Hamas’s deadly “phantom”: the man behind the attacks

Muhammad Deif transformed the militant group from a cluster of terror cells into a force capable of invading Israel


A few hours after Hamas slaughtered hundreds of civilians in Israel on October 7th, the man who planned the attacks made a rare public appearance. A video broadcast on Hamas’s media channel showed a silhouette of the group’s military leader, Muhammad Deif, as a pre-recorded statement played in the background. His deep voice was strangely measured as he announced an unleashing of terror that would claim more than 1,400 lives.

Hamas is an Islamist organisation, but there was scant mention of religion in Deif’s address. He called for “brothers in the Islamic resistance in Lebanon, Iran, Yemen, Iraq and Syria” to join the fight, but ended by appealing to the non-Muslim people of the world to stage protests. Then he was gone, leaving horror in his wake.

No one alive is responsible for so many Israeli deaths as Deif. Aside from a stint of recuperation from war wounds he has led Hamas’s military wing since the mid-1990s, a rare constant in a leadership frequently disrupted by assassination. Under his command, Hamas’s tactics have become less amateurish and more devastating: first mass suicide-bombings, then the deployment of long-range missiles.

Now, wheelchair-bound and mutilated from assassination attempts, he has initiated an escalation that takes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into uncharted waters. His opponents within Hamas, who used to advocate engagement with Israel, have been emphatically sidelined. What happens next – the fate of more than 200 hostages in Gaza, how Hamas responds to Israel’s bloody aerial bombardment and anticipated ground invasion – depends to a large extent on the planning and calculations of one man. The stakes for Israel, the Palestinians and the wider region could scarcely be higher.

Yet hardly anything is known about Deif. For years, Western spies would respond to questions about him with a shrug. Only a handful of photographs have ever appeared in the media – grainy images from his youth. Some speculate that he died long ago and is nothing more than a mythical figurehead cultivated for propaganda purposes. Shlomi Eldar, an Israeli journalist who has interviewed many members of Hamas, reckons even Shin Bet has struggled to pin down details about him. The formidable Israeli intelligence agency “wouldn’t recognise him if they passed him on the street,” he said.

Deif is the Arabic word for “guest”, and the Hamas leader seems to have chosen the nom de guerre as a gesture to his lifestyle, which for more than two decades has involved shifting from place to place to evade his enemies. Muhammad Diab al-Nasri, as he was originally known, was born in 1965 in the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza. The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 resulted in more than 700,000 Palestinians being uprooted from their homes. Many ended up in the West Bank and Gaza, then under Jordanian and Egyptian control respectively. When Israel barred the Palestinians’ return, local authorities in the places to which they had fled crammed them into refugee camps.

Deif’s family had come from a hilltop above Jerusalem. By the time he was born they were living in tin shacks on the sand clustered around streams of raw sewage. When Deif was two their situation deteriorated further: Israel occupied the Gaza Strip during the six-day war of 1967, and the refugees living there came under direct military rule. Soldiers patrolling the camp in army jeeps would pick up young men they suspected of troublemaking.

Deif’s father made a living upholstering furniture, and his son sometimes helped out. Khan Younis may not have offered conventional career paths, but it was a feeder school for future leaders of the Palestinian struggle. Deif grew up just metres away from two people who would go on to become political heavyweights. Yahya Sinwar, the current head of Hamas in Gaza, lived in one nearby alleyway; Muhammad Dahlan, who would go on to become the security chief of Hamas’s secular rival, Fatah, lived in another. Deif was friends with both from an early age, and the boys played football together. According to Eldar, Sinwar and Dahlan clubbed together with other friends to offer Dahlan’s family financial support after his father abandoned them.

In those days Palestinian resistance was dominated by Fatah – Hamas didn’t yet exist. The young Deif, who doesn’t seem to have been particularly pious (he reportedly joined a comedy-theatre troupe at university, and was nicknamed “the clown”), might easily have followed his childhood friend Dahlan into the secular group. Led by Yasser Arafat, Fatah had become popular by mounting raids on Israel from nearby Arab countries during the 1970s. Initially Fatah refused to recognise Israel, arguing instead for a democratic Palestinian state on the land and the return of all refugees to it. But slowly those demands shifted towards the acceptance of the boundaries that were in place before the 1967 war.

By the time Deif was studying chemistry at the Islamic University in Gaza city in the late 1980s, the atmosphere in the occupied territories was near boiling point. No end to the occupation was in sight. Inside Gaza, Israeli settlements were expanding: their swimming pools provoked ire among residents of the squalid refugee camps. In December 1987 this anger exploded. Young people started throwing stones at the Israeli tanks and the first intifada, or uprising, was born.

