Gaza City- On a narrow, rubble-strewn Gaza street, where an Israeli air strike recently obliterated the home of a top Hamas leader, a group of boys and men praised a shadowy, middle-age man most Palestinians have never seen – and whom Israel is eager to kill.
“He’s a role model for us,” declared Ahmed, 32, a Hamas security guard, clutching a walkie-talkie.
“He’s a legend for the children, for everyone in Gaza.”
“He is defending our homeland,” agreed Yassin Abu Rialah, 14.
To Israelis, Mohammed Deif is enemy number one. As the top commander of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, Deif has tormented the Jewish state for three decades, deploying suicide bombers and directing the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. He has survived several attempts by Israel to assassinate him, earning him the nickname “the cat with nine lives”.
Deif is the mastermind of the Palestinian militant group’s current strategy of firing rockets at Israel and building tunnel networks through which highly trained fighters can infiltrate Israel, according to Israeli military and intelligence officials.
Those and other tactics have killed 63 Israeli soldiers and three civilians inside Israel since the war began on July 8, making Deif the most wanted man in Gaza.
As Israel presses forward with its ground offensive, Deif is also viewed by some Israeli military analysts as a key obstacle to a negotiated end to the conflict.
Al-Qassam Brigades fighters on Friday attacked Israeli soldiers and, according to Israel’s military, abducted an officer – shattering a 72-hour humanitarian truce brokered by the United States and the United Nations. Early on Sunday, Israel’s military said the officer was killed in battle. The attack and other ceasefire breaches by Hamas reflect divisions between the organisation’s political and military wings, with the latter wielding greater influence, analysts said.
“The decision-maker in Hamas is Mohammed Deif, leader of the military wing, and he is against the ceasefire because he believes every day they continue to fight is another achievement for them,” said retired General Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser.
To Palestinians, Deif is a heroic figure, one of the last remaining leaders from Hamas’ first and second generations, long admired for his defiance of Israel.
A former stage actor, he is said to be a master of disguise, known for a chameleon-like ability to melt into the population.
He is thought to be about 50, but the last known photo of him dates back two decades. Little is known about his family life. No one even knows whether Deif is his real name. Some analysts say his name is actually Mohammed al-Masri and that he took his nom de guerre from a role he took in a play at university.
Today, the softly spoken Deif is rumoured to be in a wheelchair after an Israeli attack in 2006 that also cost him an eye and an arm.
“He’s very quiet. He keeps a low profile and lives hidden among the population. He moves with different passports and different identities,” said Imad Falouji, a former senior Hamas leader who helped found al-Qassam Brigades and is one of the few people who have met Deif.
“He’s successful until now because the circle around him is very small. That is why he is still alive.”
The fact that Deif’s life is shrouded in secrecy has only burnished his reputation. In a poll of Hamas leaders taken several months ago by a Palestinian news website, Deif was voted more popular than Khaled Meshal, the overall leader of Hamas, and Ismail Haniyeh, the group’s top political leader in Gaza – both highly visible personalities and known to every Palestinian.
Compared to Meshal, who reportedly lives in a five-star hotel in Qatar, Deif is perceived by Palestinians as down-to-earth, a man of the people, Falouji said.
Deif’s hard-line attitude towards Israel is seen as an accurate representation of the interests and demands of Palestinians.
During this conflict, Deif’s profile has risen sharply. Palestinians were glued to their television sets last Tuesday when a fiery prerecorded audio statement said to be from Deif was played on Hamas’ al-Aqsa network.
Shown as a shadowy image seated in a chair, Deif declared there would be no ceasefire in Gaza unless Israel lifts an economic blockade of the enclave and opens border crossings.
“What the air force and your artillery shelling has failed to accomplish will not be accomplished by ground forces,” the man purported to be Deif said.
“You are sending your soldiers to a definite slaughterhouse, God willing.
“The Zionist entity will not know security unless the Palestinian people live in peace,” he added.
One Israeli analyst, Avi Issacharoff, wrote in the Times of Israel newspaper that Deif’s statement, peppered with Koranic slogans, was meant “to create the sense that this was a sacred message, and his voice echoed as though he were a living saint”.
It represented “a personal victory for Deif in his struggle for supremacy” within Hamas, Issacharoff wrote.
Born in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis enclave, Deif was introduced as a teenager to the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas would later become an offshoot.
In the 1980s, he studied science at the Islamic University of Gaza, where he deepened his involvement with the Islamist movement.
He set up a theatre group called The Returners, a reference to the Palestinian refugees yearning to return to lands they owned before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Deif kept up his acting after he joined Hamas, sometimes playing small roles in propaganda videos, said Avi Melamed, a Middle East expert at the Eisenhower Institute in Washington.
In 1990, Israel arrested Deif for his involvement with Hamas but later released him. Soon after, he helped found al-Qassam Brigades, along with Falouji and others.
Deif quickly became known for his patience and his grasp of weaponry, and he played an instrumental role in developing Hamas’ capabilities, especially in the fields of rockets and bombs.
After Israeli agents killed his mentor, Yahya Ayash, in 1996 with a mobile phone packed with explosives, Deif’s role in building up Hamas’s arsenal expanded. That was when he also began to lower his profile to avoid assassination, analysts said.
“He went off the radar around 20 years ago,” said Hamza Abu Shanab, a political analyst, whose father was a Hamas founder and senior leader in Gaza before Israeli forces assassinated him in 2003.
In 2002, at the height of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, Deif was appointed head of al-Qassam Brigades after Israel killed his predecessor. Israel considers him the architect of a lethal campaign of suicide attacks on buses and public areas that lasted until the mid-2000s.
By then, Deif was already working on Hamas’s long-term strategy against Israel.
He oversaw committees that sought ways to increase financing and arms deliveries from Iran and other places and to develop and build sophisticated rockets in Gaza. He created a force of trained fighters who could go into combat and return without blowing themselves up. The building of tunnels was also his brainchild, analysts said.
“He has said for a while that Hamas’ war needs to be moved into Israeli territory, and he came up with the strategy of the tunnels,” Melamed said.
Despite his enhanced stature, Deif has no desire to replace Meshal as Hamas’ top leader, analysts said.
The elusive warrior, who rarely speaks in public, would need to run in elections inside the movement, increasing his visibility – and Israel’s ability to assassinate him.
“Political life does not serve his ambitions,” Abu Shanab said. “He only wants to overthrow the Israeli occupation through armed resistance.”