Abd al-Rahim al-Hajj Muhammad
|Abd al-Rahim al-Hajj Muhammad
عبد الرحيم الحج محمد
Portrait, early 1937
Dhinnaba, Tulkarm, Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem, Ottoman Empire
|Died||23 March 1939
Sanur, Mandatory Palestine
|Other names||Abu Kamal|
|Known for||General Commander of the 1936–39 Palestine revolt|
Abd al-Rahim al-Hajj Muhammad (Arabic: عبد الرحيم الحج محمد) (1892–23 March 1939), also known by his kunya Abu Kamal, was a prominent Palestinian Arab commander of rebel forces during the 1936–39 Arab revolt against British Mandate rule and increased Jewish settlement in Palestine. Most of his activities were based in the areas of Tulkarm, Nablus and Jenin (modern-day northern West Bank). In September 1938, he became the official General Commander of the Revolt, although he shared the post in rotation with Arif Abd al-Raziq. In February 1939, al-Hajj Muhammad was given sole title to the post by the revolt's political leadership. He was later killed in a firefight with British forces in March.
Al-Hajj Muhammad was born in the village of Dhinnaba (today a part of Tulkarm city) in 1892. He belonged to the landowning clan of Samara, itself a part of the larger tribal confederation of al-Barqawi, which had a long history of activity in the area of Tulkarm. During the invasion of Syria by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798–99, al-Hajj Muhammad's great-grandfather fought in the Ottoman defense of the country, but was sentenced to death. Another of his great-grandfathers participated in the Arab revolt against Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt's rule in Palestine in the 1830s.
Al-Hajj Muhammad was initially educated in Dhinnaba's kuttab, a traditional elementary school. In 1899–1900 he was enrolled in a primary school in Tulkarm. Later, he would work the fields of his lands alongside his father and occasionally traveled with him from place to place, selling their agricultural products. During World War I (1914–18) he was conscripted into the Ottoman army (a requirement for male Ottoman citizens), serving outside of Palestine in Tripoli and Beirut. He returned following the Ottomans' defeat by British forces and their Hashemite Arab allies. His father had died sometime during the war. In 1920 Britain, which had already been in control of the area, established a mandate over Palestine under the auspices of the League of Nations.
Career during British rule
Upon his return to Palestine in 1918, al-Hajj Muhammad supervised his family's land possessions and entered the trade business. He became one of the prominent local grain traders in Palestine during the early years of the Mandate. Coinciding with this period, al-Hajj Muhammad became an ardent opponent of Zionism and British support for that movement. The 1920 Nebi Musa riots, unrest in 1923 and the 1929 Palestine riots all extended into Tulkarm and al-Hajj Muhammad was angered at the coercive manner in which the British authorities quelled the Palestinian Arab participants. His business eventually went bankrupt after the Mandate adopted new economic policies, importing wheat abroad at a cheaper price than the local produce. This became one of the major motivating factors in his future participation in the Palestinian Arab revolt in 1936.
The local connections al-Hajj Muhammad established as a grain merchant would later become beneficial in his future recruiting efforts. The web of tribal loyalties of the al-Barqawi proved resourceful, providing him with fighting men and provisions. During the 1930s, al-Hajj Muhammad set up base in the vicinity of Bal'a near Tulkarm and began recruiting and training fighters from the area, including former Ottoman soldiers who brought additional expertise in combat or firearms. Under his command, this group of men would launch minor raids against Jewish settlements and British security personnel. One of the main targets were the orange orchards of newly established Jewish settlements in the Wadi al-Hawarith west of Tulkarm. These places had mostly been built on the lands of absentee landlords and its peasant tenants had been evicted. Al-Hajj Muhammad had a criminal record with the Mandatory authorities. According to Israeli historian Yehoshua Porath, his alleged crime was committing fraud in a land transaction with a Jewish buyer. However, author and anthropologist Ted Swedenburg wrote Porath's claim was never mentioned by other sources that discussed al-Hajj Muhammad.
