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Mosab Hassan Yousef addresses an AFMDA event in Florida, December 2018 (Courtesy)
Mosab Hassan Yousef addresses an AFMDA event in Florida, December 2018 (Courtesy)
He'd speak at US mosques if they'd have him. But they won't

‘Just trying to save lives’: 5 surreal days in Florida with the ‘Son of Hamas’

A staggering series of events took Mosab Hassan Yousef from the home of the terror group’s co-founder, to a decade as a Shin Bet agent, to speaking on behalf of Magen David Adom

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

JUPITER, Florida — The first time I see Mosab Hassan Yousef, I’m looking around for the bodyguards.

This is the eldest son of one of the co-founders of the Hamas terror group; his father has been in and out of Israeli jails for decades. And Mosab “betrayed” him and the Islamist, Israel-loathing cause: While his father’s Hamas did and does its best to kill all of us land-stealing infidels and occupiers, Mosab spent about a decade working as a Shin Bet agent to keep us alive, notably at the height of the Second Intifada suicide-bomber onslaught — as his father’s right-hand man, security chief and most trusted confidant, passing on any scrap of information and intuition to help Israel in the battle against terror.

So, yes, we might be thousands of miles away, in other-worldly, mellow south Florida, but I’m assuming Hamas hasn’t forgotten the score it has to settle, and that Mosab is protected accordingly.

Instead, I see a man in a baseball cap, wearing sunglasses and heavily bearded, walking toward me from the hotel elevators, conspicuously alone. “You don’t have security?” I ask him in surprise.

“Who’s going to pay for it?” he fires back.

Later, he’ll give me a fuller answer. He’ll point out that Hamas doesn’t have worldwide tentacles. He’ll explain that Hamas has no great interest in bringing his name back into the headlines by trying to kill him and thus reminding the world of the humiliation it suffered when it turned out that its West Bank chief’s eldest son was working for the Zionist enemy. He’ll muse that we can all die anytime, anyway; that death is nothing to be scared of; that nobody knows what death is about; that, sure, he’ll jump like anybody else if he’s startled by a loud noise or something, but that he’s certainly not living in fear.

Mosab Hassan Yousef (left) and David Horovitz at an AFMDA event in Florida, December 2018 (Courtesy)

He’ll tell me lots of things over the next five days during a surreal series of public talks and non-public conversations, against the distant background of Hamas’s latest wave of terror attacks back home, that I’d never have expected to hear from the “Son of Hamas,” as he called his autobiography.

But he starts by taking me to Whole Foods Market.

Sunday

Mosab Hassan Yousef, 40, has been living in the US for the past decade, and among the many things he knows that I don’t is where to go for a healthy lunch. So once we’ve made our introductions, and I’ve suggested we sit down together somewhere so that I can get to know him a little, he proposes we walk to the local Whole Foods Market, about a mile away.

We need the quiet time together since I’m supposed to interview him at events (for which we are both being paid) over the next five days across south Florida organized by American Friends of Magen David Adom (which supports Israel’s Magen David Adom national ambulance, blood-services and disaster relief organization).

Son of Hamas, by Mosab Hassan Yousef

I’d read his book when it first came out, in 2010, and I’d watched the subsequent documentary about him, “The Green Prince” — so named for the color of the Hamas flag and Mosab’s royal place within the movement.

I knew he was arrested by Israel as a hate-filled teenager — a victim both of childhood rape, and of the extremist conditioning of his home and schooling. (“It wasn’t ‘take a gun and kill the Jews’ at school,” he says. “But it was ‘the Zionists stole our land.'”) He was caught with a gun, with which he fully intended to kill Israelis. I knew he’d begun to ask questions when, in jail, he saw Hamas inmates torture and even kill fellow Hamas inmates they (falsely) suspected were collaborating with Israel, and that he’d ultimately undergo what he called in the documentary a “crazy transformation” — from trying to murder Israelis to risking his life in order to save them.

Actually, his transformation was far more than crazy, way beyond improbable. “Collaborating with Israel is worse than raping your mother,” Mosab says in the film. But becoming the Shin Bet’s most vital source in the war against the suicide bombers, when your father is helming their West Bank hierarchy, is simply unimaginable. Which is why he got away with it.

