Years ago, it was a signature Israeli tactic: the swoosh of a missile, the roar of crumbling masonry, the violent death of another Hamas leader.
More than 24 hours after an Israeli strike in the Gaza Strip killed the wife and infant son of Mohammed Deif — the secretive, shadowy figure who was thought to have masterminded the building of an elaborate tunnel network and presided over Hamas’ acquisition of a sophisticated rocket arsenal — the Islamic militant group insisted Wednesday that he was alive.
The Israeli government did not officially acknowledge trying to kill Deif in a pinpoint strike Tuesday on an apartment building in the densely packed, run-down Gaza district of Sheik Radwan. But in Israel, the prevailing sentiment was that if the commander of Hamas’ military wing had been targeted, successfully or not, there was absolutely nothing for which to apologize.
For the Record
Gaza Strip: An article in the Aug. 21 A section said that more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians had been killed in the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Figures from the United Nations indicate that more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, but the number who were civilians was less than 2,000.
“No one is immune,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday evening, declaring that leaders of terrorist organizations were legitimate targets.
That stance, and the corresponding outburst of fury in Gaza over the incident, suggested that fashioning a durable peace accord after a month of warfare and two weeks of tenuous truces will be an extremely difficult task.
The apparent attempt to kill Deif spoke to the enduring enmity between Israel and Hamas, the stunning ease with which a painstakingly crafted cease-fire could unravel and the monumental challenge faced by international mediators as they try to coax the two sides toward even another series of short-term cease-fires.
Even if Deif did escape unscathed — Hamas’ military wing said in a statement Wednesday evening that he was not present at the time of the strike — his followers vowed to exact vengeance for the killing of his family members. At the funeral Wednesday of his wife and infant son in a refugee camp north of Gaza City, mourners shouted hoarsely for the blood of Israelis, and Hamas’ military wing threatened to target Israel’s main international airport beginning early Thursday.
Ben Gurion International, outside Tel Aviv, lies within rocket range of Gaza. Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile system has so far shot down any projectiles aimed at the airport, except for one that landed harmlessly a few miles away during the early weeks of the fighting. Hamas regarded the subsequent wave of cancellations of international flights, which lasted several days, as a significant military achievement.
In decades past, targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders were Israel’s weapon of choice against the group. Deif’s mentor, master bombmaker Yehiya Ayash, known as the Engineer, was killed by a booby-trapped cellphone in 1996. It was a lesson Deif seemingly took to heart, shunning use of technology that could be tracked. Sheik Ahmed Yassin, another preeminent Hamas leader, was blasted out of his wheelchair by an Israeli missile in 2004.
The practice of extrajudicial killings by Israel, long criticized by the international community, appeared to have fallen out of favor in the last year and a half or so. But Israel employed it as recently as 2012, during the last Gaza face-off, when it killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari as he was riding in a car on a Gaza street.
Deif, thought to be about 50, survived many attempts on his life, including one near-miss in 2003 that reportedly left him severely maimed. He had long adhered to the practice of moving stealthily from one safe house to another — which perhaps gave rise to his nom de guerre, the Guest — and photographs of him are nearly nonexistent. He last surfaced in a prerecorded message at the end of last month, in an audiotape played on Hamas’ Al Aqsa television, boasting that Israeli forces had been defeated.
In recent years, Hamas’ tunnel network in Gaza gave an entirely new meaning to the notion of going underground, helping Deif and other senior militant leaders to shield themselves from Israeli bombardment. Israel has mocked them for going into hiding even as more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed.
Israeli media dropped broad hints that Deif might have fallen victim to the attack, which killed several other people. On Israel’s Channel 10, reporter Alon Ben David narrated coverage of bodies being removed from the rubble of the apartment house in Gaza, suggesting that a legless torso might have been that of Deif.
Depriving the other side of the ability to claim victory has been a hallmark of this six-week war; in its statement denying Deif’s death, Hamas’ military wing said Israeli officials and commanders had been “anxiously waiting behind their screens for news.... But we tell them that you have been let down and disillusioned, and proved your failures.”
As in customary in blood feuds, both sides sought to instill fear of what was to come. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Hamas had sought to conceal the true toll among its senior operatives during the course of the fighting.
And Avi Dichter, a former director of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic spy agency, suggested in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 that if Deif were not in fact dead, he might well be soon.
“He will not die an old man,” Dichter said.
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.
Twitter: @laurakingLATCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Aug. 20, 4:08 p.m.: This article has been updated with new information throughout.