In 1934, his wife Badia'a died and al-Hajj Muhammad was left with his four sons. With the killing of Izz al-Din al-Qassam, a well-known Muslim preacher and anti-colonial militant by British forces, tensions between the Palestinian Arab population, among whom al-Qassam was popular, and the authorities significantly rose. His sympathizers grew in number and the notion of armed struggle against British rule and British sponsorship of Zionism became increasingly popular as an alternative to the diplomatic negotiations between the Palestinian leadership and the British government, which was ultimately seen by the local population as a futile effort that bore no tangible results. When al-Hajj Muhammad actively took part in the upcoming revolt, he entrusted his children with his sister Halima, a widow. According to his eldest son Kamal, she too was a grain merchant, later trading in textiles. She also financially supported the children's education. Al-Hajj Muhammad would normally meet with his sons for one or two days in different villages. His children would be escorted to his location by one al-Hajj Muhammad's rebels.
Commander in the revolt
The revolt started with the Palestinian general strike in April 1936, first observed in Nablus. The strike spread to a number of cities throughout Palestine, including Tulkarm where al-Hajj Muhammad helped organize the campaign. By the summer of that year, a host of Palestinian Arab militias began to take an active lead in the revolt, including the forces of al-Hajj Muhammad. Al-Hajj Muhammad used already existing social networks and the complex web of clan politics to build alliances both with the middle classes of the major towns, particularly the well-educated activists, and the clan elders to build a solid base of resistance against the British. In order to avoid detection, al-Hajj Muhammad would not command a large unit of troops. Instead, he raised small, semi-permanent bands of volunteer fighters called fasa'il as he moved from one area to another. They would normally launch nighttime attacks against specific targets.
In the earliest stage of the revolt, in the early summer, al-Hajj Muhammad's fighters primarily operated in the Wadi al-Sha'ir area between Nablus and the coastal plain. Most of their actions consisted of attacks against British Army and police patrols driving between Tulkarm and Nablus. On 21 June al-Hajj Muhammad and his fasa'il ambushed a British Army force protecting a Jewish convoy passing near the village of Bal'a. Three British bomber planes were subsequently dispatched to aid the ambushed convoy. The battle lasted about seven hours and ended with the deaths of three rebels and one British soldier. A further 21 rebels and two British soldiers were wounded. The authorities consequently issued a warrant for al-Hajj Muhammad's arrest.
The militias of the rebellion had worked independently from each other until July, when al-Hajj Muhammad, Arif Abd al-Raziq and Fakhri Abd al-Hadi decided to coordinate the actions of their respective armed bands. Abd al-Raziq was based in the Bani Sa'b area around Tayibe, while Abd al-Hadi operated in Sha'ruwiya, around Arraba. All three commanders' areas of operation were concentrated in the north-central highlands. Another meeting between the leaders was held in August where efforts were made to designate official areas of operation and specific targets to be attacked. The Jerusalem area militia of Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni was absent from both of these meetings, making it increasingly difficult to form a solid military command among the rebels.
The arrival of the well-known pan-Arabist rebel leader Fawzi al-Qawuqji in that same month, and his subsequent assumption of command of the revolt, further damaged the rebellion's coherence, despite his attempts to unify their ranks. Although al-Qawuqji was an experienced commander on the battlefield, relations between him and the Palestinian political and local military leadership was one of general mistrust. Local rebels resented the delegation of commanding positions to non-Palestinians and al-Qawuqji's references to the area as "Southern Syria" instead of "Palestine." Nonetheless, al-Hajj Muhammad and al-Qawuqji fought together in a second major confrontation with British forces in Bal'a in September. The battle went on for more than six hours and according to Mandatory figures, three British military personnel were killed and four wounded. One of the fatalities was a British pilot who's plane was downed by rebels, who suffered ten dead and six wounded.
