DUBAI: Israel calls last week’s raid by Hamas its “9/11 moment”. The secretive mastermind behind it, Mohammed Deif, calls it ‘Al Aqsa Flood’.
The phrase, used in an audio tape broadcast on Saturday, signalled the raid was payback for desecration of the Al Aqsa mosque by Israel in May 2021.
Deif began planning the raid soon after the desecration, a source close to Hamas said. “It was triggered by scenes and footage of Israel storming Al Aqsa mosque during Ramazan, beating worshippers, attacking them, dragging elderly and young men out of the mosque,” the source in Gaza said. “All this fuelled and ignited the anger.”
The storming of the mosque compound set off 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
More than two years on, Saturday’s raid pushed Israel to declare war and launch air strikes on Gaza.
A survivor of seven Israeli assassination attempts, the most recent in 2021, Deif rarely speaks and never appears in public. So when Hamas’s TV channel announced he was about to speak on Saturday, Palestinians knew something significant was afoot.
“Today the rage of Al Aqsa, the rage of our people and nation is exploding. Our Mujahideen, today is your day to make this criminal understand that his time has ended,” Deif said in the recording.
There are only three images of Deif: one in his 20s, another of him masked, and an image of his shadow, which was used when the audio tape was broadcast.
His whereabouts are unknown, though he is most likely in Gaza in the maze of tunnels under the enclave. An Israeli source said Deif was directly involved in the planning and operational aspects of the raid on Oct 7. Palestinian sources said one of the homes Israeli air strikes hit in Gaza belonged to Deif’s father. His brother and two other family members were killed, according to the sources.
Two brains, one mastermind
The source close to Hamas said the decision to prepare the raid was taken jointly by Deif, along with Yehya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, but it was clear who the architect was.
“There are two brains, but there is one mastermind,” the source said, adding that information about the raid was known only to a handful of leaders.
Secrecy was such that Iran knew only in general terms that the movement was planning a major operation and did not know the timing or the details, a regional source said.
The source said that while Tehran was aware a major operation was being prepared, it was not discussed in any joint meetings involving Hamas, the Palestinian leadership, Hezbollah, and Iran. “It was a very tight circle,” the source said.
The plan, as conceived by Deif, involved a prolonged effort at deception. Israel was led to believe that Hamas was not interested in launching a conflict and was focusing instead on economic development in Gaza, where the movement is the governing power.
But while Israel began providing economic incentives to Gazan workers, the group’s fighters were being trained and drilled, often in plain sight of the Israeli military, a source close to Hamas said.
“We have prepared for this battle for two years,” said Ali Baraka, the head of external relations for Hamas.
Man in the shadows
Born as Mohammad Masri in 1965 in the Khan Yunis refugee camp, the leader became known as Mohammed Deif after joining Hamas during the first Intifada, which began in 1987. He was arrested by Israel in 1989 and spent about 16 months in detention, a Hamas source said.
Deif earned a degree in science from the Islamic University in Gaza, where he studied physics, chemistry and biology. He displayed an affinity for the arts, heading the university’s entertainment committee and performing on stage in comedies.
Rising up the Hamas ranks, Deif developed the group’s network of tunnels and its bomb-making expertise. He has topped Israel’s most wanted list for decades, held personally responsible for the deaths of Israelis in suicide bombings.
For Deif, staying in the shadow has been a matter of life or death. Hamas sources said he lost an eye and sustained serious injuries in one leg in one of Israel’s assassination attempts.
His wife, seven-month-old son, and three-year-old daughter were killed by an Israeli air strike in 2014.
His survival while running Hamas’s armed wing has earned him the status of a Palestinian folk hero. In videos he is masked, or just a shadow of him is seen. He doesn’t use modern digital technology such as smart phones, the source close to Hamas said.
“He is elusive. He is the man in the shadows.”
Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2023