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‘The Guest’: the Palestinian mastermind behind deadly Israel incursion

The voice on the recording was calm and precise as it delivered a message of horror.

“In light of the continuing crimes against our people, in light of the orgy of occupation and its denial of international laws and resolutions, and in light of American and western support, we’ve decided to put an end to all this,” said the speaker, filmed shrouded in shadows, “so that the enemy understands that he can no longer revel without being held to account.”

The voice heard on the video, released within hours of Saturday’s attack on Israel unfolding, purported to belong to Mohammed Deif, commander of the military wing of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and mastermind of the incursion into Israel. The mass raid in the early hours of Saturday has so far killed at least 600 people in Israel, left more than 2,000 Israelis injured and taken his decades-long campaign against the Jewish state to a brutal and unpredictable new level.

Even as Deif’s message was being broadcast, hundreds of Hamas fighters were breaching the border fence between the blockaded Gaza Strip and Israeli territory, fanning out across southern Israel under the cover of thousands of rockets.

Within hours, Hamas had scored an unprecedented first strike against Israel while also taking dozens of hostages — estimated on Sunday to number about 100 — back to its teeming coastal enclave. Hamas’s social media channels simultaneously released slickly produced videos showing its militants paragliding over the border and gruesome images of dead soldiers and terrified Israeli civilians.

For Deif, whose nom de guerre meaning “Guest” is taken as a reference to the practice of Palestinian fighters spending each night at the home of a different sympathiser in order to evade Israeli intelligence, the assault was his most audacious, and deadly, yet.

Hunted by Israel for decades, and almost killed in an air strike 20 years ago that reportedly left him in a wheelchair after losing an arm and a leg, Deif’s ability to outwit Israel’s military while killing soldiers and civilians alike has earned him the reverence of Palestinian militants.

With the Israeli military seemingly caught unawares, Deif has catapulted himself to the highest echelons of the Palestinian leadership, eclipsing his rivals in Fatah, the more moderate faction favoured by the west, and his counterparts in Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the US, EU and Israel.

“Even before this, Deif was like a sacred personality and very much respected both within Hamas and by the Palestinians,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of politics at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. His biggest operation against Israel will have now turned him into a figure “like a god to the young”, he added.

The most significant factor for Hamas is the sheer number of hostages hauled back to Gaza. Israel handed over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to free a single soldier, Gilad Shalit, after five years of captivity by Hamas in 2011.

“Hamas understands very well that, when it comes to holding Israeli prisoners, patience is all they need,” said a regional diplomat who helped negotiate Shalit’s release. “Over time, the Israeli public will create the pressure. All Hamas has to do is wait.”

In interviews, Israeli and Palestinian analysts, including people who knew Deif before he vanished into the shadows of Palestinian militancy, described a quiet, intense man uninterested in the internecine rivalries of Palestinian factions. Instead, they said, he was single-minded about changing the nature of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and using violence as a means to achieve it.

“You should fight the Israelis inside Israel, and demolish their fantasy that they can be safe in occupied land,” said a Palestinian fighter turned mid-level politician who met Deif in the early 2000s.

They also described a man whose ability to constantly evolve alongside the Israeli military’s technological achievements was illustrated during the ferocious 11-day war between the Palestinian militant group and Israel in 2021. Hamas deployed swarms of low-tech rockets in an attempt to overwhelm Israel’s air defence system, which nearly ran out of munitions in the 11 days before a truce was brokered.

Like others in Hamas, Deif views the Oslo Accords, which in the late 1990s briefly held the promise of a negotiated peace settlement, as a betrayal of its resistance and the original goal to replace Israel with a Palestinian state.

“Deif has tried to start the second war of Israeli independence,” said Eyal Rosen, a colonel in the Israeli army’s reserves who in a previous role focused on the Gaza Strip. “The main goal is — by steps — to destroy Israel. This is one of the first steps — this is just the beginning.”

Deif, one-time bombmaker and the architect of a decade-long programme to dig a network of tunnels under Gaza, was born Mohammed Diab Ibrahim al-Masri in the Khan Younis refugee camp during the 1960s, according to an Israeli official familiar with his security file.

Gaza was then under Egyptian control, and the Israeli official familiar with his file at the Shin Bet intelligence service said either his uncle or father had taken part in the sporadic 1950s raids by armed Palestinians into the same swath of land that Deif’s fighters infiltrated on Saturday.

So little is known about him that even his name is a mystery. People who knew him in the 1980s say that even then he went by the name Deif, while others said they knew him by his birth name. Only one grainy photograph of him exists in the public domain.

His taste for theatrics was honed at an acting troupe he joined while at the Islamic University of Gaza, a hotbed of the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood’s style of political Islam. By the time Hamas was born in the late 1980s, forged in the fire of the first intifada, or uprising, against Israel’s occupation, Deif was in his 20s.

Around that time, Ghazi Hamad, now a Hamas politburo member, shared a prison cell with Deif after they were jailed by the Israelis.

“From the beginning of his life in Hamas, he was focused on the military track,” said Hamad. “He was very kind,” he recalled, “all the time a patriot who would make little cartoons to make us laugh.”

Any hint of kindness would soon fade, as Hamas carried out suicide bombings to doom the Oslo Accords. Israel holds Deif responsible for the death of dozens of people in suicide bombings, including a wave in 1996 that killed more than 50 civilians.

Deif is said to have studied under Yahya Ayyash, a bombmaker with the nickname “Engineer” who was assassinated by Israel in 1996 with a mobile phone packed with explosives.

Deif moved up the ranks of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, and the Israeli official said he was involved in the creation of the first rudimentary rockets. Hamas’s arsenal is now in the tens of thousands and they fired 3,500 on Saturday alone.

The Israeli official said Deif sought high-impact targets, such as settlers and soldiers in the occupied territories, buses in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He also oversaw the rocket barrages that send Israelis into bomb shelters at regular intervals.

Within Hamas, the official said, Deif was an opponent of the complicated dance whereby Hamas would agree to halt fighting that sporadically flared in exchange for Israel allowing additional funds into the blockaded strip or more work permits for Gazans.

While this arrangement helped to manage cycles of violence, it has also led to four wars in 2009, 2011, 2014, 2021 and then this one, all of which the militants portrayed as a victory.

“This terrorist action has finished this practice forever,” said the Israeli official of Saturday’s assault. “Now there will be no truce, only retaliation.”

Which is exactly, it seems, what Deif had always wanted.

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