In October 1936 military activity on the part of the rebels temporarily ended after the Arab Higher Committee (AHC), the revolt's political leadership, acquiesced to a request made by the generally pro-British royals of Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia to halt the fighting. In return, the Arab royals would lobby the British Mandatory authorities to address Palestinian Arab concerns pertaining to the conflict with Zionism. After al-Qawuqji left Palestine, al-Hajj Muhammad also departed to avoid being apprehended by the authorities, heading for Damascus the same month. A bounty of 500 pounds was issued for him by the Mandate. While in Damascus, al-Hajj Muhammad raised funds and purchased weapons for the revolt. He also began working with Syrian and Lebanese nationalists to facilitate the smuggling of those arms to Palestine. Al-Hajj Muhammad later left Damascus for the Lebanese mountain village of Qarnayel east of Beirut. From there, he maintained regular communications with his forces.
Renewal of rebellion
While fighting was on hold, the British government announced it would not restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine and instead proposed a partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states as put forward by the Peel Commission (November 1936 – January 1937.) These statements antagonized the Palestinian leadership whose principal concern was increased Jewish settlement. They thus boycotted the commission from the time it began its work. The AHC under the chairmanship of Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, requested rebel leaders return and resume military activities in Palestine to pressure the authorities. In April al-Hajj Muhammad returned to Palestine and took command of his rebel units in the Tulkarm-Jenin-Nablus region, which was referred to by the authorities as the "Triangle of Terror" for the concentration of rebel activity in the area.
With the renewal of the revolt, efforts were made to unify rebel ranks and establish a hierarchical command structure. In late 1937 al-Hajj Muhammad had summoned the village elders of Tulkarm's vicinity and requested that they each provide him with one armed man. He was generally successful and recruited a 50-man force. The last quarter of the year saw increased attacks against British military targets, buses carrying Jews, the Iraqi Petroleum Company pipeline in Palestine and telecommunication lines. At this stage, the revolt had developed into an organized effort across Palestine, with each area's rebel bands having a hierarchy of some sort. In the case of al-Hajj Muhammad's forces, there were four brigades of fasa'il, each led by a commander, one of whom was Ahmad Massad. The other commanders answered to Massad, who in turn served as al-Hajj Muhammad's deputy. This military order contrasted from the situation of 1936 where only al-Hajj Muhammad would personally lead his fasa'il. Each brigade was delegated a budget.
During a confrontation between rebels and British forces at the village of an-Nazla ash-Sharqiya in early December 1937, al-Hajj Muhammad was wounded, but managed to evade capture when the mukhtar (Arabic for "village head") led him to safety in a nearby cave. Four of al-Hajj Muhammad's men had died in the battle. After the British withdrew from the area, al-Hajj Muhammad was given treatment by local doctors until January 1938 when he sought more advanced care in Damascus. He returned to Palestine later the same month. Early 1938 saw the rebels consolidate control over much of the countryside and the roads. These areas became increasingly dangerous for British forces who were mostly concentrated in the main towns.
The local rebel commanders were generally suspicious of outside Arab military leaders (such as Qawuqji) and of the AHC, particularly after many members of the latter joined the Damascus-based Central Committee of Jihad following the AHC's dissolution by the authorities in October 1937. The Central Committee had been founded in late 1937 by Izzat Darwaza, and would officially serve as the revolt's political leadership, fundraising body and arms supplier. On the ground in Palestine, competition for the role of the rebels' general command became increasingly tense as al-Hajj Muhammad and Abd al-Raziq contested the position. The two rebel leaders were engaged in a serious rivalry, which coincided with the development of acrimonious relations between their families over influence in the Tulkarm area's social and political spheres.
To smooth over differences, the revolt's leaders held a summit in Deir Ghassaneh in September 1938 and established the Bureau of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, with al-Hajj Muhammad and Abd al-Raziq rotating as General Commander. The British Army, backed by bomber planes, assaulted Deir Ghassaneh after gaining knowledge of the meeting, and sought to arrest or kill the commanders. A battle ensued in which a prominent commander, Muhammad al-Salih (known as Abu Khalid) was slain. The Bureau was intended to serve as the Central Committee's military wing. However, the rivalry between al-Hajj Muhammad and Abd al-Raziq continued, undermining the Bureau's performance.