And why, he would later tell me, when he telephoned his father from the United States to tell him that it was so, and that the whole story was about to become public, it came as a complete shock to Sheikh Hassan Yousef. Did his father never suspect that Mosab might not be loyal to him, to the Islamist cause? “His ego would not allow him to think it.” The father nonetheless told his son he would not disown him, and then publicly disowned him two days later. Which Mosab completely understands. “I had brought unthinkable shame on the family,” he tells me, as we walk together by the side of a road, in blazing Florida sunshine, en route to Whole Foods Market.

When we get there, he shows me how to assemble a good lunch, insists on paying for it, and sits down across from me with what I would come to learn are several of the key elements of his meals: broccoli, avocado and olive oil. Where possible, he’ll also ask for steamed spinach. He insists that’s not all he eats, but it is pretty much all I saw him eat over the next five days.

He tells me more about the gradual process of disillusionment with Hamas, and his sense — no more than that — that this is not the “pure religious movement” his father wanted with which to fight Zionism, but that “my father’s ego” would not permit him to admit that it had gotten out of control. “If you ask him, Is this what you planned, Is this what you set out to do, he’d probably rather commit suicide than admit no…” Mosab remembers the day they printed the first leaflet for what would become Hamas in 1986.  “My father is not a violent man,” he says straight-faced. And, “my family are wonderful people as family — full of love and laughter.”

Hamas official Hassan Yousef at his office in Ramallah, July 30, 2015 [Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel]
(Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a prominent leader of the Second Intifada in the West Bank, was recently freed by Israel from his latest stint in administrative detention, having been arrested last December for calling to “escalate the Jerusalem uprising” against US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize the city as Israel’s capital. Now in his early 60s, he has spent about a third of his life in jail.)

Mosab notes that there were times in recent years when his father proposed a “truce” with Israel, and says that while his father does not accept that there is a Jewish connection to the Holy Land, he does know Israel is not going anywhere. Indeed, Mosab says Hamas has recognized that Israel is not going anywhere and cannot be destroyed. I tell him I don’t see any sign of any such realization. It won’t be the last time we agree to disagree.

Our conversation veers out of chronology.

Mosab Hassan Yousef, Florida, December 2018 (Courtesy)

He tells me that his work for the Shin Bet came to an end when a new handler required him to take a polygraph test, which he failed, and then a second, which he passed, but by then he’d “had enough,” and felt “I don’t owe you anything anymore,” and it had all become so acutely dangerous.

Astoundingly, he was able to get to the United States: He got a visa at the US Consulate in East Jerusalem — apparently the computer system didn’t erupt with warning whistles and bells: “Son of Hamas! Jailed by Israel! Do not admit to the United States!” He flew to California, via Jordan and Europe, and doesn’t understand why they let him in. His Palestinian travel papers were about to expire, which should have been enough to block him. Also, when they asked him where he was going from the airport, he said to spend some time with friends in La Jolla — which was true — but he couldn’t actually pronounce La Jolla.

These were Christian friends he’d met back home. He’d converted to Christianity in 2004 — baptized in the Med at a Tel Aviv beach by a young Californian woman — though he says that phase of his life only lasted a few weeks. Still, “the teachings of Jesus certainly changed my life,” he says.

He sought asylum, was rejected, and was facing deportation, when Gonen Ben Yitzhak, his main handler and a man he considers “my brother,” risked his life and flew to the US to confirm the astounding story of his counter-terrorism work. Without Ben Yitzhak’s testimony, Mosab had no way to prove his implausible claim to have been on the side of the life-savers.

Gonen Ben Yitzhak, in the US testifying on behalf of Mosab Hassan Yousef, 2010 (YouTube screenshot)

In what way, I ask, was Gonen risking his life? Mosab, to his credit, does not look at me as though I’m an idiot, but patiently explains that Shin Bet agents are anonymous figures, and that in coming forward to save Mosab from deportation, and a likely grisly fate, Gonen was exposing his identity to all the murderous forces he had spent a career tackling.

