987 with the outbreak of the First Intifada ("uprising") by Palestinians against the ongoing Israeli military occupation of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. The doctor was arrested in March 1988 by Israeli security forces and was imprisoned for two-and-a-half years. He was released in September 1990, but was rearrested 100 days later in December 1990 and was held in "administrative detention" (without charge; a process allowed by Israeli law) for a year.
On December 17, 1992, al-Rantissi and 416 other Palestinian political leaders and activists, mostly from the two largest Palestinian religious-nationalist groups, HAMAS and Harakat al-Jihad al-Islami (Movement of Islamic Jihad) in Palestine, were deported summarily to Lebanon. In exile, he became a spokesman for the deportees. They were allowed to return to the occupied Palestinian Territories in 1993, but al-Rantissi was arrested immediately upon returning and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison by an Israeli military court. He was released on April 21, 1997.
Upon his release, al-Rantissi resumed his role as one of the senior leaders, and a founder, of HAMAS. He was arrested on April 10, 1998 by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian National Authority (PNA) under Yasir 'Arafat, who was acting under pressure from the Israeli government. He was held for fifteen months and was released following the death of his mother. He was rearrested several times by the PNA and spent a total of 27 months in PNA detention. Two further attempts at detaining him were prevented due to popular opposition by Palestinians, who defended his house.
While in an Israeli prison in 1990, al-Rantissi memorized the Qur'an. More importantly for his political life, he also met Shaykh Ahmad Yassin, the Palestinian religious scholar who became HAMAS' spiritual leader. In prison, al-Rantissi also wrote many poems, which were inspired by the resistance of the Palestinians to Israeli military occupation. According to the HAMAS commemorative hagiography, love of his "homeland (Palestine) and the Palestinian people" became rooted "in the depths of his heart" while in prison, a fact seen in his poetry. Al-Rantissi was also involved in the production of newsletters and other print media from prison for HAMAS.
In June 2003, al-Rantissi survived an attempted Israeli assassination, which killed two civilians and wounded over a dozen others. Following the Israeli assassination of Shaykh Yassin on March 22, 2004, he became HAMAS' senior leader in the occupied Palestinian Territories. On the evening of April 17, al-Rantissi, his bodyguard, his son Muhammad, and a number of civilians were killed in an Israeli missile strike in central Gaza City. The commemorative article describes his death thusly: "He went to his Lord, to the side of Shaykh Ahmad Yassin and the Prophet Muhammad and his righteous Companions" at the "confluence of Paradise (Heaven), God willing."
A special section of the web site of HAMAS' military wing, the Brigades of the Martyr 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam, linked to from the front page, is dedicated to the memory of al-Rantissi. A biography, articles, commemorations, photographs, and video of or dedicated to him are available in this special section.
The commemoration of al-Rantissi 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 .