Interview'There is no shame in saving human life, Israeli and Palestinian'

The ‘Son of Hamas’ returns to Tel Aviv

Avi Issacharoff meets up again with Mosab Hassan Yousef, the ‘Green Prince’ whose life-saving role as an Israeli agent he first uncovered

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of Hamas leader Hassan Yousef. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of Hamas leader Hassan Yousef. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I notice him a few seconds before he sees me. He’s sitting, leaning on the bar of the New Age coffeeshop in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood, drinking a cup of tea and reading an English book. He has the look of a veteran hipster on his face.

It’s hard to believe that this is Mosab, the Green Prince, son of the Hamas leader in the West Bank, Sheikh Hassan Yousef.

I met Mosab for the first time 10 years ago when his father was released from prison. He looked so different then — overweight, glasses, wearing a leather biker’s jacket. Something about his appearance seemed out of place, disconnected from the Hamas world in which he grew up and operated. But in Tel Aviv, in the restaurant with the vegan menu, he fits in as if this was always home.

He turns around and smiles. “Habibi.”

One of the first things that any journalism student learns is that the writer is not the story. He must always remain on the outside. Another is that he must keep a distance from his sources. Don’t connect to them, don’t become buddies.

That’s the theory.

But these rules always have exceptions, and Mosab is the prime example for me. He became a friend. And here I am, writing an article about my friend Mosab, who is in Tel Aviv for the premiere of the documentary about his life, The Green Prince, directed by Nadav Schirman.

And despite the fact that I’ve met Mosab countless times over the years, despite the fact that I know his story inside and out (I revealed it in Haaretz four years ago), he never fails to surprise me.

I look at him and see that something has changed. It’s not just the weight loss that I’d noticed a few days ago at a screening at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque. He was called to the stage there, and went up and down the stairs with a new lightness in his step. I can’t help but smile at how much of a Tel Avivian he looks now. The wild appearance that marked him when I revealed his story had disappeared, and in its place is a humble, more wholesome look.

Mosab's autobiographical book 'Son of Hamas' (photo credit: courtesy/Tyndale Publishers)
Mosab Yousef’s autobiographical book ‘Son of Hamas’ (photo credit: Courtesy Tyndale Publishers)

The man who was on a crusade against Islam now seems to be at peace, and focused on other things.

“You were on a jihad against jihad,” I say to him as we get talking again. “How did you calm down?”

Mosab, the “Son of Hamas,” who was a Shin Bet agent for 10 years, who disrupted lethal attacks and uncovered terror cells, tells me how he became a vegan who meditates and does yoga every day. “It changed my life,” he starts.

And so, the beginning of our conversation revolves around healthy food and yoga. He tells me that he reached a point where he decided that he needed to cleanse his body from all the poison that was in it.

“It stabilized me and made me stronger. Mentally and physically. I quit my political activities over the past two years. I made my life healthier and simpler. I cook my vegan food myself, sometimes sleep on the carpet in people’s homes, meditate, and do yoga daily for the past three years. I needed it to deal with the traumas of the past.

Are you single? Do you have relationships?

“I am single. But I am not seeking an Israeli girl. I am also not gay, if your readers were wondering.”

Sheikh Hassan Yousef (screen capture: YouTube)
Sheikh Hassan Yousef (screen capture: YouTube)

What about your family? Are you in touch with your mother and father?

“Since my story came out [in 2010], I have not spoken with them. I haven’t tried and I don’t want to.”

Mosab knows that I am in touch with his father, Hassan Yousef, the sheikh, through whom I got to know Mosab. He asks me to tell him about our last meeting, a month ago in Ramallah. I say that I am often surprised at how different his father is in public, at rallies and in speeches, than he is in private.

The Green Prince film poster
‘The Green Prince’ film poster

In Tel Aviv, Mosab is staying at one of the city’s hotels, and meeting almost daily with Gonen, or “Captain Louie,” his old Shin Bet handler. Gonen was let go from the Shin Bet after financial irregularities were discovered in his work, some of which had to do with putting up Mosab, his source, in Tel Aviv.

The two men, who became good friends after Mosab left for California and Gonen left the Shin Bet, appeared together at the premiere of the movie. Even on stage, facing hundreds of enthusiastic fans, their body language indicated something comfortable and natural, as if they were brothers, despite the lack of any physical resemblance between the two. One, the son of an IDF general, is fair and full; the other, son of a Hamas chief, is dark and thin.