That night, at our first AFMDA event, Mosab will recall, to much audience hilarity, finally filling in his US citizenship form at the very end of the process, and placing a check in all the wrong boxes: “Have you ever been a member of a terrorist organization?” Yes. “Have you ever advocated the overthrow of any government by force or violence?” Yes. “Have you ever been convicted of a crime or offense?” Yes. “Have you ever been in jail or prison?” Yes…

Scooping mouthfuls of avocado, he praises Trump, backhandedly but not nastily. “You need someone like him. It’s a dirty job,” he says, not unreasonably.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) and US President Donald Trump at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

He likes the fact that Trump is “offering a deal” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — rather than trying “to make peace.” If the Palestinians don’t take it, that’s their problem, and Trump will just move on. “Israel must be strong,” he says. And “sometimes it’s appropriate to surrender,” he adds, referring to the Palestinians. “Look at the Dalai Lama,” he offers. “Look at how his people are treated. But there is no resort to violence.”

I feel like I’m bombarding him with questions, this impossible figure I met barely an hour ago. I don’t want to be rude. I don’t want to tire him out. I don’t know what his sensitivities are. He tells me his only concern is that “if I am talking or eating, I’m not breathing, and the less I am breathing, the less energy I have.”

We head back to the hotel, and news is coming through of a terror attack outside the Ofra settlement in the West Bank north of Jerusalem — not far from from where Mosab grew up in Ramallah, and where I happen to have family. A pregnant woman, Shira Ish-Ran, has been shot and critically injured. Doctors have delivered her baby by C-section. The baby is said to be stable; the mother fighting for her life.

Amichai (left) and Shira Ish-Ran, wounded in a December 9, 2018, terrorist attack outside Ofra in the West Bank, at their wedding (Courtesy of the family)

The week of terrorism is going to be the jarring, bloody backdrop for our events. Introducing Mosab that evening at a synagogue in Fort Lauderdale, I update the audience on the attack. Hamas has praised the “heroic” shooting, and here we are with Son of Hamas at an event raising money for the ambulance service that provided first-response emergency care and took the wounded to the hospital.

The Palestinians, he tells the audience, could long since have had a state, but their leadership is corrupt and untrustworthy, and doesn’t act in their interests. These remarks recall the staggering short speech he delivered to the UN Human Rights Council last year, on behalf of the NGO UN Watch: “The suffering of the Palestinian people is the outcome of your selfish political interests. You are the greatest enemy of the Palestinian people,” he said then, directing his remarks to the Palestine delegation, as fellow delegates spun in horror at the sound of a Palestinian voice defying the Israel-bashing consensus.

Over dinner back at the hotel that night, Mosab tells me he once filled in at short notice at a Jewish National Fund dinner in California, at which the scheduled speaker was David Ben-Gurion’s grandson, who’d had to cancel because his mother was unwell. As in, the Son of Hamas steps in at a JNF fundraiser because the daughter of Israel’s founding prime minister is taken ill.

He also tells me he’d like to launch a radio station, broadcasting to Gaza and the West Bank, discussing the daily news — “just reading what’s on the Palestinian websites and making my comments.” I suggest a podcast, but he wants radio: “I want them to just come across it on the dial.”

His meal: Steamed broccoli and steamed spinach. With olive oil. And some hot sauce.

Monday

Late morning, we drive to the clubhouse at one of Florida’s gated communities to meet with two of the AFMDA organizers.

One of them greets Mosab like an old friend; he’d spoken at an event of hers a year ago. She tells me later that he dresses better now, and is calmer. To me, he seems to be the personification of charm, asking after her family, inquiring about her health. She tells us she has a foot injury, which has put an end to her long-distance running. He offers to put her in touch with some kind of healer he knows in California.

(Above and main image at top of article:) Mosab Hassan Yousef addresses an AFMDA event in Florida, December 2018 (Courtesy)

As we chat, I realize Mosab comes across as some kind of philosopher-guru. It’s not that he doesn’t talk about his past. He does, and with no false modesty. He recalls an incident where he says his intuition, after simply seeing two people he knew talking together in Ramallah, prompted him to contact Gonen, convinced they were hatching something evil; and so it proved, and the Shin Bet was able to prevent it. He details that he was the only person able to prove that one of Yasser Arafat’s personal bodyguards was carrying out murderous attacks on Israelis. The well of such stories is deep.

But he seems to prefer talking about the human condition — quoting from Greek and Yogi philosophers, discussing out of body experiences.

On our way home, he tells me of an incident at a Jewish event when a woman asked him if he is married. Learning that he is not, she offered to introduce him to her daughter. He also told me of the incident, after another Jewish event, when a member of the audience came up to him afterwards and whispered in his ear, ‘I think you’re a fake.’