The strength of popular fury and the speed with which it spread took everyone in the region by surprise. The Muslim Brotherhood, a movement dedicated to Islamising society that had been founded in Egypt in the early 20th century, worried about becoming irrelevant. Shortly after the intifada began a Palestinian cleric in Gaza who was attached to the Brotherhood founded the Islamic Resistance Movement, known by its Arabic initials, Hamas. The group’s founding charter was filled with rabid anti-Semitism, citing a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews)“. According to a Hamas official in Gaza city, Deif joined the movement a few weeks later.

It wasn’t immediately clear what kind of resistance the new organisation would be providing. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the imam who founded it, was a blind paraplegic who ran one of the strip’s biggest welfare organisations, though his spiritual demeanour disguised a cold-blooded willingness to embrace the most murderous tactics. Initially, Yassin seemed more interested in dawa, bringing Palestinians back to Islam, than in attacking Israel. Israeli military officials considered the religious devotion of Hamas members a welcome alternative to the nationalism of Fatah activists.

Hamas didn’t carry out an armed operation in Israel for more than a year. Then, in February 1989, it snatched and killed two Israeli soldiers. Israel rounded up hundreds of Hamas members and supporters in response, including Deif. He spent the next 16 months jailed without trial. In prison, he debated the future of the fledgling movement with other inmates. Should they prioritise dawa or jihad, armed resistance?

The conclusion of these debates became clear when he emerged in 1991 during one of Israel’s periodic prisoner releases, Deif helped found the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, and went undercover. From then on, he decided, any means were justified.

In 1982, when Deif was still a teenager, Israel sent its troops to Lebanon to subdue Palestinian fighters who had established an enclave there amid the chaos of the country’s civil war. The following year a Lebanese militant group set up by the Iranians to fight Israel blew up 299 American marines and French paratroopers in their barracks in Beirut. The attackers used a method almost unheard of in the Middle East at that time: suicide-bombing.

Hamas’s military wing decided to follow suit. In the early 1990s they sent young men to kill themselves destroying civilian buses in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Deif put his chemistry studies to use, helping to manufacture the explosive belts – associates described him as a master bombmaker.

In response to these attacks, Israel began to erect a fence around Gaza to keep would-be bombers penned in. Undaunted, Deif began designing rockets. Hamas’s first home-made missiles were not successful: most popped after wobbling for a few dozen metres. Palestinians called them flying drain pipes. Israel meanwhile continued to hunt down Hamas’s leaders. In 1996 they killed the head of Hamas’s military wing by planting explosives in his mobile phone. Deif, then aged 30, was named his successor. Apparently he never used a mobile again.

The military wing Deif inherited was little more than a terrorist group consisting of a few hundred part-timers. He set about turning it into what one Hamas politician described as an “army”. He organised loose collections of cells into military units and launched effective recruitment drives. He was even able to poach disaffected militants from Fatah.

Fatah declined in relevance during the second half of the 1990s. In 1993 Arafat had signed the Oslo accords, agreeing to recognise Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian “authority” (rather than a state). The authority was given limited autonomy over a fraction of historic Palestine. Disaffected Palestinians came to see the Palestinian Authority as Israel’s policeman, as well as being self-serving and corrupt. Hamas’s ranks meanwhile were swelling. By the start of the 2000s, Deif had over 1,500 men under his command (he was estimated to have 25,000 shortly before October’s attacks).

In the late 1990s and the early 2000s Hamas spent almost as much time on its rivalry with Fatah as it did confronting the Israelis. Events fell into a pattern: Fatah’s leaders tried to get somewhere with negotiations, the Israeli government would build more settlements in the occupied territories (the number of settlers in the West Bank has quadrupled since Oslo), Hamas would send its suicide-bombers into Israel, and ordinary people on both sides would lose faith in the peace process. Israel demanded that Fatah arrest Hamas members, and it was the job of Dahlan, Deif’s childhood friend, to enforce this. (Dahlan is reported to have imprisoned Deif for a while but allowed him to leave in the evenings.)

In 2000 a second intifada broke out. This time Fatah backed its own militant network, a decision its leaders later came to rue. The intifada lasted until 2005 when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, without negotiations. This was a boost for Hamas, but the abandonment of the political process meant that any lingering hopes of a Palestinian state along the lines promised in Oslo were dashed. The conflict was even further from being resolved. “Today you are leaving hell,” said Deif in a farewell communiqué to the Israelis. “But we promise you that tomorrow all Palestine will be hell for you, God willing.

