Is prime Israel target Muhammad Deif overseeing Hamas’s strategy?

As Israel bombs the home of terror chief who has survived three attempts to kill him, some Israeli experts believe he’s still in charge

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

An Al-Qassam Brigades gunman in Gaza, May 2014 photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
An Al-Qassam Brigades gunman in Gaza, May 2014 photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

A severely injured terror chief who has (barely) survived three Israeli attempts on his life is believed by some Israeli experts to be overseeing Hamas’s strategy and tactics in the ongoing conflict.

Muhammad Deif’s oversight of a series of terrorist attacks — including suicide bombings and kidnappings — saw him rise to the head of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, and become a prime Israeli target over the past two decades. His injuries marginalized him, but some members of the Israeli security establishment believe he regained command of the Brigades following the assassination of Ahmad Jabari in November 2012, a targeted killing that marked the start of Operation Pillar of Defense.

On Tuesday night, the Israel Air Force bombed his home in Khan Younis. Military chiefs would not have thought it likely he was there; they were sending a message.

Muhammad Deif
Muhammad Deif

Bound to a wheelchair after having lost his arms and legs in a July 2006 Israeli Air Force strike on a Gaza home where he was hiding — and an eye in a helicopter strike on his car in the Gaza neighborhood of Sheikh Radwan in September 2002 — Deif still has the mental capacity to command Hamas’s military apparatus, said former deputy Shin Bet commander and current Kadima MK Yisrael Hasson.

“He is very experienced in the field. He knows how to calculate his moves and acts in utter secrecy,” Hasson told The Times of Israel. “But that won’t help him. He will die the natural death that befits a criminal terrorist.”

Hasson’s comments reflect the frustration of the Israeli security establishment with the man it calls “the human puzzle.”

Former Shin Bet official and Kadima MK Yisrael Hasson (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Former Shin Bet official and Kadima MK Yisrael Hasson (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Born in Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip in 1965, Deif became commander of the Al-Qassam Brigades in July 2002, following Israel’s assassination of his commander Salah Shehadeh. Deif’s ascension was the result of years of terrorist activities in Gaza and the West Bank, including the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman in 1994 and the dispatch of suicide bombers to two Jerusalem buses in February and March 1996.

“Many in Israel wondered how Deif remained alive after a Hellfire missile fired from an aircraft hit his car, sending shrapnel to his head and crushing vital organs,” wrote Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in his 2012 book “Getting to Know Hamas,” describing the 2002 assassination attempt.

“The one photo taken following the abortive assassination attempt shows Deif injured, bleeding, barely crawling on his elbows out of the burning car, his clothes covered in dust and ash. There are almost no other photos of this mysterious man, who — thanks to his secretive lifestyle — has survived as the head of Izz ad-Din Al-Qassam longer than all his predecessors.”

The funeral of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin in Gaza, March 2004 photo credit: Flash90)
The funeral of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin in Gaza, March 2004 (photo credit: Flash90)

An even more dramatic Israeli miss took place in September 2003, when Israel dropped a bomb on the Gaza home of Palestinian parliamentarian Marwan Abu Ras where the entire Hamas leadership was convened, including Deif. Wary of dropping a bomb that would destroy the entire building and kill civilians feared to be in the area, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon sanctioned a quarter-ton device rather than a much larger one. The bomb destroyed the building’s top floor, but the Hamas leadership — including Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin — survived unscathed downstairs.

Following the last assassination attempt in 2006 which left him paralyzed, Deif went into deep hiding. Fuzzy reports located him in Egypt for a three-month medical treatment. His deputy Ahmad Jabari took effective control of the Qassam Brigades, but the honorary title of chief continued to be reserved for Deif.

Members of Israel’s security establishment, like MK Hasson, insist that Deif resumed command of Al-Qassam following Jabari’s death. Others claim that Deif is just one member of a broader military council, which makes decisions through consultation.

On November 2012, less than a week after Jabari was killed, Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV released an audio message in which Deif threatened that an Israeli land incursion in Gaza would enable Hamas to release prisoners, obliquely referring to the movement’s intention to kidnap IDF soldiers.

Gershon Baskin, September 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Gershon Baskin (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Some observers question the assessment that Deif is still active. Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist who was instrumental in mediating the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, and said he still maintains close contact with Hamas’s political leadership, finds it hard to believe that Deif is anything more than a figurehead.

“I assess that he’s much more a symbol than an active commander,” Baskin told The Times of Israel. “He’s the spirit, he’s the myth, but I would find it hard to imagine that he’s actually a fully functioning human being.”

“As far as I know, Hamas has no central functioning command. Today there are no communications, because that way Israel would find them. There are field commanders and the areas [of battle] are all very separate. They had a lot of time to prepare.”

Overseen by Deif or not, Hamas in this conflict has fired some 1,500 rockets into Israel, unsuccessfully attempted infiltrations from the sea, and sought on at least five occasions to carry out terror attacks in southern Israel via a major network of what Israel is calling “attack tunnels” stretching from Gaza neighborhoods under the Israeli border. Six Israeli soldiers have died in the tunnel attacks, and some 20 Hamas terrorists have been killed. Much of the Hamas rocket fire, and the tunnel entrances, are emplaced within Gaza residential areas, where the IDF and Hamas fighter have waged heavy battles since Israel launched a ground offensive last Thursday. The IDF death toll was 27 at time of writing; Israeli military sources say some 160 Hamas gunmen have been killed.

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