The making of a martyr

Omayma Abdel-Latif, Sunday 14 May 2023

When Abdel-Qader Al-Husseini fell at Al-Kastel, his death seemed to mark the beginning of the end for the Arabs in Palestine. Some historians even claim that had the Arabs not lost this battle, there might be no Jewish state today. Omayma Abdel-Latif reflects on the career of a great warrior

The funeral of Abdel-Qader Al-Husseini, at Al-Aqsa Mosque, on Friday 9 April 1948
The funeral of Abdel-Qader Al-Husseini, at Al-Aqsa Mosque, on Friday 9 April 1948



From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 9-15 April 1998


"A military commander and a Palestinian fighter." This is the description of Abdel-Qader Al-Husseini in information file number 3101 in the archives of Al-Ahram newspaper. Abu Mousa, Abdel-Qader Al-Husseini, is acknowledged in there as the Palestinian commander most committed to the cause which he gave his life for.


Abdel-Qader was born in Jerusalem in 1908 to Mousa Kazem pacha Al-Husseini, one of the pioneer commanders who led the early struggle in Palestine from 1919 to 1933 and was elected to chair the first Arab Conference in Jerusalem in 1919. The young boy witnessed from an early age the battles against the British mandate rule, which acted as an eye-opener, initiating him into the true situation of Palestine at the time.


Right up to the end of his life, Mousa Kazem Pacha, despite his considerable age (he was 83 when he died in 1934), still took to the streets, organising protests against the British Army's connivance with the Zionist movement who were actively colonising Palestine. In one of those demonstrations in Jaffa, Mousa was attacked by a British solider and seriously injured. He was pronounced dead on 23rd March 1934. Abdel-Qader, by then, was old enough to follow in his father's footsteps. In that same demonstration, the young man had been among the injured. As he later recalled, "the slogans of the protest called for the 'fall of Zionism' and of Britain which protected it.'


Al-Husseini was educated at Roudat al-Ma'aref al-Watanyia in Jerusalem. Most wealthy Palestinian families at the time would send their sons to complete their higher education in Egypt, and Al-Husseini was duly dispatched to Cairo, where he entered the American University in Cairo, majoring in history and journalism.


He graduated with honours in 1934, the first ever Palestinian student to receive such a degree from the AUC. Describing the scene 25 years later in a profile of Al-Husseini, Al-Messa newspaper of May 15, 1959 (edited at the time by Anwar El-Saddat) reported that the young man had addressed the audience, telling them, "This university is but a colonial and missionary establishment. It is also a base for the enemies of the Arabs. To express my protest at the existence of such a place in the heart of Cairo, I will tear up this degree... This university aims to destroy the pillars of Islam and Arabism and to turn young Arabs into voices of colonialism." This account is probably highly exaggerated, yet similar stories appear in many of the sources for his life.


Whether he gave the long speech reproduced in Al-Messa, or just shouted "Long live Palestine," as other sources claim, the incident itself is indicative of both the climate that prevailed in the thirties and the legends that were woven around Husseini's name much later. 


Upon returning to Palestine, Al-Husseini turned down a job with the British mandate authorities in the Land Settlement Circle, a body which was to oversee the settlement of land disputes between Arabs and Jews. To his dismay, Al-Husseini realized that his job as an assistant to the settlement Sheriff was effectively to hand the land of Arab families over to their Jewish rivals.


In 1936, Al-Husseini took part in the Palestinian revolution. As commander of Al-Jihad Al-Mouqadas (Sacred Jihad) troops in Palestine, he was delegated the authority to declare war against the British mandate authorities, which he did on 7 May. The revolution began with systematic attacks on British troops stationed in Jerusalem and its environs. 


The enemy sustained heavy losses, which provoked the British authorities to lay ambushes to try and hunt down Al-Husseini. Despite their efforts, he managed to escape unscathed. The revolution reached its peak in July of the same year when the remaining forces of Ezz El-Din Al-Qassam joined the ranks of Al-Husseini along with scores of fighters from around the Arab world. 

After a series of attacks in Ramallah, Jericho, Bethlehem and Bab El-Wad, the British troops managed to lay siege to the village of El-Khodr, and Al-Husseini was captured in a fierce battle. Seriously wounded, he was transferred under heavy guard to the military hospital. While the British authorities awaited his recovery to put him on trial, Abdel-Qader's comrades attacked the hospital and spirited Al-Husseini away to Damascus, where he remained for three months to complete his treatment.


In response to a plea from the Arab kings and the Arab Supreme Committee for Palestine, the revolution was then brought to an abrupt halt, after the British authorities promised to consider their demands.


