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Sons of Salah Al-Din: Shuja'iyya is not just a neighbourhood, it’s a legacy

December 14, 2023 at 1:24 pm

People gather during an event held by Islamic Jihad movement to commemorate people, who lost their lives on Israeli latest attacks on Gaza, at Shuja’iyya neighborhood in Gaza City, Gaza on August 25, 2022 [Ali Jadallah – Anadolu Agency]

Shortly before Palestinian fighters killed and wounded many Israeli soldiers in the Shuja’iyya neighbourhood, east of Gaza City, on Tuesday, that very group of soldiers had a meeting on the outskirts of the town.

A video, which circulated widely on social media, showed one of the officers – later killed – vowing to avenge other Israeli soldiers who were killed in that very neighbourhood in the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza.

The Shuja’iyya battle in 2014 is believed to have been the most decisive battle between invading Israeli forces and Palestinian resistance in Israel’s so-called ‘Operation Protective Edge’.

Back then, Israel admitted to the killing of 16 soldiers.

Shortly after that speech, the officers who vowed to avenge the dead soldiers of nearly ten years were themselves the victims of resistance ambushes.

Al-Qassam Brigades said that the number of Israeli soldiers who have died in three successive ambushes led by the resistance, exceeds the number of casualties declared by Israel by far.

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‘Difficult event’

Yesterday morning, the Israeli army said that eight soldiers, mostly officers, were killed in an ambush in Shuja’iyya. They include Col. Itzhak Ben Basat, a Golani Brigade’s commander, and Lt. Col. Tomer Greenberg – the soldier who was speaking in the video.

Later, the Israeli army stated that more dead and scores of wounded were also evacuated from Shuja’iyya.

Israeli Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi has described what has taken place in Shuja’iyya as “a difficult event”. Later on, an Israeli army spokesman said that they are investigating that “difficult event”.

But investigating may suggest that those soldiers were killed by chance, or through some kind of a miscalculation on the part of the Israeli army.

This is unlikely to be the case. According to the Israeli military, cited in Al Jazeera, the Israeli army has been fighting the “deadly Shuja’iyya Brigade” for one and a half weeks, a battle that seems nearly impossible to win.

It is impossible to win because the fighting is taking place in areas that have been completely destroyed, and repeatedly so, by Israeli air strikes. No one knows where the fighters come from and where they disappear.

The Israeli military has itself reached the conclusion that the battle of Shuja’iyya cannot be won from the air, meaning through air strikes.

But it does not seem to be winnable from the ground either, as a constant stream of news and videos continue to emerge from the Shuja’iyya area, of Israeli soldiers being sniped, tanks blown up and fierce battles, whose outcomes are almost always determined by Palestinian fighters.

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the battle of Shuja’iyya is likely to be one of the main factors that will result in the defeat of the Israeli army in Gaza.

The Shuja’iyya legend, however, is hardly a new story, whose lifespan ranges from July 2014 to December 2023. So, what is the story of Shuja’iyya?

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‘What’s in a name?’

Shuja’iyya is one of Gaza City’s largest neighbourhoods. It is located immediately to the east of the city and is divided into two areas, the southern area, known as Turkman, and the northern area, known as Jdeidah – the latter built during the Ayyubaid era – founded in the 12th century.

The etymology of the word Shuja’iyya is often misunderstood. The word indicates direct relation to the noun Shujaa’, meaning bravery. This explanation makes sense to many due to the obvious bravery of warriors emanating from this neighbourhood throughout the years.

But historical sources suggest that the name is attributed to Shuja Al-Din Othman Al-Kurdi, a famous warrior who died in a battle between the Ayyubaids and invading Crusader armies in 1239 AD.

Gate to Gaza

Shuja’iyya’s military significance has been apparent for hundreds of years, partly because of Tell Al-Muntar, a strategic hill which lies in Shuja’iyya and is considered the gate to Gaza. Those who control Al-Muntar Hill have visual and strategic access to the entirety of Gaza City.

This is precisely why Napoleon Bonaparte fought to control Al-Muntar, and ultimately camped along with his invading army in the vicinity of the hill.

Thousands of Allied soldiers, many years later, died near that very hill, which explains the World War I Graveyard in Gaza, one of many historical sites that tell of a much bigger story than Israel’s war and Tel Aviv’s declared objective of wanting to ‘eliminate Hamas’.

Even the very demographics of Shuja’iyya is rooted in a protracted story of invasions, bravery and the ultimate defeats of the conquerors. Shuja’iyya itself is named after a Kurdish warrior, and one of its neighbourhoods, Turkman, is named after the Turkman tribes, which joined Salah Ad-Din Al-Ayyubi – Saladin, in his quest to free Palestine from the Crusaders and their remnants.

In this very Shuja’iyya, triumphant armies cheered their victories, with their proud leaders mounting their Arabian horses on Tell Al-Muntar, gazing at Gaza City and its environs.

Also, in Shuja’iyya, Muslims, Jews and Christians once lived side by side. Invaders came and left, and, subsequently, demographics changed. It is now a home to nearly 100,000 Palestinians, living under an unprecedented military siege, and, as of 7 October, experiencing the most serious annihilation attempt ever tried by an invading army.

Secret of Shuja’iyya

Much is being said about Al-Qassam’s Shuja’iyya Brigades, one of the best trained and prepared Palestinian resistance groups.

Like the Al-Shati Brigades and the Jabaliya Brigades, the Shuja’iyya Brigades are mostly comprised of Nukhba forces, the elite units of Al-Qassam. This explains much about the fierce battles underway in the neighbourhood.

Another explanation is that Shuja’iyya has suffered most during previous revolts and uprisings, especially during the First Intifada of 1987, which cemented the culture of resistance among its residents.

But there is more to the story than the ongoing genocide in Gaza and the brutality of the Israeli army.

Shuja’iyya’s story is one that is rooted in history, connecting the peoples of that whole region – Arabs, Kurds, Turkmans, Muslims, Christians, and Jews – thus accentuating the significance of history in how Palestinians, collectively, perceive themselves and their valiant resistance.

When Israelis claim that the only ‘solution’ to Gaza is displacing the Palestinians, they do not seem to have much knowledge of that history. If they knew that those young fighters of Shuja’iyya are the descendants of the great armies that have defeated the Crusaders, fought the French and the British, they would have paused for a long time before thinking that Shuja’iyya will fall in a day, a week, or a thousand years.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.