Who is Mohammed Deif? The shadowy Hamas commander known as ‘The Guest’

The mastermind of Hamas’s attack on Israel on Saturday is a shadowy figure. 

Mohammed Deif, the commander of the militant group‘s military wing, is known as “The Guest”, or sometimes “the cat with nine lives”.

The second nickname is a reference to his knack for evading Israeli assassination attempts.

The first is taken from his nom de guerre – Deif means guest in Arabic – referencing his habit of staying with different sympathisers each night to avoid detection.

A rare public appearance

In the hours after Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel, Deif appeared in a recorded video message, announcing the beginning of what he called “Operation Al Aqsa Storm”.

“Enough is enough,” he said in the message, as he called on Palestinians to join the fight.

He said the incursion was in response to the 16-year blockade of Gaza, Israeli raids inside West Bank cities over the past year, violence at Al Aqsa – the disputed Jerusalem holy site – increasing attacks by settlers on Palestinians and the growth of settlements.

“We’ve decided to put an end to all this,” he said.

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Hamas’s elusive military commander

Deif joined Hamas around 1990 and learnt the skill of bombmaking under Yehya Ayyash, a renowned bombmaker known as “the engineer”.

He was accused of masterminding a slew of suicide bombings from 1995 onwards and was held personally responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis.

He was also credited with being the architect of a sophisticated network of tunnels beneath the Gaza Strip and designing the Qassam rocket.

A Hamas source, who has known Deif since the 1990s, told Reuters Deif has been at the heart of developments inside the armed wing since 1994.

In 2002, he became head of the Qassam Brigades – the military offshoot of Hamas – after Israel assassinated its former leader.

Deif’s low profile is the reason for his success, according to a former senior Hamas leader who spoke to the Washington Post in 2014.

There are hardly any photos of Deif in the public domain, testament to his secretive nature.

“He keeps a low profile and lives hidden among the population. He moves with different passports and different identities,” Imad Falouji said.

“He’s successful until now because the circle around him is very small. That is why he is still alive.”

Falouji told the newspaper Deif was perceived by Palestinians as down-to-earth and his hard-line attitude towards Israel was seen as an accurate reflection of the interests of Palestinians.

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How did Hamas pull off attack?

‘The cat with nine lives’

Deif has been Israel’s most-wanted man since 1995 and has survived multiple attempts on his life.

But he did not escape unscathed. He is partially paralysed and reportedly uses a wheelchair.

He also reportedly lost an eye and an arm in one of the attacks.

An Israeli airstrike targeted at Deif in 2014 left his wife and two children dead.

According to Israeli media reports, the military continues to seek Deif’s assassination.

Deif is listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) by the US Department of State.

Early life

He was born Mohammed Diab Ibrahim al Masri in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the 1960s. Little is known about his upbringing.

He went on to study science at the Islamic University of Gaza, where he was part of a theatre group called The Returnees.

Deif kept up acting after joining Hamas, sometimes playing parts in propaganda videos, Avi Melamed, a Middle East expert at the Eisenhower Institute, told the Washington Post.

Breaking his silence

The last time his voice was heard was in 2021, when he warned Israel would pay a “heavy price” if it did not meet Hamas’s demands over Jerusalem.

In the 11 days of conflict that followed, at least 250 people were killed in Gaza, and 13 in Israel.

Before that, he had not been heard from for seven years.

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