Who Is Mohammed Deif?

The head of Hamas’ military wing has topped Israel’s 'most wanted’ list for the past twenty years for a reason.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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It is unclear whether Hamas' military leader in Gaza Mohammed Deif was killed in Tuesday night's attack.
It is unclear whether Hamas' military leader in Gaza Mohammed Deif was killed in Tuesday night's attack. Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Mohammed Deif, the commander of Iz al-Din al-Qassam, Hamas’s military wing, and a wanted man in Israel for about 20 years, has been considered a leader of this group since the mid-1990s. Israel, which made several attempts on his life during that time, stepped up its efforts to eliminate him when the second intifada was in full force. Emerging from the assassination attempts by the skin of his teeth, Deif recovered from his wounds and returned to lead Hamas’s military wing after its commander, Ahmed Jabari, was killed in an Israel Air Force strike on the first day of Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

The Palestinians say that although Jabari had not been active as a terrorist leader for some months before his death, he was enticed into a long stay in Egypt after the intelligence services removed him from the closure in Gaza to hotels in Cairo during the talks for the Shalit prisoner exchange. Deif, who was seriously wounded in several attempts by Israel to assassinate him, acted differently: He invested all his efforts in digging dozens of tunnels that were prepared for the day they would be needed. It remains to be seen whether Israel read the situation correctly and identified the strategic move that Deif began when he thrust Hamas into the current war.

Deif, who is approaching 50, grew up in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. His full name is Mohammed Diab Ibrahim al-Masri. As a young man, he became friendly with Mohammed Dahlan, who was then a Fatah operative and is now a high-ranking figure in the Palestinian Authority. The relationship between Deif and Dahlan was sporadic until the beginning of the 2000s. With the outbreak of the first intifada and the founding of Hamas, Deif joined Hamas as an active member and became one of the major operatives in its military wing, working alongside Yahya Ayyash, Salah Shehadeh (both assassinated by Israel) and Hassan Salameh (who was sentenced in Israel to life imprisonment).

Deif was behind the kidnappings and murders of Israeli soldiers Shahar Simani in April 1994 and Aryeh Frankenthal in July 1994. In October 1994 he played a major role in running the terror cell that kidnapped and murdered Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman: He handed the orders to the cell that held Wachsman in a safe house in the village of Bir Naballah near Jerusalem.

Deif was also involved in the bus bombings that took place during that time. The assassination of Ayyash in December 1995 intensified his desire for revenge. Shortly afterward, Shimon Peres, who was prime minister at the time, and Moshe Ya’alon, the head of the army’s Intelligence Directorate, met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. Ya’alon warned Arafat about Deif’s plans and demanded that the PA act decisively against Hamas. Arafat disregarded Ya’alon’s warning, asking Dahlan, “Mohammed, who’s that?”

The Israelis were furious. Officials of the army’s Intelligence Directorate and the Shin Bet security service knew perfectly well that Dahlan had met with Deif shortly before. In the past, Ya’alon cited that meeting as the point when he finally woke up regarding Arafat’s intentions. Less than two months later, in February 1996, Deif was behind a week of deadly bus bombings in Jerusalem and Ashkelon in which about 50 Israelis were killed. (Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip took responsibility for one of the bus bombings.)

That was the sign for a last-ditch Palestinian attempt to suppress Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The PA arrested hundreds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives, including Deif, who spent the following years in and out of prison. Some of the prisoners had half of their beards shaved off to humiliate them. But Deif continued his work from prison in Gaza, and was even released at times by the PA.

Israeli officials accused him of involvement in various attempted terror attacks, including sending five suicide terrorists into Israel in March 2000. Police officers of Yamam, the civilian counter-terrorism unit, killed the five would-be attackers in Taibeh in the Triangle, an area of Israeli Arab towns and villages located between the center of the country and the Haifa region.

The PA released Deif from prison, this time for good, in April 2001, together with dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives. These were the “engineers” who were behind the wave of bombing attacks that took place over the next several months. Most of them, mainly those who lived in the West Bank, were eliminated by Israel.

Deif resumed his natural place in Hamas, subordinate to Shehadeh (who had been released from an Israeli prison in 2000). He established a relatively secret, independent group of his own within Hamas’s military wing to carry out terror attacks. This group’s members, who were under his direct command, specialized in missions that it defined as “high-quality attacks,” such as the series of attacks on Elei Sinai and Dugit in the northern Gaza Strip, in which three Israelis were killed.

An indictment submitted to the military court at the Erez border crossing in 2000 charged Deif with direct involvement in planning severe terror attacks in the Gaza Strip. According to the indictment, Deif was behind the terror attack on the pre-army academy in Atzmona in Gush Katif in March 2000, killing five of the students there. He also issued orders, directed the operations personally and was involved to the last detail in “routine” terror attacks, even preparing the explosive device himself in one case. In other cases, he taught operatives how to prepare explosive devices.

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