Secretive Hamas military chief masterminded Oct 7 strike on Israel

FILE PHOTO: An exterior view of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

By Samia Nakhoul and Laila Bassam

DUBAI(Reuters) - Hamas' elusive military leader Mohammed Deif, one of the masterminds behind what Israel called its 9/11 moment, rarely speaks and never appears in public, a secretive existence that helped him survive seven assassination attempts.

Now he is being sought outside of Gaza, from where he directed the Oct. 7 attack which took Israel by surprise, killing 1,200 people and creating a crisis for the far-right government by taking more than 250 people hostage.

The International Criminal Court prosecutor's office said on Monday it had requested arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his defence chief and three Hamas leaders for alleged war crimes, including Deif.

Israel has denied committing war crimes in the Gaza war.

The ICC's decision "equates the victim with the executioner", a senior Hamas official told Reuters.

It will be up to the court's pre-trial judges to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to issue warrants.

Deif survived seven Israeli assassination attempts, the most recent in 2021, in a long and secretive career in the militant group, leaving him disfigured and using a wheelchair.

In the months since Oct. 7, Deif is believed to have been directing Hamas military operations from the tunnels and backstreets of Gaza, alongside senior colleagues.

Rising up the Hamas ranks over 30 years, Deif developed the group's network of tunnels and its bomb-making expertise. He has topped Israel's most wanted list for decades, and is held responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings.

He and two other Hamas leaders in Gaza formed a three-man military council that planned the Oct. 7 raid, the bloodiest attack in Israel's 75-year history.

In its wake, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government vowed to eliminate the three: Yahya Sinwar, Hamas' leader in Gaza, Deif, head of the military wing, and Marwan Issa his deputy, who was reported killed by Israel in March.

In an audio tape broadcast as Hamas fired thousands of rockets on Oct. 7, Deif named the raid "Al Aqsa Flood", signalling 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, that Deif began planning the operation, a source close to Hamas said.

"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.

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.

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.

Deif rarely speaks and never appears in public. So when Hamas's TV channel announced he was about to speak on Oct. 7, Palestinians knew something significant was afoot.

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


The source close to Hamas said the decision to prepare the attack was taken jointly by Deif, who leads Hamas's armed wing, known as Al Qassam Brigades, and Sinwar, but it was clear who was the architect.

"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.

An Israeli security source said Deif was directly involved in the planning and operational aspects of the attack.

The plan, as conceived by Deif, involved a prolonged effort at deception. Israel was led to believe that Hamas, an ally of Israel's sworn foe Iran, was not interested in launching a conflict and was focusing instead on economic development in Gaza, where the movement is the governing power.

But while Israel began providing economic incentives to Gazan workers, the group's fighters were being trained and drilled, often in plain sight of the Israeli military, the source close to Hamas said.

Speaking in a calm voice, Deif said in his recording that Hamas had repeatedly warned Israel to stop its crimes against Palestinians, to release prisoners and to halt its expropriation of Palestinian land.

"In light of the orgy of occupation and its denial of international laws and resolutions, and in light of American and western support and international silence, we've decided to put an end to all this," he said.

Born as Mohammad Masri in 1965 in the Khan Younis Refugee Camp set up after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the militant leader became known as Mohammed Deif after joining Hamas during the first Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which began in 1987.

He was arrested by Israel in 1989 and spent about 16 months in detention, a Hamas source said.

Deif earned a degree in science from the Islamic University in Gaza, where he studied physics, chemistry and biology. He displayed an affinity for the arts, heading the university's entertainment committee and performing on stage in comedies.

Hamas sources said he lost an eye and sustained serious injuries in one leg in one of Israel's assassination attempts.

His wife, seven-month-old son, and three-year-old daughter were killed by an Israeli airstrike in 2014.

His survival while running Hamas's armed wing earned him the status of a Palestinian folk hero. He did not use modern digital technology such as smart phones, the source close to Hamas said.

"He is elusive. He is the man in the shadows."

(Editing by William Maclean, David Clarke and Sharon Singleton)