A severely injured terror chief who has (barely) survived three Israeli attempts on his life is believed by some Israeli experts to be overseeing Hamas’s strategy and tactics in the ongoing conflict.
Muhammad Deif’s oversight of a series of terrorist attacks — including suicide bombings and kidnappings — saw him rise to the head of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, and become a prime Israeli target over the past two decades. His injuries marginalized him, but some members of the Israeli security establishment believe he regained command of the Brigades following the assassination of Ahmad Jabari in November 2012, a targeted killing that marked the start of Operation Pillar of Defense.
Let’s consider this whole thing for a moment. If, indeed, Muhammad Deif is once again commanding the Qassam Brigades, no should be surprised and everyone should understand that it’s the natural result of Israeli policy.
Deif is an extremist; he’s precisely the sort of villain to whom the Israeli government points when they say, “Hamas calls for our destruction; we cannot work with them.” And it should surprise no one that an extremist regained command of Hamas’ military wing in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s assassination of Ahmad Jabari, who had been in the process of significantly moderating his position at the time of his murder. He wasn’t a moderate; he wasn’t prepared to recognize Israel or give up on Hamas’ armed resistance. But it’s unclear what policies he might have favored in the future or how he might have continued to moderate his beliefs over time.
Let’s go back and recall what Gershon Baskin wrote in 2012, when Jabari died:
Passing messages between the two sides, I was able to learn firsthand that Mr. Jabari wasn’t just interested in a long-term cease-fire; he was also the person responsible for enforcing previous cease-fire understandings brokered by the Egyptian intelligence agency. Mr. Jabari enforced those cease-fires only after confirming that Israel was prepared to stop its attacks on Gaza. On the morning that he was killed, Mr. Jabari received a draft proposal for an extended cease-fire with Israel, including mechanisms that would verify intentions and ensure compliance. This draft was agreed upon by me and Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, Mr. Hamad, when we met last week in Egypt.
The goal was to move beyond the patterns of the past. For years, it has been the same story: Israeli intelligence discovers information about an impending terrorist attack from Gaza. The Israeli Army takes pre-emptive action with an airstrike against the suspected terror cells, which are often made up of fighters from groups like Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees or Salafi groups not under Hamas’s control but functioning within its territory. These cells launch rockets into Israeli towns near Gaza, and they often miss their targets. The Israeli Air Force responds swiftly. The typical result is between 10 and 25 casualties in Gaza, zero casualties in Israel and huge amounts of property damage on both sides.
Other key Hamas leaders and members of the Shura Council, its senior decision-making body, supported a new cease-fire effort because they, like Mr. Jabari, understood the futility of successive rocket attacks against Israel that left no real damage on Israel and dozens of casualties in Gaza. Mr. Jabari was not prepared to give up the strategy of “resistance,” meaning fighting Israel, but he saw the need for a new strategy and was prepared to agree to a long-term cease-fire.
To put a finer point on it, here’s the conclusion of Baskin’s article:
This was not inevitable, and cooler heads could have prevailed. Mr. Jabari’s assassination removes one of the more practical actors on the Hamas side.
Who will replace him? I am not convinced that Israel’s political and military leaders have adequately answered that question.
Rather than attempting to work with Ahmad Jabari, who might have continued to moderate his position over time and who might have led Hamas to a place where mutual recognition and negotiaton was possible, Israel assassinated him. And, in his place, an extremist, someone who can credibly say, “We tried being moderate with Israel; we negotiated deals with them. They don’t want to negotiate; they only understand violence. So we’ll give them violence.”
If Deif isn’t commanding the Qassam Brigades today, it’s almost certainly someone who shares his views.