The Central Committee settled the leadership dispute when it confirmed the title of General Commander of the Revolt on al-Hajj Muhammad in February 1939. He was already in Damascus at the time, having moved back in October 1938. Al-Hajj Muhammad was also given an assurance of support after tensions between him and the Committee resulted in the latter's withholding of supplies and funding to al-Hajj Muhammad at one point in 1938. The rebellion was also entering a different stage with the establishment of government-sponsored and Zionist-supported "peace bands" commanded by al-Husayni's political rivals, chief among them the Nashashibi clan. These units launched counterattacks against rebel forces and a campaign to both harass rebel sympathizers and to push local leaders to end the revolt.
Death and legacy
On 23 March 1939, on his return to Palestine after being officially confirmed as the rebellion's general commander, al-Hajj Muhammad was killed by the British Army in the village of Sanur, located between Jenin and Nablus. He had entered the village with two of his subordinate commanders and a few of his fighters. A peace band set up by Farid Irsheid had been surveilling him. Irsheid had sought revenge for the killing of his brothers Ahmad and Muhammad in May 1938, which were generally attributed to al-Hajj Muhammad. The information Irsheid's band of informants collected on al-Hajj Muhammad's movements were then passed to British intelligence. A large force from the British Army subsequently arrived at and sealed off Sanur. Irsheid's band served alongside the army unit. The village's residents had reportedly pleaded with al-Hajj Muhammad to escape from Sanur undercover, but he and his fighters entered the adjacent plains and clashed with British troops. Al-Hajj Muhammad was killed in the firefight along with one of his deputy commanders. According to a some residents who witnessed the clash, the British officer who headed the operation, Jeffrey Motrin, removed his hat and covered al-Hajj Muhammad's face with a handkerchief he took out of his pocket in a sign of respect. Motrin himself later wrote "Abdul Rahim had a special respect among his people, and among us."
Afterward, he was buried in the village, only for his body to be secretly exhumed two weeks later by some members of his fasa'il and transported to Dhinnaba. There, he was buried ceremonially in a manner "befitting his stature in the revolt," according to author Sonia Nimr. As news of his death proliferated, a general strike was held throughout Palestine for a number of days in honor of al-Hajj Muhammad's efforts in the anti-colonial and anti-Zionist revolt. His death had made the headlines of various newspapers in both Palestine and other parts of the Arabic-speaking world. Tulkarm commemorates al-Hajj Muhammad's death annually in March and the 70th anniversary of his death was also honored by the Khodori Institute of the city in March 2009. A boys' school in Dhinnaba is named after al-Hajj Muhammad as is a major street in Amman, Jordan.
According to historian Hillel Frisch, al-Hajj Muhammad's death was "reflection of how much the rebels were then bereft of an area that could serve as a sanctuary or from which they could renew operations." The revolt had largely dissipated by the time al-Hajj Muhammad was killed, with his demise resulting in a major setback. He was succeeded by Ahmad al-Hasan, but the latter was unable to maintain momentum and the revolt ended in late 1939.
Ideology and relationship with Central Committee
According to Swedenburg, al-Hajj Muhammad was the "most respected commander, was renowned for his nationalist convictions, for his opposition to political assassination, and for his tirelessness as a fighter." He operated more or less independently from the political leadership of the rebellion, including those based in Palestine, such as AHC head al-Husayni, and Damascus-based Central Committee. Despite his tacit alliance with al-Husayni, al-Hajj Muhammad had refused to assassinate local leaders who rivaled the al-Husayni family for political power, reportedly stating "I dont work for Husayniya ("Husanyni-ism"), but for wataniya (nationalism)."
