In May 2021, following a raid on Islam’s third holiest site that provoked outrage in the Arab and Muslim world, Palestinian militant Mohammed Deif commenced orchestrating an operation that has resulted in over 1,200 casualties in Israel, according to a source with close ties to Hamas in Gaza.
Israel has likened last week’s devastating Hamas attack to its 9/11 moment. The enigmatic strategist behind this assault, Palestinian militant Mohammed Deif, has dubbed it “Al Aqsa Flood.” In an audio tape broadcast by Hamas as thousands of rockets rained down on Israel from Gaza, Deif’s words signaled that the attack was a reprisal for Israeli actions at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque.
The assault was sparked by scenes of Israel storming Al Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, where worshippers were subjected to beatings, attacks, and the forcible removal of elderly and young men from the mosque. These actions fueled intense anger, leading to the subsequent events.
The storming of the mosque, a long-standing flashpoint for conflicts related to sovereignty and religion in Jerusalem, triggered 11 days of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. The recent attack, the most significant breach in Israeli defenses since the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict, compelled Israel to declare war and initiate retaliatory strikes on Gaza, resulting in more than 800 casualties by Tuesday.
Mohammed Deif, who has survived seven Israeli assassination attempts, the most recent in 2021, rarely speaks and avoids public appearances. Therefore, when Hamas’s TV channel announced his imminent address on Saturday, it was evident that a significant development was underway.
Deif’s public presence is limited to just three images: one from his 20s, another with his face concealed by a mask, and a shadowy representation used during the broadcast of the audio tape.
Deif’s whereabouts remain unknown, but he is believed to be in Gaza, likely within the intricate network of tunnels beneath the enclave. According to an Israeli security source, Deif played a direct role in planning and executing the attack.
While the decision to launch the attack was jointly made by Deif, who leads Hamas’s Al Qassam Brigades, and Yehya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, it is evident that Deif was the mastermind. The source close to Hamas emphasized that only a select few Hamas leaders possessed detailed information about the operation.
The operation was shrouded in secrecy to the extent that Iran, Israel’s avowed enemy and a significant source of financial support, training, and weaponry for Hamas, had only general knowledge of the impending major operation, lacking specifics about the timing or details, according to a regional source familiar with Hamas’s decision-making process.
The source noted that while Tehran was aware of preparations for a substantial operation, it was not discussed in any joint operation rooms that included Hamas, the Palestinian leadership, Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militants, and Iran itself.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran stated that Tehran was not involved in the attack on Israel. Washington, while suggesting Tehran’s complicity, lacked intelligence or evidence pointing to Iran’s direct participation in the attacks.
Deif’s plan involved an elaborate ruse, convincing Israel that Hamas, an ally of Iran, was not interested in conflict and was instead focused on economic development in Gaza, where it holds governance. Simultaneously, Hamas fighters were being trained and drilled, often in plain sight of the Israeli military, as per the source close to Hamas.
Ali Baraka, the head of external relations for Hamas, revealed that they had been preparing for this battle for two years.
In his recording, Deif calmly emphasized that Hamas had repeatedly called on Israel to cease its actions against Palestinians, release prisoners who were allegedly mistreated and tortured, and halt its land seizures. Deif cited the occupation’s daily raids, violence, and confiscation of Palestinian land, in addition to its continuing siege on Gaza, as the reasons for their actions.
Deif, originally named Mohammad Masri, was born in 1965 in the Khan Yunis Refugee Camp, established after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. He adopted the name Mohammed Deif after joining Hamas during the first Intifada in 1987. Arrested by Israel in 1989, he spent around 16 months in detention.
Deif earned a science degree from the Islamic University in Gaza, where he studied physics, chemistry, and biology. Surprisingly, he had a penchant for the arts, leading the university’s entertainment committee and performing in comedic stage productions.
As he ascended through the ranks of Hamas, Deif expanded the group’s tunnel network and its expertise in bomb-making. For decades, he has topped Israel’s most-wanted list, holding personal responsibility for the deaths of numerous Israelis in suicide bombings.
Deif’s survival as the leader of Hamas’s armed wing has elevated him to the status of a Palestinian folk hero. In videos, he appears masked or as a mere shadow. He eschews modern digital technology, such as smartphones, according to the source close to Hamas. He is an elusive figure, residing in the shadows, but his influence and actions have significant ramifications.