How did the shadow Hamas leader plan the worst breach of Israeli defenses since the Yom Kippur 1973 Arab-Israeli war?
Israel describes the devastating attack launched by Hamas over the weekend as equivalent to its own 9/11 attacks, and the secret military commander of Hamas, Muhammad Deif, called the attack he planned operation al Aqsa Flood.
Israel’s most wanted man announced the name of the operation in an audio recording broadcast when Hamas fired thousands of rockets from the Gaza Strip on Saturday, and indicated that the attack came in response to the Israeli incursions against Palestinians.
According to sources close to Hamas, Mohammed Deif began planning the operation, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,200 people in Israel, after a raid on the third holiest mosque among Muslims in May 2021, which sparked the anger of the Arab and Islamic world.
The attack was caused by the footage that showed the storming of al Aqsa Mosque during the month of Ramadan, beating and assaulting worshipers, and dragging the elderly and young people out of the mosque, plus dozen of atrocities that ignited anger.
In the run-up to the fighting that broke out in 2021, Israeli police set up checkpoints at the Old City gate.
Israeli authorities claimed that these measures were taken in order to maintain order, however Palestinians consider the barriers restricted their freedom of assembly during the Muslims holy month of Ramadan.
Added to that the fear and the tensions were Palestinian witnessed, of the possibility of being expelled from their homes in neighboring areas.
The storming of the mosque sanctuary caused clashes between Israel and Hamas that lasted 11 days.
More than two years later, the attack that was launched on Saturday and represented the worst breach of Israeli defenses since the Arab-Israeli war in 1973 prompted Israel to declare war and launch retaliatory attacks on Gaza that led to the deaths of 1,055 people and the injury of more than five thousand others.
Israel pledged swift punishment in response to the attack carried out by Hamas on Saturday, during which dozens of Israelis and others were taken hostage into Gaza.
Israel said on Wednesday that it had killed at least a thousand militants who infiltrated from Gaza.
Mohammed Deif survived seven Israeli attempts to assassinate him, the last of which was in 2021.
Deif rarely speaks and never appears in public, therefore, when Palestinian al Aqsa TV, affiliated with Hamas, announced that he would deliver a speech on Saturday, the Palestinians realized that the matter was serious.
Mohammed Deif said in the recording, “O free people of the world, today the anger of al Aqsa and the anger of our people, our nation, and the free people of the world explodes… Our righteous mujahideen, this is your day to understand the criminal enemy that his time has ended”.
There are only three photos for Mohammed Deif, one of him in his twenties, another of him wearing a mask, and the third of his shadow, which was the one that was used when the recording was broadcast.
His whereabouts are unknown, but he’s likely to be in Gaza in the tunnels underground.
Israeli security accused Deif of playing a direct role in the planning and operational aspects of the attack.
Palestinian sources said that one of the houses bombed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza belonged to Deif’s father.
The Israeli security reported that Deif’s brother and two other members of his family were killed.
A source close to Hamas said that the decision to prepare for the attack was taken jointly between Deif, the commander of the Qassam Brigades, and Yahya al Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, but it was clear who was the mastermind.
“There are two minds, but the mastermind is one,” the source said, adding that information about the operation was known only to a very limited number of Hamas leadership.
The secrecy reached such an extent that Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel and an important source of financing, training and arming Hamas, only knew that the movement in general was planning a major operation without knowing the timing or details, according to a regional source familiar with Hamas’ strategies.
While Tehran was aware of the preparation for a major operation, it wasn’t discussed in any joint operations rooms involving Hamas, the Palestinian leadership, Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iran… in short, it was a very narrow circle.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday that Tehran had no connection to the attack on Israel.
Washington said that although Tehran was complicit in the attack, it had no intelligence or evidence indicating Tehran’s direct participation.
The plan, as Mohammed Deif imagined it, included a long effort at deception.
Israel was led to believe that Hamas, an ally of Iran, wasn’t interested in igniting a conflict, but rather was focusing on economic development in Gaza, which it controlled.
But while Israel began offering economic incentives to workers in Gaza, the Hamas movement’s fighters were often receiving training and preparation in full view of the Israeli army, a source close to Hamas said.
Ali Baraka, a member of the Hamas leadership abroad, said that preparations for the battle continued for two years.
Mohammed Deif said in a calm voice in his recording that Hamas repeatedly warned Israel to stop its crimes against the Palestinians, to release prisoners who he said were subjected to abuse and torture, and to stop confiscating Palestinian lands.
He said, “Every day, the occupation forces storm our cities, villages, and towns throughout the West Bank and wreak havoc, killing, injuring, demolishing, and arresting… Hundreds of martyrs and wounded this year as a result of these crimes… At the same time, they confiscate thousands of lands and uproot our people from their homes, properties, and what the own, and build in their place… The settlements and protect sectors of the settlers while they riot, burn, and steal”.
The West Bank has been rife with unrest for more than a year.
The area is about 100 kilometers long and 50 kilometers wide, and is located at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since Israel occupied it in 1967.
Mohammed Deif said, “We previously warned the occupation leaders of the continuation of their crimes and called on the world leaders to take action to put an end to the occupation’s crimes… The occupation leaders didn’t respond and the world leaders didn’t move, but rather, the occupation’s crimes increased and exceeded all limits”.
He added, “In light of the continuing crimes against our people and our people, in light of the occupation’s orgy and its denial of international laws and resolutions, and in light of American and Western support and international silence, we have decided to put an end to all of this”.
Mohammed Deif, who’sreal name is Muhammad al Masry, was born in 1965 in Khan Yunis refugee camp, which was established after the Arab-Israeli War in 1948.
He became famous as Muhammad Deif after joining Hamas during the first intifada, (the 1st Palestinian uprising), which began in 1987.
Hamas’s 1988 founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel.
The United States, the European Union, Canada and Japan classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Although Hamas leaders have sometimes offered a long-term truce in exchange for a viable state on all of the Palestinian land Israel occupied in 1967, Israel sees this as a bluff.
A Hamas source said that Israel arrested Deif in 1989 and he spent about 16 months in captivity.
Muhammad Deif has a degree in science from the Islamic University of Gaza, where he studied physics, chemistry and biology.
He also expressed his attraction to arts, as he chaired the university’s entertainment committee and performed roles in comedies on stage.
After rising through the ranks of Hamas, Deif developed a network of tunnels for the movement and developed bomb-making skills.
He has been at the top of Israel’s most wanted list for decades, as he is considered personally responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings.
For him, staying in the shadows was a matter of life and death.
Hamas sources said that he lost one eye and was seriously injured in one of his legs in one of the Israeli assassination attempts.
His wife, a son who was only seven months old, and a three-year-old daughter were also killed in an Israeli air strike in 2014.
Due to his survival from assassination attempts and his leadership of the military wing of Hamas, he gained the status of a Palestinian popular hero.
In the videos, he appears masked, or just a shadow, and in order to remain undetected he doesn’t use modern digital technology such as smartphones.
The man is out of reach… He’s simply a man in the shadows.