Despite the rush of diplomats and analysts declaring that a ceasefire in the Gaza fighting is imminent, the war refuses to end. Wednesday, July 30, the commander of Hamas’ military wing, Mohammed Deif gave the conflict fresh impetus by injecting a religious dimension that cannot be ignored.
The conflict was sparked essentially by the June 12 abduction and murder of the Israeli teens Gilad She-ar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach. Forty-nine days later the crisis is evolving into the longest and toughest of Israel’s wars, with the exception of its War of Independence.
As fierce as the fighting is on the battlefield, and as arduous the diplomatic wrangling, the emerging and largely overlooked jihadist element is the most troubling.
The wars raging in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq have demonstrated that armies bigger than the IDF – like the US military and a coalition of nearly all the NATO countries – were not able to end wars against Islamist fighters. This may be that, because of political machinations and self-interest, none of the statesmen and military commanders leading those wars ever sought a decisive end. They gave up on victory on the principle that “Modern wars have no winners.”
But Islamist religious and military leaders do not subscribe to this principle: The Afghan Taliban’s Omar Mullah, the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Hamas’ Deif all seek all-out victory over the enemy.
Deif did not leave this in doubt in the pre-recorded statement he released on June 30 from his hidden Gaza bunker.
"What the planes, artillery, and warships haven't achieved, the defeated [Israeli] forces will not achieve in the field for, thanks be to Allah, they have become prey for the guns and ambushes of our jihad fighters,” promises Deif in the tape.
"IDF soldiers are facing soldiers who are eager for death and factions that are united," Deif goes on. "The firm resolve of the Palestinian people will bring victory on the battlefield. The enemy is sending its soldiers to a certain holocaust."
To Israel, this war has been primarily defensive as implied in its name, Operation Protective Edge. But for Hamas and perhaps a large portion of the Palestinian people, it is Mohammed Deif’s personal accounting with the Zionist enemy.
Israel has tried to have this dangerous terrorist mastermind killed several times – and failed, earning Deif the moniker “the man with nine lives.” On August 22, 2001, Deif and his deputy Adnan al-Awal escaped a targeted assassination attempt. On September 26, 2002, an IDF Apache helicopter fired two Hellfire missiles at Deif’s car as he returned home from a visit of condolence in the Sheikh Rawan district of Gaza. After hours of conflicting reports about the terrorist leader’s fate, Deif turned out to have cheated death once again, although he lost an eye and the use of one hand.
The IDF gave it another go in August 2003, bombing an apartment building where the Hamas military leadership, including al-Awal, Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, Deif and the movement’s spiritual leader Ahmad Yassin were meeting. Although intelligence had correctly pinpointed the conclave’s time and place, the men were on the building’s bottom floor and escaped with light injuries.
For some years, Deif has not shown his face in public. In a recorded communiqué some eleven years ago, he boasted: "God wanted to make the Jews mad, so He saved me. I believe that only what God wants is what will happen."
The notorious Islamist sees the war as an opportunity to repolish his personality cult. It must therefore go on unabated wtihout the let-up of a ceasefire until all the truce brokers, including US President Obama and Egyptian President Fattah El Sisi, force Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to cave in and meet his demands.
When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Jerusalem on July 28, Netanyahu warned him about the troubling similarities between Deif’s Hamas and extremist Islamist groups like the Taliban, ISIS and Boko Haram.
Israel’s counter-terror offensive, Netanyahu explained, is part and parcel of the war on fundamentalist Islam. As self-appointed commander-in-chief, ensconced in his subterranean lair, Mohammed Deif couldn’t agree more.
And so the not-so-secret contacts between Washington, Cairo, Riyadh, Doha, Jerusalem and Ramallah are doomed to go nowhere, because they take place on one level, whereas a fanatical religious war is taking place on a completely separate one.
So long as the IDF does not breach Hamas’ main lines of defense to the east of Gaza City, and has not destroyed its underground command system and terror offshoots, Deif will cling to his belief that victory is his. And so long as that belief is not shaken, the war will go on.