”Throughout the depressing collapse of the Oslo process, Deif’s defiance and slipperiness made him something of a folk hero on the Palestinian street. Other Hamas leaders were killed: Ahmed Yassin was assassinated in his wheelchair by a helicopter gunship in 2004. Within months the Israelis killed his successor, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi. But Deif eluded them. Palestinians dubbed him “al-Shabah”, the phantom. Even an Israeli intelligence official described his survival skills as “legendary”. Deif insisted that he wanted a martyr’s death but that angels kept protecting him.

He wasn’t unscathed. Israel fired Hellfire missiles from helicopters at him in 2001 and again the following year. The second attack destroyed his car and killed two bodyguards as he was driving through Gaza city. He crawled away, having lost an eye, an arm and a leg. But the injuries only added to the mystique. The wheelchair they confined him to evoked memories of Yassin, Hamas’s founder.

In 2006 Deif was visiting a lecturer from his old university when an Israeli F-16 dropped a one-tonne bomb on the academic’s home, according to Eldar. Deif survived, but was forced to surrender command of the military wing after shrapnel lodged in his skull. He went to Egypt for three months of treatment and, it is said, still takes tranquillisers every day to treat crippling headaches.

His absence coincided with a new era of Hamas’s rule. Hamas politicians won a Palestinian election in January 2006, giving the movement its first chance to govern. Having campaigned on a platform of fighting corruption and delivering better public services, they set about creating what they saw as a model Islamic society in the ruins of Gaza. Morality squads took precedence over the armed struggle. Hamas leaders, enjoying the perks of office, began driving around in Mercedes cars. They didn’t hold another election.

Deif had no interest in any of this. For him, Gaza was a bridgehead for the next assault. He didn’t want Hamas’s military wing restrained; his supporters argued that power and money were distracting the movement.

Also irking him was the new head of Hamas’s military wing, who had taken over in 2003 after the various attempts on Deif’s life. Ahmed Jaabari was a very different character to Deif. He mixed with Gaza’s well-to-do and lived in a neighbourhood seen as fancy by local standards. Rather than unite Palestinian forces against Israel, which was what Deif wanted to do, Jaabari used Hamas’s military wing to force Fatah out of Gaza. More than a hundred people were killed in the ensuing fighting; Hamas operatives threw one of Fatah’s cooks off the roof of a building with his hands and legs tied. Jaabari then put the militants to work acting as his internal security apparatus, and digging tunnels to Egypt to bring in the goods Israel barred. Within three years, the tunnels were large enough to accommodate juggernauts. Critics complained that Jaabari pocketed the customs duties, and ran a sideline in luxury goods.

Jaabari spoke Hebrew from his 13 years in an Israeli jail and thought he could deal with Israelis. He repeatedly headed to Egypt to negotiate with them on ceasefires, while Egyptian intermediaries shuttled between the two sides’ hotel rooms. He was particularly focused on getting the Israelis to lift the blockade they had imposed on Gaza in 2007. In 2011 he pulled off a staggeringly beneficial prisoner swap in which one captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was exchanged for more than a thousand Palestinian inmates, among them Sinwar.

But some feared he was diluting Hamas’s goals in the process. The politicians floated not just tahdias, or short-term ceasefires, with Israel but also hudnas: long-term truces. Some spoke of limiting their aspirations for a Palestinian state to the West Bank and Gaza, and co-existing with Israel. Some Hamas members began to forget they were at war. In 2012 Jaabari, then in the middle of contemplating a permanent truce with Israel, was carelessly driving through Gaza city when an Israeli missile struck his air-conditioned Kia sedan.

Jaabari’s assassination changed everything. Shortly afterwards Hamas launched indiscriminate rocket attacks against its enemy and Israeli forces unleashed devastating air strikes on Gaza. Deif returned as commander-in-chief and shifted the pendulum back to armed struggle. Gone was the talk from the political leadership of “moving from armed to non-violent resistance”. For all their investment in bureaucracy, government and truce negotiations, Hamas politicians had failed to achieve anything that improved the lives of Palestinians. All they had succeeded in doing was creating another Middle East autocracy. Bombs destroyed what they built. Israel maintained a punishing blockade by land and sea, tightly restricting the entry of goods. Only force, Deif argued in his communiqués, would change the equation. Israel’s leaders seemed equally uninterested in a political approach.

Instead of building vulnerable structures above ground, Deif channelled his efforts beneath the surface. He had started the tunnel network after Yassin was assassinated in 2004 to try and provide leaders with discreet escape routes, but Jaabari had commercialised it. Once back in charge Deif returned to his original project, dubbed the City of Tunnels.

In the tunnels, some of which were 100 metres beneath the ground, Hamas could move around the strip, conduct training exercises and test weapons without being seen by Israel’s drones. The network was used to store copious amounts of weapons, and facilitate the import of more from Iran and other allies.

