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Behind the headlines

The phantom commander of Gaza City

Palestinians with a blacked-out portrait of Deif in 2014. Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty

Last weekend’s appalling attacks were masterminded by one man, says Mehul Srivastava in the FT. The supreme military commander of Hamas goes by the nom de guerre Mohammed “Deif”, or “Guest”, because he sleeps in the home of a different sympathiser every night to evade Israeli intelligence. Which makes sense – they’ve been hunting him for decades, and almost killed him 20 years ago in an airstrike that blew off an arm and a leg and left him in a wheelchair. Those who knew him before he vanished into the shadows of Palestinian militancy recall a “quiet, intense man”, utterly single-minded about the Arab-Israeli conflict and “using violence as a means to end it”. Only one grainy photograph of him exists in the public domain.

Deif was with Hamas from the start, studying under the bombmaker Yahya Ayyash, known as the “Engineer”, who was assassinated by Israel in 1996 using a mobile phone packed with explosives. Around that time, the terrorist group was carrying out a wave of suicide bombings to try to derail the Oslo Accords – Israel holds Deif responsible for the deaths of dozens of people in these attacks, including 50 in 1996 alone. He was the architect of the decades-long programme to dig a network of tunnels under Gaza, and involved in the creation of the first rudimentary rockets. A fighter-turned-politician who knew Deif in the early 2000s remembers his logic: “You should fight the Israelis inside Israel and demolish their fantasy that they can be safe in occupied land.” The mass raid in the early hours of Saturday has taken Deif’s lifelong campaign against the Jewish state to a “brutal and unpredictable new level”.