When our AFMDA hosts bring us back to the here and now, and talk through the logistics of tonight’s event, Mosab says: “Whatever I can do to help your cause.” On this, day two of our time together, I still can’t get over Sheikh Hassan Yousef’s son saying things like that.

Mosab shrugs. “Everything I’ve done,” he says, “was to try to save lives. That was my agreement with the Shin Bet — not to work for Israel, or against the Palestinians, but to work to save lives.”

Hamas suicide bombing in Jerusalem on June 11, 2003, which killed 16 people. (Quique Kierszenbaum/Getty Images/JTA)

At the event, held in the home of generous MDA donors, they play his 90-second UN speech, and the folks who are gathered stand up to applaud him before he’s even been introduced.

On our way home, he tells me of an incident at a Jewish event when a woman asked him if he is married. Learning that he is not, she offered to introduce him to her daughter.

He also told me of the incident, after another Jewish event, when a member of the audience came up to him afterwards and whispered in his ear, “I think you’re a fake.”

He speaks at a fair number of Jewish events, he tells me, and for Christian Evangelical groups too. To Middle Eastern Christians, by contrast, he’s anathema, for purportedly betraying the Palestinian cause. He’s spoken at US universities — and had events on campus canceled because of complaints by Palestinian students, who claimed they’d fear for their safety if he came. He says he’d speak at US mosques if they’d have him. But they won’t.

Tuesday

We have two events on Tuesday, the first at a home and the second at a country club. By now I’ve taken to introducing Mosab by telling the audience that his story is so extraordinary that they should be walking around with their jaws on the floor.

He acknowledges that almost anything could have disrupted the sequence of events that brought him from his father’s home to the Shin Bet to the US and now to this. For one thing, he was living a lie for years, and one slip could have exposed him. For another, the IDF had no idea what he was really up to, and came pretty close to killing him on several occasions — a helicopter that was about to target a car he was in; an IDF raid that found him cornered in a basement…

Mosab Hassan Yousef (right) and David Horovitz at an AFMDA event in Florida, December 2018 (Courtesy)

At the second event, before about 450 people, Mosab gets upset for the first time that I’ve seen. A woman tells him that, with this group, he’s “preaching to the choir,” and asks whether he’s addressed audiences that don’t get it, that are hostile to Israel. I don’t think she is being critical, but he takes the question as an affront, asking her, “Haven’t I done enough?” He’s not rude, but he’s offended, and he’s fierce in his response. There’s a flash of inner steel I’d not witnessed before.

Other questions, tonight and each night, focus on his safety (he brushes off concerns), and on his relationship with his family (there isn’t one). “I did a terrible thing to my father and the family,” he says, though he also points out that his father would almost certainly have been assassinated were it not for the role Mosab was playing — the need to preserve the access to Hamas’s secrets that his father gave him. One time, “he told me Allah saved him when the army came and searched every house but the safe house he was hiding in,” Mosab says one evening. “What he thought was Allah was a Shin Bet agent in Tel Aviv.”

Hamas supporters rally in the West Bank, November 2012 (photo credit: Flash90)
Hamas supporters rally in the West Bank, November 2012 (Flash90)

When one audience member calls him a “hero,” he bridles — resisting the epithet. “If I’m a hero to some people then to others I’m a traitor,” he says. “I just tried to save lives — Israeli and Palestinian.”

Tonight he also tells a “joke” concerning two workers atop scaffolding on a building site — one an Israeli and the other a Palestinian. Opening his lunch, the Israeli snorts bitterly, “Shawarma, again! If it’s shawarma again tomorrow, I’m going to jump to my death.” The Palestinian opens his lunch, and complains, “Falafel, again. If it’s falafel again tomorrow, I’m going to jump.” The next day comes, the Israeli does indeed find shawarma in his lunchbox again, and does jump to his death. The Palestinian, likewise, finds falafel in his lunchbox, and jumps to his death.

At the Israeli man’s funeral, his grieving wife tells everyone, “I don’t understand it. If he didn’t want shawarma, all he had to do was tell me. I’d have made him something else.” At the Palestinian man’s funeral, his grieving wife tells everyone, “I don’t understand it. He made his own lunch.”