Mosab had other handlers he doesn’t speak about much. “Captain Ziad had a really sharp mind,” he recalls about one of them. “He was the smartest handler I had. There were others, like Tamer, who were complete failures.”

Why did you leave the Shin Bet?

“Because of their lack of faith in me. Look, for 10 years I was humiliated so many times: agents, handlers, guards, soldiers at checkpoints and even beatings I suffered in order to remove suspicions about me. But the humiliation before I left was the worst. They did not believe me.

“I already wanted to quit because there was a drop in attacks [on Israelis]. It was already in the period when suicide bombings had stopped. I worked with them [the Shin Bet] in order to save human lives. Then they pressured me to stay and one day they decided that I needed to undergo a polygraph examination. I didn’t pass the question about whether I had planned attacks against the State of Israel.

“They held me for a few days in a basement in Jerusalem and claimed I was hiding something big. Only when they did another polygraph, which came out clean, did they release me. Imagine, this is after 10 years of working with them. And it broke me. I promise you, if Gonen had been there and not another handler, I would still be working for the Shin Bet.”

And now, do you enter Israel with ease?

“No, certainly not. I need a visa every time from the consulate, and there is quite a bit of bureaucracy. The movie’s producers helped this time, but it didn’t go any smoother. Just think, I need to request a visa every time to enter a country I served for 10 years.

“I must say, when I am here, I feel a sense of belonging, feel that this is home. I don’t know how to explain it. The people, the streets, the atmosphere, everything is familiar and dear. When I came here during my days as an agent, it was in secret. They covered up my identity. I came in through the window, as it were. This time, I came in through the front door. It’s a wonderful experience.”

Indeed, it is a little strange that this man, who received quite a few promises during his time as an agent, has still not been granted Israeli citizenship or a passport that would allow him to live here as a permanent resident. Mosab himself doesn’t hide his anger toward the state, and the Shin Bet in particular, for — according to him — pressing the FBI to expel him from the United States.

“Was it necessary to fight me this way? For three years, I fought to be allowed to stay in America, because of the Shin Bet pressure to expel me, among other things.”

A court eventually overturned the expulsion order, allowing Mosab to remain in the US.

“I wanted to say to them, to the people responsible for this, that you cannot fight darkness if you are part of it. I don’t like it when justice is violated, and I don’t understand how a state, a government, could do nothing when one of its soldiers is drowning. If this is how it acts toward its soldiers, how will it act toward its enemies?”

If we’re on the subject of darkness…. In the movie, you talk, for the first time, about the rape you suffered at the age of 5 or 6. Why now?

“It seems I was ashamed, despite the fact that I had nothing to be ashamed of. I was raped by someone in my extended family, and part of my moving beyond the incident was that I forgave him. The forgiveness helped me recover. I could have taken revenge. When I grew up, I had a gun, I had people, I could have slaughtered him — but I forgave him. And this came from a place of strength, not weakness. It’s part of my worldview. And today he is married with children. No doubt, I felt embarrassment for a long time.

“And when I worked for Israel, that was perhaps considered an embarrassment. But I’m telling you, there is no shame in saving human life, Israeli and Palestinian. In the end, I did it all out of a great love for people, and the same goes for what I’m doing today. I love my life, and want to continue to spread this message of love.”

How do you deal with all the accusations against you from Palestinians? They call you a traitor, a spy, everything.

“I don’t take it too hard. I can’t control the thoughts of others. Our truth is warped, because our minds are too narrow to absorb things we don’t understand. I don’t see myself as a hero, nor as a traitor. I am a person who grew up in difficult circumstances, and I believe I made the right decisions.

“I look at my case and I see injustice. I see a family and blood relations that were broken because of politics. I see a father who sacrificed his son, and a son who betrayed his father. And what comes to mind is that personal circumstances don’t distinguish between Palestinian and Israeli. Injustice is found everywhere. I am not fighting only for myself. I want to believe that what I am doing now, here, in spreading my story, is worth fighting for, and that all I have fought for, my great sacrifice, won’t be for naught.”

Mosab and I go our separate ways. Maybe we’ll meet again during this visit, maybe not. But I am certain that at our next meeting as well, he’ll surprise me: another story I did not know, another dark, or bright, corner of his life I was not aware of.

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