Direction of Israel-Hamas war hinges on fate of Muhammad Deif

If Gaza terror chief was killed on Tuesday night, Hamas will feel obligated to escalate the fighting; if not, we may yet see a return to the Cairo talks

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades's chief Muhammad Deif delivering a recorded address after a Hamas terrorist infiltration into Israel, July 30, 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/Gal Berger)
Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades's chief Muhammad Deif delivering a recorded address after a Hamas terrorist infiltration into Israel, July 30, 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/Gal Berger)

As of this writing, Hamas has not formally confirmed whether Muhammed Deif, the head of its military wing, survived Israel’s attempt to kill him at 9:30 on Tuesday night in Gaza’s Sheikh Radwan district. Hamas’s radio station, Al Aqsa, has tweeted that he’s alive, and that may prove to be the case. We shall see.

Reports from Gaza say the Israeli air force targeted the Dalo family home, where Deif’s family was. The building was hit by five missiles and all three of its floors collapsed. Hamas announced on Wednesday morning that Deif’s wife, Waded and his son Ali, were killed, as was Ahmed al-Dalo, 20. Hamas presented a document with Shifa hospital records, recording the time at which the bodies of Deif’s wife and son were brought in. Why did it take a long time for the bodies to be brought in? Hard to say.

In fact, there are quite a few questions about the targeting of Deif, apart from the central mystery of his fate. Was the attack carried out on the basis of firm and specific intelligence, or more general information to the effect that the Deif family was hiding out in Gaza City neighborhood far from the family home in Khan Younis refugee camp? The likelihood that Deif would be with his wife and son when the conflict had re-escalated does not seem particularly high, although quite a few highly wanted terrorists have paid the heaviest price for similar mistakes. Deif has indeed proved impressively capable of survival, but he was badly hurt in a previous Israeli attack and his survival on that occasion was not because of a wondrous capacity for hiding.

Muhammad Deif
Muhammad Deif

One well-known story in the upper echelons of the Shin Bet relates to the special connection between the head of the Hamas military wing in the West Bank, arch-terrorist Ibrahim Hamed, and his wife. Even at the height of the periods when Israel was seeking him most assiduously, he would send letters and gifts to her at considerable personal risk. She even became pregnant during that time. (Hamed was eventually caught, tried and convicted in 2012 of 46 murders, and is serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli jail.) That’s not to say that the same applies to Deif, but Hamas’s Gaza arch-terrorist has been wanted since the early 1990s. Presumably, he visits his wife and children every now and then. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be children.

Another issue concerns Israel’s considerations in attacking Deif at this juncture. This is not to say that it was not correct to target Deif, an arch-terrorist who turned himself into a dead man years ago. It’s the timing that raises questions.

Just hours earlier, Israel and Hamas had been in indirect negotiations, via Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, on a long-term truce. Rocket fire had begun on Tuesday afternoon with a salvo at Beersheba, but after that the rockets had tailed off. The Israeli decision to strike the house in Sheikh Radwan spelled certain escalation. And that might be a better decision than the continuation of hopeless negotiations. But if that was the case, then Israel should have cut the talks short and prepared for a widespread ground offensive, including the call-up of reservists. Whoever authorized the attempted assassination of Muhammed Deif knew that it meant continuation of the fighting and an escalation for several additional days at least.

The prospects for resumed negotiations in Egypt (with or without American involvement) now appear to depend, ironically, on the fate of Deif. If this symbol of Hamas has been killed, Hamas would feel the political need to escalate the fighting with a harsh response — to demonstrate to the Palestinian public that it was not surrendering. Thus, the likelihood of a truce or an arrangement in the coming days would be zero.

But if Deif has survived, the issue of revenge becomes personal, rather than political, and Cairo might again host another effort at indirect negotiations on a long-term deal.

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