How a secretive Hamas commander masterminded a devastating counter-strike on Israel

Main pic caption: A view of houses and buildings destroyed by Israeli strikes in Gaza City on Oct 10, 2023 (Pic credit: Reiters)

ISRAEL calls last week’s devastating attack by Hamas its 9/11 moment. The secretive mastermind behind the assault, Palestinian militant Mohammed Deif, calls it Al Aqsa Flood.

The phrase Israel’s most wanted man used in an audio tape broadcast as Hamas fired thousands of rockets out of the Gaza strip on Saturday signalled that the attack was payback for Israeli raids at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque.

It was in May 2021 after a raid on Islam’s third holiest site that enraged the Arab and Muslim world when Deif began planning the operation that has killed more than 1,000 people in Israel, according to a source close to Hamas in Gaza.

“It was triggered by scenes and footage of Israel storming Al Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, beating worshippers, attacking them, dragging elderly and young men out of the mosque,” the source said. “All this fuelled and ignited the anger.”

That storming of the mosque compound – long a flashpoint for violence over matters of sovereignty and religion in Jerusalem – helped set off 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

More than two years on, Saturday’s (Oct 7) assault – the worst breach in Israeli defences since the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict – pushed Israel to declare war and launch retaliatory strikes on Gaza that had killed more than 800 people by Tuesday (Oct 10).

A survivor of seven Israeli assassination attempts, the most recent in 2021, Deif rarely speaks and never appears in public. Hence, when Hamas’s TV channel announced he was about to speak on Saturday (Oct 7), Palestinians knew something significant was afoot.

A Palestinian prepares a grave to bury the bodies of the wife of Hamas’s military leader, Mohammed Deif, and his infant son Ali, whom medics said were killed in an Israeli air strike, at a cemetery in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip on August 20, 2014 (Pic credit: Reuters)

“Today the rage of Al Aqsa, the rage of our people and nation is exploding. To our mujahedeen (fighters), today is your day to make this criminal understand that his time has ended,” Deif said in the recording.

Two brains, one mastermind

There are only three images of Deif: one in his 20s, another of him masked, and an image of his shadow which was used when the audio tape was broadcast.

The whereabouts of Deif is unknown, though he is most likely in Gaza in the maze of tunnels under the enclave. An Israeli security source said Deif was directly involved in the planning and operational aspects of the attack.

The source close to Hamas said the decision to prepare the attack was taken jointly by Deif who commands Hamas’s Al Qassam Brigades along with Yehya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, but it was clear who the architect was.

“There are two brains but there is one mastermind,” the source said, adding that information about the operation was known only to a handful of Hamas leaders.

Secrecy was such that Iran, Israel’s sworn foe and an important source of finance, training and weaponry for Hamas, knew only in general terms that the movement was planning a major operation and did not know the timing or the details, according to a regional source familiar with the group’s thinking.

The source said that while Tehran was aware a major operation was being prepared, it was not discussed in any joint operation rooms involving Hamas, the Palestinian leadership, Iranian-backed Lebanese militants Hezbollah, and Iran.

“It was a very tight circle,” added the source. – Oct 11, 2023

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