Most people know it as Jenin, the city IDF generals call the "womb of suicide bombers," but since Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam was killed here 75 years ago this week, Arabs refer to it as Jenin al-Qassam. It's a name indicating pride, signifying the fighting heritage of the most highly esteemed figure in the Palestinian resistance, a figure whose religious declarations and role as leader of a terror group linked Islam with military might. It is for good reason Hamas named its military wing after him.
The city's residents did not let him down. Dozens of attacks including some of the most lethal suicide bombings in the history of the al-Aqsa Intifada originated in Jenin al-Qassam. But now, as terror in the West Bank has declined, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister are trying to turn it into a flourishing city of peace.
As part of their efforts, they are trying to promote a new name: City of Watermelons. Al-Qassam may well be turning in his grave. To encourage the new name to stick, the PA has built a new square in the center of the city, with a huge statue of a watermelon – Watermelon Square – prompting amusement above all.
But the sheikh's discomfort would have been even greater had he known that his grandson, Ahmad al-Qassam – known simply as Qassam – who moved to Jenin to continue his grandfather's heritage, left Jenin al-Qassam for Jenin City of Watermelons, and became one of the leading supporters of peace with Israel.
Respect among Arabs
Ahmad al-Qassam lives on the first floor of a new five-floor building near Jenin's Muqata'a, currently being rebuilt after an Israeli F-16 bombed it in 2002. Four steps bring visitors straight to a small guestroom. "Today is the eve of Eid al-Adha," Qassam says, apologizing for the chaos. "Everyone is getting the house ready. This room's turn will come soon."
Despite the disorder, certain details catch the attention of visitors. A large wall-hanging covers the southern wall with a picture of the Dome of the Rock, and on the opposite wall there is a picture of the German university on the Baltic coast, where Qassam studied. On the eastern wall is a picture of Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam, above which hangs an Armenian plate decorated with verses from the Koran.
He takes the picture of his grandfather and sits below the wall-hanging. "It's a great honor to be the grandchild of Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam," he says. "They respect me everywhere. My behavior is closely scrutinized, which compels me to act with dignity, to preserve my grandfather's name and the family's honor."
And perhaps now is the moment to note an interesting historical fact: Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam was not Palestinian. He was born in 1883 in Jableh, northern Syria, and at the age of 18 was sent to Cairo's al-Azhar University to study. He then returned to Syria and volunteered in the Ottoman army during the First World War, during which he headed a militia group fighting French occupation. A death sentence issued by a French military court forced him to flee to Haifa.
He was appointed imam of Haifa's al-Istiqlal Mosque, and in 1928 set up a militant group which carried out attacks on Jews in the Haifa area and the surrounding valleys. After the killing of Sergeant Moshe Rosenfeld in November 1935, he and his group were pursued by the British army and al-Qassam was killed during an exchange of fire west of Jenin. Thousands of Palestinians joined his funeral cortege. His grave has since become a site of pilgrimage for Arab Israelis of all factions. Innumerable books have been written about him, mosques and schools have been named after him, and there was even an attempt to name a Ramallah street after him – an attempt that was crushed by Israel. Even Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti called his firstborn son Qassam.
In 1948, the al-Qassam family left Haifa and returned to Syria. Ahmad was born there in 1966. At the age of 25 he decided to follow in his grandfather's footsteps and join the resistance against Israel. He was accepted into Fatah and during the first Lebanon war he fought against the IDF in southern Beirut. Two years later Fatah sent him to East Germany where he studied construction engineering, then joined the Baghdad headquarters. He later joined the Palestinian navy, whose bases were in Yemen, Sudan and Libya, obtaining the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In 1994 he returned with the PLO to the Gaza Strip, and when he ended hi military service 12 years ago he requested a transfer to Jenin al-Qassam, where he became an aide to the governor. He called his son, today aged 10, Izz al-Din.
In 2004, he was arrested by the Shin Bet and sentenced to six months' imprisonment for contact with a foreign agent. In prison he quickly became popular with the other prisoners, especially Hamas prisoners. "I was respected in prison," he says smiling. "They would invite me to their cells to tell them about my grandfather. Many didn't know he was Syrian. They thought he was born in the Jenin area."
Nonetheless, you joined Fatah instead of Hamas' Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, which continue in your grandfather's footsteps.
"If my grandfather were to stand before me today, he wouldn't be angry," Qassam says. "His objective was to liberate Palestinian lands from foreign hands. Any Palestinian organization seeking a national symbol for resistance chooses this figure. He has mythical status among Palestinians. He is the father of Jihad, a symbol of the resistance not just for Palestinians but for all Arabs. I preferred Fatah because of its ideology, but we are all fighting for the same aim."
He falls silent and stares for a while at the picture of his grandfather. "Anyway, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades haven't achieved anything," he adds.
When I ask if he supports peace with Israel, he declares, "I support the idea of two states based on the 1967 borders, with east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital." He then pauses, and adds, "I support all the demands of Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), including the right of return. After all, this is why we returned to Palestine."
When asked if he is Syrian or Palestinian, he hesitates for a second. "I have a double identity, Syrian and Palestinian, but at the end of the day I'm Arab," he says. "As an Arab nationalist following in his grandfather's footsteps, I support the idea of creating one large Arab state. Palestine was once part of Syria, so it's the same thing." He tries to explain his position, but finally declares, "Palestine is my country. I feel Palestinian in every way. My father and mother were born in Haifa."
He maintains contact with his family in Syria via telephone and Internet, especially with his elder brother Izz al-Din. Two years ago he visited them for a month and would like to go back, but "Israel doesn't allow me to leave the territories."
His family in Syria has various mementos of his grandfather. "We still have the key to the house in Haifa," he says. "We have grandfather's blood-stained kefiyeh and the Koran he had in his pocket when he was killed. In the town of his birth there is a memorial in his name and one of the schools is named after him.
Isn't there a memorial in Jenin?
"Israel does not allow it," he says. "They tried to set up a memorial on the hill where he was killed, but even this Israel prevented."
Some 10 years ago he entered Israel illegally to visit places connected to his family's history. "I had the honor of praying in the mosque where my grandfather used to pray," he says. "It was a meaningful experience." From the mosque he continued to the grave in Haifa's Balad ash-Sheikh suburb, now known as Nesher. "The grave is clean and well taken care of," he says. "Sheikh Raed Salah's movement (the Islamic Movement) looks after it. I prayed there and laid a wreath."
Qassam hopes to set up a memorial and establish a museum in Jenin to the memory of his grandfather. In the meantime, he intends to continue collecting material and perhaps write a book. But above all he would like to visit Haifa again and pray once more over his grandfather's grave, though he knows the chances of this happening are slim.
"Israel doesn't allow it" he says. "Anything connected with the name of my grandfather is forbidden."
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