When Hamas’ clandestine politburo convenes for an important decision, the last word is always left to its military commander Mohammed Deif.
The organization’s military council and general staff also await his nod before taking steps. The same goes for Hamas external politiburo chief Khaled Meshaal; Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh; and the chief of Hamas’ military wing, the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Marwan Issa.
Deif is top dog in Hamas, so when the media report that Meshaal is leading the various rounds of ceasefire talks for Gaza, one must keep in mind that it is not he who sets policy for the extremist Islamist movement.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources, obtaining a seal of approval from the enigmatic Deif is no easy task. He is in such deep hiding, that only two top Hamas figures know where he is and only one, Prime Minister Haniyeh is thought to be in direct, albeit infrequent, contact with him.
Issa can get a message to Deif if necessary, although even his messengers don’t have direct access. Deif employs several messengers who, unknown to one other, perform his bidding.
This mystery figure is not completely without human contact,
Several Israeli assassination attempts have left him in need of constant medical care, and, furthermore, wherever he goes, he has a heavy escort of not one but two teams of security agents whom he trusts.
Even through rarely seen, Deif lords it over Hamas’ political and military arms with a heavy hand. In the highly secretive 2012-2013 elections for the Shura Council, Hamas’ overarching governing body, Deif secured spots for his loyalists and thwarted the candidacies of many of Meshaal’s followers.
Hamas fighters “eager for death”
Deif broke several years of public silence on July 29 with a brief recorded statement, in which he vowed that Hamas’ fighters were “eager for death” and prepared to fight on without compromise.
"What the planes, artillery and warships have failed to achieve, will not be achieved by the defeated (Israeli) forces in the field who, thanks be to Allah, have become prey for the rifles and ambushes of our jihad fighters,” Deif says in the recording.
“In this round, the abusive [Israeli] entity will not have security as long as our people don’t have security and are unable to live in liberty and honor. We will not agree to any compromise at the expense of our people's honor and liberty."
"IDF soldiers are facing soldiers who are eager for death, and united factions," Deif continues. "And the mighty resilience of the Palestinian people deliver victory on the battlefield. The enemy is sending its soldiers to a certain hell."
Aspires to the jihadist crown of Osama bin Laden
Some Palestinians compare Deif to Mullah Omar, the reclusive leader of the Afghan Taliban. Others liken him to the Islamic State’s (IS) self-declared Caliph and military chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But our counterterrorism sources are told that Deif scorns these figures as insignificant in the grander scheme of it all. He believes himself to be the true successor of the late Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and pretender to his jihadi crown, brushing aside al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Deif has every faith in Allah eventually showing the Muslim faithful his true light and raising him up to international acclaim. Only then, he believes, will the Palestinian people and Palestine regain their real place at the center of the Muslim world and international recognition.
In this belief, Deif follows the teachings of Al Qaeda’s ideological co-founder Abdullah Yusuf Azzam.
The Palestinian Azzam (1941-1989), also known as Sheikh Azzam or Father of Jihad, was one of the initiators of the Sunni Islamist terror movement that gained prominence in the late 20th century, and a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood.
His religious fanaticism makes Deif unpredictable
The elusive Deif’s reliance on religion and his unpredictability have rendered the war in Gaza difficult to explain or analyze in western terms, and stymied diplomats seeking to apply conventional solutions to resolving the conflict. Even Palestinians closest to him philosophically find him unpredictable.
Born 1965 in the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza, Deif’s family hailed originally from the pre-1948 Palestinian village of Kochva near present-day Ashkelon.
He joined up with the Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager, and was active in student politics at Gaza’s Islamic University, running for the student council under the flag of the Islamic Bloc.
At the outbreak of the first intifada, Deif joined the ranks of Hamas’ militia. By May 1989, he was under Israeli arrest and sentenced to 16 months in prison.
After his release in 1991, Deif headed straight for the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, where he became the disciple of the iconic terrorist bomb maker Yahya “the engineer” Ayyash, who headed the brigades until his assassination in 1996.
Even before he succeeded Ayyash, he orchestrated numerous terror attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. In 1994, the cells under his command kidnapped and killed the three Israeli soldiers Nachshon Wachsman, Aryeh Frankenthal and Shahar Simani.
Dedicated to suicidal terrorism for jihad
In revenge for Ayyash’s death, Deif masterminded a series of lethal attacks on Israeli civilians in February and March of 1996, in which 58 Israelis were killed in one week. After this outburst of bloodletting, Deif went underground. Mistakenly thought to have fled to Egypt, he continued to plan and oversee suicide bombings from places of hiding.
Israel repeatedly tried to liquidate Deif without success.
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, 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.
A vow to fight for victory or die as martyrs
In a speech delivered by telephone eleven years ago, marking the 15th anniversary of Hamas’ founding, Deif boasted, "God wanted to make the Jews angry so he saved me. Anyway, I believe that whatever happens is God’s will."
He also made a vow that reverberates strongly in the current war, promising “we will continue either to victory or until we die as martyrs."
Some say Deif sees his current fight as analogous to Osama bin Laden’s December 2001 battle against US forces in the Tora Bora caves of eastern Afghanistan, a vicious skirmish from which Bin Laden infamously escaped capture.
If he truly believes himself to be Bin Laden’s successor, he will have settled in a new lair from which to continue his jihad against Israel.