Political assassinations, attempted or successful, commonly occurred throughout the revolt. Al-Hajj Muhammad's refusal to participate did not seriously damage his relations with al-Husayni or the Central Committee, an organization which he depended on for war material. He frequented Damascus to obtain weapons and supplies as well as to discuss the situation in Palestine. However, an intelligence document from the British Mandatory authorities revealed that al-Hajj Muhammad left Palestine for Syria in October 1938 after being disaffected with the Central Committee's activities. The report states that he refused to send funds to the Committee, remarking "The shoe of the most insignificant mujahid (fighter) is nobler than all the members of the Society, who have indulged in pleasure, while their brethren suffer in the mountains." At one point, tensions emanating from al-Hajj Muhammad's refusal to carry out the killings of several men provided to him in a hit list by Da'ud al-Husayni on behalf of the Committee resulted in the cutting off of financial and material support for a certain period of time in 1938. This forced al-Hajj Muhammad to go to Jerusalem's chamber of commerce and the Ramallah municipality for funds. Another reason for his departure was the increased presence of informants within the rebel ranks, making it hard for him to continue military activities.
His personal assistant Abu Shahir depicted al-Hajj Muhammad as a "genuine nationalist," contrasting with the self-proclaimed nationalist leaders whom Abu Shahir accused of adhering to "narrow factional interests." He claimed that al-Hajj Muhammad saw Palestinian unity as being all-inclusive and incompatible with political assassinations, particularly killings that would fuel divisions within the ranks of the rebellion's leadership. A would-be exception to his no-assassination policy was his alleged responsibility in the killing of Ahmad and Muhammad Irsheid, landowners who supported Nashashibi-led opposition to al-Husayni's leadership. Because of the widely-disputed circumstances surrounding the Irsheids' deaths and its general attribution to al-Hajj Muhammad, the killings were rarely mentioned in Palestinian narratives of the revolt.
- Swedenburg, 2008, p. 87.
- Nafi, 1998, p. 255.
- Nimr, ed. LeVine, 2012, p. 146.
- Nimr, ed. LeVine, 2012, p. 144.
- Nimr, ed. LeVine, 2012, p. 145.
- Swedenburg, 2008, p. 229.
- Swedenburg, 2008, p. 100.
- Nimr, ed. LeVine, p. 82.
- Frisch, 2008, p. 20.
- Thomas, p. 247.
- Nimr, ed. LeVine, pp. 146–147.
- Frisch, 2008, pp. 20–21.
- Frisch, 2008, p. 22.
- Nimr, ed. LeVine, p. 147.
- Nimr, ed. LeVine, p. 148.
- Nimr, ed. LeVine, 2012, p. 149.
- Swedenburg, 2008, p. 123.
- Levine, Sonia Nimr, 2012, pp. 149–150.
- Frisch, 2008, pp. 22–23.
- Nimr, ed. LeVine, 2012, p. 150.
- Nimr, ed. LeVine, 2012, p. 153.
- Frisch, 2008, p. 23.
- Nimr, LeVine, 2012, p. 154.
- Cohen, 2009, p. 152.
- Nimr, ed. LeVine, 2012, p. 155.
- Swedenburg, ed. Burke, 1988, p. 197.
- Swedenburg, 2008, pp. 102–103.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Abd al-Rahim al-Hajj Muhammad.|
- Cohen, Hillel (2009). Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration With Zionism, 1917–1948. University of California Press. ISBN 0520933982.
- Frisch, Hillel (2008). The Palestinian Military: Between Militias and Armies. Routledge. ISBN 0203929071.
- Nafi, Basheer M. (1998). Arabism, Islamism and the Palestine Question, 1908–1941: A Political History. Garnet & Ithaca Press. ISBN 0863722350.
- Nimr, Sonia (2012). ""A Nation in a Hero: Abdul Rahim al-Hajj Mohammad and the Arab Revolt"". In Mark Andrew LeVine. Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel. University of California Press. ISBN 0520262530.
- Swedenburg, Ted (1988). "Palestinian Peasantry in the Great Revolt". In Edmund Burke. Islam, Politics, and Social Movements. University of California Press. ISBN 0520068688.
- Swedenburg, Ted (2003). Memories of Revolt: The 1936–1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past. University of Arkansas Press. ISBN 1610752635.
- Thomas, Martin (2008). Empires of Intelligence: Security Services and Colonial Disorder After 1914. University of California Press. ISBN 0520933745.