Elusive Hamas Military Mastermind 'Alive and Active'

Gaza Hamas Israel
Palestinian members of al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, take part in a military parade marking the 27th anniversary of Hamas' founding, in Gaza City December 14, 2014. Reuters / Mohammed Salem

The leader of Palestinian militant group Hamas' armed wing and one of Israel's most wanted terror targets is still alive after surviving an Israeli assassination attempt during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip last summer and is currently active in the militant group's decision-making, Israeli sources have admitted for the first time.

Mohammed Deif, the strategist behind the vast tunnel network from the Gaza Strip into Israel, was targeted by the Israeli military in a strike on his home in the enclave last summer, taking the life of his wife and two children, while he managed to escape and was forced underground. He has now returned to directing the Al-Qassam Brigades, Israeli military sources told Israel Radio, adding that he is seeking to boost ties with Iran to receive more funding.

Israeli daily Maariv confirmed that intelligence of Deif's survival was relayed to the Israeli government two months ago but they decided not to release the information before the election. At the time of the strike, Hamas leaders claimed that Deif had survived the attack but Israeli officials had never publicly commented on the military leader's status.

In reaction to the leaking of Deif's survival, Hamas' deputy political bureau chief in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, said the assassination failures represented a "victory for the Palestinian resistance over the occupation".

"The fact that the occupation confirmed that the general commander of the Al-Kassam Brigades is alive and engaged in the missions of his command is proof of Israeli intelligence's failure to reach senior Palestinians," Haniyeh said.

Deif, 51, has presided over the planning of numerous attacks on Israel and was the mastermind of a terror plot vetoed by Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal last summer, which would have seen dozens of Hamas members infiltrate Israel via a tunnel, targeting Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, killing civilians and kidnapping others in the hope of a swap deal, Israeli intelligence officials told Israel Radio.

He is believed to have survived at least five assassination attempts in Israeli strikes since 2002 and he allegedly has a missing an eye and limbs and the attempts on his life have also reduced him to a wheelchair, according to a Reuters profile on the shadowy Hamas leader published during the Gaza conflict.

On the news that the border Kibbutz had been the target of a mass attack, the secretary of Kerem Shalom, Roni Kissin, told Israeli news site, Walla: "It's a scary reality, but life has to go on. At the end of the day, this [raid] didn't happen, so obviously, someone is doing their job properly."

Daniel Nisman, president of Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk consultancy The Levantine Group, says the revelation of Deif's return to the Hamas leadership at its decision-making after being forced underground is more of a psychological development as opposed to a practical boost to the group as there is a sophisticated command structure underneath Deif.

"I think he is more of a figurehead now. He's been in bad shape for a while," he says. "There's a lot of people that have risen up and I think that there are plenty of people under him that are really doing the leg work in terms of construction and rebuilding and strategy."

"It's closure, that's what it is," Nisman adds. "There was all this speculation on whether he was alive or dead, now it's pretty clear that he is alive."

The military mastermind was born in Khan Younis refugee camp and obtained a science degree from the Islamic University in Gaza, before joining Hamas in the first Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation in 1987.

Israeli intelligence services claim that Hamas are rebuilding their capabilities for another confrontation with Israel, claiming that the group are using more than 1,000 diggers to build tunnels that were used during the 50-day conflict for surprise attacks on Israeli authorities.