It’s not clear why the armed movement gained so much capacity under Deif. One theory is that he was more willing to accept outside help than others in the movement. While Jaabari was in charge of Hamas’s military wing, Deif, no longer needed for day-to-day operational activities, would travel around the Middle East soliciting foreign support.

Some in Hamas opposed accepting money from Iran, arguing that it threatened the movement’s independence. Deif disagreed, and Iran is now estimated to contribute at least $100m a year to Hamas’s coffers. Qassem Suleimani, the mastermind behind Iran’s network of regional militias, is said to have advised Deif on the Gaza tunnel network – there were even rumours that he visited it in person. According to the leader of another Palestinian armed group in Gaza, the Iranians not only supplied Deif with missiles but trained Gazans to manufacture their own. In 2005 Hamas’s rockets had a maximum range of 15km. By the time Deif was done rebuilding the military wing, his arsenal could reach most of Israel.

Deif had the chance to put his new systems to the test in July 2014 when another war broke out. The immediate cause was Israel’s arrest of hundreds of Hamas activists in the West Bank after the killing of three Israeli teenagers there. But the background was Gaza. Israel had promised to lift the blockade after the last bout of fighting. But two years on it was as stifling as ever – and Gaza was dilapidated and depressed. Israel, for its part, was unnerved by Deif’s military build-up. After bombarding Gaza for a week they sent in troops to try and destroy Hamas’s tunnel system and rocket arsenal.

The war was the deadliest Gaza had yet seen. Deif issued a communiqué in the middle of it, goading Israel (“You’ll never feel secure, as long as Palestinians can’t live in peace”), but the Israelis managed to bomb his home, killing his seven-month-old son, his three-year-old daughter and his wife. He is thought not to have attended their funeral. When a ceasefire took hold seven weeks later 2,300 Palestinians were dead and more than 10,000 injured, a third of them children. Deif however had shown that Hamas was back as a fighting force. He had fought the Middle East’s most powerful army for 50 days, and at the end of it he still controlled Gaza.

For a brief while, the moderates in Hamas’s political wing tried to stay in the game. In 2017 the organisation changed its charter, deleting much of the anti-Semitic language and vitriol that had populated the original one. But around that time, Deif’s old friend Yahya Sinwar was put in charge of Hamas in Gaza. The hardliners were running the show.

Islamic rule eased up: clandestine armed struggle was once again the priority. The morality police established by Sinwar’s predecessors no longer harried unveiled women. Municipal projects no longer mattered either. “They never built a hospital or a school,” said one Palestinian academic. “They just prioritise weapons.

”Increasingly Deif looked beyond Gaza. The expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied territory in the West Bank had accelerated, particularly around the Haram al-Sharif compound. The area, which contains the al-Aqsa mosque, is holy to both Muslims and Jews, who call it the Temple Mount. Israel’s security forces had also begun evicting Palestinians from East Jerusalem’s most prosperous district, Sheikh Jarrah, to make way for more settlers.

In May 2021 Deif issued another communiqué. If Israel did not withdraw its forces from al-Aqsa’s compound and halt its evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, Hamas would strike. Hamas was “watching closely to what is happening in the neighbourhood,” he warned, predicting Israel would not listen. Days later the rockets flew and another conflict ensued. This one however was shorter and more contained than the war of 2014. Afterwards Gaza was surprisingly quiet. Israeli security experts felt that Hamas had been constrained, noting that it had stopped Islamic Jihad from firing rockets into Israel after the war ended. Some even predicted Hamas would become a more effective version of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank: a way for the Israelis to outsource security.

We now know that Israel was being lulled into complacency. Deif was merely biding his time. Palestinians looked destined to be trapped beneath ever-expanding settlements and economic blockades, the promise of their own state forgotten. Arab governments were starting to accept this and forge closer economic and even diplomatic ties with Israel. Deif’s decision to commit mass murder in Israel on October 7th has invited a furious military response, which may well result in his own death. But it did create turmoil across the whole region which, as Deif made clear from his last communiqué, was one of Hamas’s goals.

The inevitable suffering of ordinary Palestinians – the deaths of hundreds of children – do not hold much weight in Deif’s decision-making. For men such as him, staying alive is not really the point. “How many have to die in this conflict?” I remember asking a veteran Hamas leader one afternoon as we sat in his garden in Gaza city a few years ago, the buzz of a nearby drone filling the air. Ten thousand Palestinians? Twenty thousand? Thirty thousand? He smiled and flicked the question away with his wrist as if it were a fly. In the grand sweep of historical struggles for freedom, he said, such suffering is irrelevant. “A small price.”

Nicolas Pelham is The Economist’s Middle East correspondent

Additional reporting by Gareth Browne


Source images: Getty

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