By the end of 1937, Al-Hussini was back in Palestine. He was stationed in Beirzeit, which was to be the headquarters of the second stage of the holy Jihad against British occupation and Jewish immigration. A few months later, the fighters had taken the old city of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho and Ramallah, as well as scores of villages. 


Faced with such considerable victories, the British troops moved to crush the revolution. While Al-Husseini was moving towards the coast to attack Jewish settlements in the Beit Gebrin area, he came under fire from British artillery and was so severely injured that he was counted among the dead. Yet somehow, he managed to resurface in Damascus, where he again received treatment for his wounds. Shortly afterwards, the Second World War broke out and the Palestinian revolution came to a halt once again.


Al-Husseini moved on to Baghdad where he joined the military officers' college. In 1941 he supported the revolution of Rashid Ali Al-Kilani against the British army and, as a result, was arrested and put on military trial, where he was sentenced to three years imprisonment. At the end of the Second World War, Al-Husseini reappeared in Cairo, where he was hard at work preparing the next stage of armed struggle in Palestine. 


He began by training Palestinian youths in guerrilla warfare. While thus occupied with purchasing arms and training the young soldiers of the holy Jihad in Cairo, he also met with a number of the nationalist officers in the Egyptian army to agree on goals for the Palestinian fighters. The Mufti declared him the commander of the holy jihad. Thus made ready, Al-Husseini moved back to Palestine after nearly a decade's absence. His return coincided with the declaration of the November 1947 UN resolution on the partition of Palestine.


As clashes between Arabs and Jews intensified on the eve of the establishment of the Jewish state, Zionist guerrilla gangs resorted to terrorism against the Arabs by planting bombs in Arab quarters. Abdel-Qader and his men engaged in a series of battles against these gangs in Beit Sourek, Beit Mehiaser, Berk Suliman, Sourif , Ramallah and other villages. Having run out of weaponry, their commander then headed to Damascus, the headquarters of the Arab Liberation Army (the army of irregulars formed by the Arab League), to seek ammunition and mortar cover.


In Damascus, Al-Husseini did his best to describe the deteriorating situation in Palestine and how the Jews were becoming more influential every day. He went on to explain how the Jewish gurreilla were well-equipped while the Palestinian fighters didn't lack courage, but had no weapons save old Ottoman guns.


It was while Al-Husseini was making his plea for help, that the battle of Al-Kastel broke out. The village of al-Kastel, west of Jerusalem, was to be occupied under the first phase of Plan Dalet, whose goal was to capture the villages along the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem road from local Palestinian militia. According to many Arab historians, the battle of Al-Kastel was one of the decisive battles -- if not the decisive battle -- of the 1948 war. 


It was the battle which determined the possibility of the Jewish state. Both the Arab fighters and the Jewish terrorists realised the strategic importance of the village. Whoever controlled al-Kastel could control Jerusalem and the ammunition road linking the Jewish settlements with both Tel-Aviv and Jaffa, as well as the Palestinian coast. That is why the battle turned into one of the fiercest and bloodiest encounters of that time -- a prelude to the atrocities committed in Deir Yassin a day later.


In his book, The Struggle of the Palestinian People, the writer and journalist Ahmed Boyassir explains that the response of the Arab League military committee to Al-Husseini' request for arms simply reflected the policies of the countries they represented.


"During this time, news broke that Al-Kastel has fallen into the hands of the Jews, Al-Husseini was outraged by the news and addressed Taha Pacha Al-Hashemi, former general commander of the Iraqi Army and chief inspector of the Arab Liberation Army, in these terms: "Al-Kastel is a strong fortress which we cannot hope to get back with the little ammunition we have. Give me the weapons that I ask for and I will recapture it". 


Al-Husseini's request was refused. His final words to those who denied him arms were, "History will record that you made the loss of Palestine possible. I will go back to Kastel even if I die with all my comrades." He was killed a day later at Al-Kastel."


Following his death, Al-Ahram's Jerusalem correspondent wrote: .


"The killing of the late Abdel-Qader Al-Husseini, the commander-in-chief of Jerusalem area, has come to be regarded as an example of self-sacrifice which all the Arabs should take pride in." The correspondent reported that while the Arab fighters continued their attacks on the village of Al-Kastel, "Al-Husseini, who had just returned from Damascus to recapture Al-Kastel village, was killed during the attack [...]


"Informed sources said that Abdel-Qader was in the forefront of the attack. He had entered a house to blow it up; he never came out again. Haganah circles, however, claim that Abdel-Qader was buried under the ruins of a house which was blown up by explosives planted by Jewish troops."

* This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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