And that, Mosab concludes, is the Palestinian condition.

Wednesday

Today there are no events, but we spend a little time with our hosts. Mosab teaches us a breathing exercise, and over lunch — broccoli, spinach — opines that while the “Nazis have never disappeared,” and “Hezbollah and Hamas hatred never disappear,” there is “no force on earth that can destroy Israel.”

When he and I talk later, I ask him whether Israel tried to censor his book. (The military censor prevents Israeli citizens from publishing material that could compromise national security.) He says no, but that he kept sensitive material out of the text.

We hear now that while the condition of Shira Ish-Ran, the pregnant mother in the Ofra terror attack, has been slowly improving, her baby has been deteriorating, and now has died. Also, a few hours later, that Hamas has claimed credit for the “heroic” Ofra operation. “How can you claim credit for killing a baby,” Mosab mutters.

A poster published by Hamas claiming the December 9, 2108, Ofra terror attack and praising the ‘martyr’ Salih Barghouti, posted on Hamas’s official Twitter account, December 12, 2108. (Twitter)

He says he fears Hamas has established some kind of terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank, and notes that Kobar, the home village of the suspected gunman, Salih Barghouti, has spawned numerous terrorists, including Omar al-Abed, 19, who murdered three members of the Salomon family in July last year after sneaking into the West Bank settlement of Halamish.

It’s good that Barghouti is dead, he says — killed when trying to attack the troops who’d tracked him down. “Otherwise he’d kill more babies.”

He wants to go see the movie “Green Book,” about racism in the US Deep South in the early 1960s, which is playing across the street, so off we go. Mosab emerges enthusing about it. “I got a bit emotional,” he says as we leave, predicting that it should win best movie, best music, best supporting actor…

We now hear that the IDF has killed the gunman who killed two of his own co-workers at the Barkan industrial zone in October. “That’s a good night for the Shin Bet,” he says. “There must have been many people who weren’t sleeping these past weeks.

“Wow,” he exhales, and then clarifies to me: “It’s not a celebration. It’s a relief.”

Thursday

Today is our final event and, as has been the case all week, I’m trying, during the 40 minutes or so that I interview him on stage, to have him somehow cram in his entire life story, motivation, hopes for the future, outlook on life, and more.

Plainly, that’s impossible, and made more so by Mosab’s unpredictability. I’ve asked him at each event to talk a little about his childhood, his transformation, the specifics of his Shin Bet, and his post-agent work. And each time, poised and deliberate in his answers, he’s disclosed fresh thoughts and facts.

Tonight, he recalls that when the Shin Bet contacted him after he was released from his term for possession of a gun, he asked them why they hadn’t come to the aid of those of their Hamas agents who were being tortured by other Hamas inmates in jail. The Shin Bet had assured him that these men were not their agents. And that only one of their agents had ever been blown. And that, in the case of this man, Shimon Peres intervened personally with Arafat to prevent harm befalling him. He’d checked this story out, and found it to be true, he says, and that was another of the turning points in his “How I Learned to Stop Hating Israel and to Start Helping it Save Lives” odyssey.

Mosab Hassan Yousef outside a Whole Foods Market in Florida, December 2018 (ToI staff)

Before that final event, we’d gone out again together for lunch — to Whole Foods Market, natch, albeit a different branch. Here he told me that both his parents used to hit him when he was a child — “widespread in Palestinian society,” he said — and that he’d turned all his anger, over this and all other frustrations, against Israel — as, again, is a Palestinian norm.

In America, he says, over this last of our healthy lunches together, he’s found his freedom. The United States, he says, “combines power with grace. I am terribly grateful to the United States.”

We take some photos outside the store, embrace, and promise we’ll stay in touch. He tells me I should go and visit Gonen, who last Monday turned up in a Tel Aviv court as the lawyer for the defense in a libel suit brought by Yair Netanyahu. On Friday, four days later, Gonen was arrested during a protest in Tel Aviv against cost-of-living increases, and held for 30 hours.

Gonen was previously in the headlines two months ago, walking out into the street, waving an Israeli flag, in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s motorcade in a one-man act of anti-corruption protest. Video of the incident shows a current Shin Bet agent pushing this former Shin Bet agent out of the path of the prime ministerial convoy at the last second.

You couldn’t make it up.

You couldn’t make any of it up.

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