Mohammed Diab Ibrahim Al-Masri, aka Mohammed Al-Deif, the commander-general of Hamas’s military wing, the Ezz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, or Hamas’s minister of defence, is something of a dark horse in the battle between Gaza and Israel that has flared in 2008, 2012 and again today.
Al-Deif, now in his fifties, was born in Khan Younes to a Palestinian family that had been expelled from their home in the village of Kawkaba, near Ashkelon, in 1948. According to his colleagues, he was trained and educated by the first generation of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Palestine. He graduated from the Islamic University in Gaza, which may have been his last appearance before joining the ranks of the movement that was created by Salah Shahada. He rose to the command of the Qassam Brigades following the assassination of its previous commander Emad Akl.
Unlike his predecessors, Al-Deif does not engage in politicking, or even appear in public. He is a man who lives underground, or in the training camps and fields in Gaza, when necessary. The only time he made a public appearance was in a documentary film made by Al-Jazeera four years ago. And even then his face was masked. But behind that mask, one was struck by the strength of his voice, the methodical nature of his military mind, the determination to develop a special force in the guerrilla warfare that the Palestinian resistance is waging against the Israeli occupation.
Khaled Al-Azbat, an operations planner in the Qassam Brigades, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the commander had managed to reshape the Brigades in the manner of a modern army, with formations and lines of command very like the standing armies one finds in the region. There are divisions ranging from battalions, companies and platoons to special operations forces to armaments units. He has even developed a form of military academy with a department for military studies, research and planning. That was five years ago. But 14 years ago, he laid the foundations for manufacturing weapons for the resistance and, specifically, rockets after it had become increasingly difficult to smuggle them into Gaza. According to Al-Azbat, Al-Deif took advantage of the Arab Spring period to engineer a qualitative shift in Hamas’s armament capacities, which Israel is currently targeting, “though it will never succeed in destroying them, no matter how hard it tries.” He also applied the lessons derived from the resistance in the war in Lebanon, and benefited from Iranian technologies in manufacturing arms in spite of international restrictions.
While most people of Gaza may not have seen the man, they will have heard of him. Indeed, he has become something of a living legend. The Palestinian scholar Mohammed Abu Shaar, speaking to the Weekly from Gaza, said that Al-Deif is the military brain of the so-called war council in Gaza, which is made up of most military branches. In addition, he currently commands at least 25,000 fighters. “Al-Deif remains unidentifiable even within Hamas circles, apart from his comrades in arms. This is necessary for security reasons,” Abu Shaar said.
Just before the war in the summer of 2012, the Israeli occupation forces assassinated Ahmed Al-Jaabari. Al-Jaabari, who surfaced only once following a prisoner exchange, was another version of Mohammed A-Deif. There is still some confusion between the two, say sources close to the Hamas leadership. Al-Jaabari had caused some perplexity as to which of them was the number one or number two man in the Qassam Brigades. He had said that such things made no difference in the field of jihad.
In all events, Al-Jaabari's death left Al-Deif as the invisible phantom of the resistance and the secret code that remains a mystery even among many of the political quarters of Hamas. Still, there is little doubt that he was the person who had overseen the plan for fooling Israel and who had succeeded in concealing the captured Israeli soldier for many years. Using the same strategic shrewdness, he was also able to build many tunnels below the border into Israel, which Israeli officials today claim is one of the main reasons for the current attack against Gaza.
Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid has compared Al-Deif to Bin Laden, and Tel Aviv’s search for him to Washington’s search for the late Al-Qaeda leader. The minister has vowed to catch him. However, Israel’s record so far offers it little hope. It has failed continually since the first attempt to target him in 2001, though it managed to inflict some wounds.
*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.