Who is Mohammed Deif, the Hamas chief

In this profile of Mohammed Deif, published on May 22, 2021, Stanly Johny writes how the Hamas chief survived nine assassination plots

Updated - October 12, 2023 01:15 pm IST

Published - May 22, 2021 10:24 pm IST

In early May, when the Israeli Supreme Court was expected to give a final ruling on the eviction of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, Israel got a warning from one of its top enemies. Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas’s military wing Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said in a rare public statement that Israel would pay a “heavy price” if it evicts Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah. This was the first statement from the shadowy commander, whom most Palestinians haven’t seen, in seven years.

Also read: Hamas | Islamists, militants and nationalists — all in one

Deif’s statement was the first indication that Hamas was ready to risk another Israeli attack over Jerusalem. The crisis escalated quickly. Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli forces in East Jerusalem over Sheikh Jarrah. The Supreme Court later postponed the hearing, but the crisis did not subside. On May 10, immediately after Israeli troops stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, Hamas issued an ultimatum to Israel to pull back forces from the compound. In the evening, Hamas launched rockets which were followed by Israeli airstrikes.

The cat with nine lives

The Israeli military confirmed that they tried to kill Deif twice during the 11-day bombing, but failed. Deif has been on Israel’s kill list at least since the early 2000s. In 2002, he lost an eye in an Israeli strike. In 2006, Israel struck a building in which Hamas leaders had assembled. The attack seriously injured Deif, but he survived. In August 2014, after an initial ceasefire was announced following weeks of fighting, Israel carried out an airstrike targeting him. The attack killed Deif’s wife and two children, but he escaped again. The escapes earned him the nickname among the Palestinians, “the cat with nine lives”.

Born in Khan Younis, Gaza, in the 1950s, Deif, whose real name is Mohammed Diab Ibrahim al-Masri, studied in Gaza’s Islamic University, which was co-founded in 1978 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’s founder and spiritual leader who was killed by Israel in 2004. Yassin, the tallest Muslim Brotherhood leader in Gaza, was then running Mujama al-Islamiyaan, which Israel had recognised as a charity. Deif was an active member of the Brotherhood and when Hamas was founded, after the first intifada broke out in 1987, Deif joined the new Islamist movement with zeal and vigour. During the intifada protests, he was briefly arrested by the Israelis. Having orchestrated several attacks in the 1990s, Deif rose through Hamas’s ranks quickly. In 2002, at the height of the second intifada, he was appointed the head of the Qassam Brigades, after its leader Salah Shehade was killed by Israel.

At that time, the Brigades was not much of a force. Named after Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, an Islamic preacher who led violent resistance against British colonialists and Zionist settlers in historic Palestine and was killed in 1935, the Brigades was involved in attacks on Israeli troops as well as civilians. After Deif took over the Brigades, Hamas carried out a host of suicide attacks inside Israel. Israel holds him personally responsible for the deaths of many of its citizens.

The U.S. has also designated him as a terrorist. In 2015, the U.S. State Department said Deif “is known for deploying suicide bombers and directing the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. During the 2014 conflict, Deif was the mastermind of Hamas’s offensive strategy.”

When Hamas emerged as a popular organisation within the Palestinian territories and showed signs of moderation and willingness to contest elections, Deif’s focus shifted from terror tactics such as suicide bombings to building a semi-conventional military command structure with resources such as rockets and mid-range missiles. Hamas acquired much of its rocket capability under his command. Israel believes he is on a wheelchair. Hamas doesn’t comment on his health. But they say Deif is fully in control of the Qassam Brigades. Among the supporters of Hamas, Deif has a cult status.

Both his enemies and supporters agree that he is the most influential voice within Hamas. “Deif is the decision-maker in Hamas... He believes every day they continue to fight is another achievement for them,” Gen. Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, once said. During the 2014 Gaza fighting, Deif issued an audio message. “The Zionist entity will not know security unless the Palestinian people live in peace,” he said. For Hamas, these words make its rule book.

This article was originally published on May 22, 2021

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