October 23, 2014
"The Green Prince" and "Son of Hamas"
by Myriam Miedzian
Reviewed in this essay: The Green Prince, a film by Nadav Schirman, 2014, and Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices, a book by Mosab Hassan Yousef, 2011
I SAW THE FILM The Green Prince shortly after it opened in New York theaters in September. I was sufficiently intrigued by it to then read the book, Son of Hamas, on which the film is based. The film and book document how the oldest son of Hamas founder Sheik Hassan Yousef, instead of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a Hamas leader as expected, became a spy for Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency.
The film alternates between Mosab Hassan Yousef and Gonen ben Itzak, his Shin Bet handler. They are both sitting in stark cell like rooms and speak with little affect. Ben Itzak seems a cold, unappealing guy who describes in some detail Shin Bet’s manipulation techniques in recruiting and keeping Palestinian spies, as practiced by him with Yousef. He brags that getting Yousef to spy for Shin Bet was like recruiting the son of the Israeli prime minister. If the whole film continued like this, it would get pretty boring, but pretty soon the “cell scenes” alternate with documentary material: Sheik Hassan Yousef giving rousing anti-Israel speeches to large masses of people; Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades marching covered in black from head to toe with hoods that reveal only their eyes; the Israeli military waging attacks on the West Bank. As the film goes on, both ben Itzak and Yousef become more animated, especially Yousef, who smiles, moves from his seat, even cries at one point. The great surprise ending is that Gonen ben Itzak turns out to be a warm-hearted hero who takes enormous risks to himself to help Yousef get residency in the U.S. — to where Yousef has now emigrated, after ten years with Shin Bet.
IT ALL STARTS IN 1995, when an enraged 18-year-old Yousef, proud of his father and of Hamas — he has long been throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers — goes a step further and buys guns to take revenge against the Israeli oppression and for his father’s repeated imprisonment. Israeli intelligence is aware of his purchase and he is arrested by IDF soldiers, who beat him up so severely, including hitting him on the head with a rifle butt, that he passes out — only to be hit again when he comes to. They deliver him to Makobiyeh Detention Center in West Jerusalem. When he is asked whether he might be willing to spy for Israel he says yes, both to get out of prison (where he is kept in the dark, hooded, chained, with loud music playing, no sleep, and virtually no pit stops), and perhaps to become a double agent, helping his father and Hamas. But the Israelis do not release him; they send him to the Megiddo prison, which holds Hamas prisoners and is run by Hamas. The Israelis allow Hamas to run their own prison! At first I was incredulous. How could that be?
Yousef’s stay in this prison represents the turning point in his thinking, as his agreement to spy for Israel goes from being a subterfuge to a real possibility. Why? In this prison, Hamas “guards,” members of Maj’d, Hamas’s Security Wing, suspicious that some fellow prisoners might be spies, beat up and draw confessions from severely tortured prisoners, including confessions of sexual transgressions — some confess to having sex with their mothers, daughters, neighbors’ wives — all of this filmed with spy cameras and given to the Israelis. “It seemed obvious that they would say anything to make the torture stop,” Yousef comments, suspecting that the Maj’d guards are titillated by these confessions. Yousef is privy to all this because as the son of a Hamas leader, he is safe from any suspicion and is invited by Maj’d to serve as clerk working on top-secret dossiers. He tells us that between 1993 and 1996, more than 150 suspected collaborators were investigated and about sixteen murdered. Yousef is horrified by all this, and realizes that his father must have witnessed this kind of thing in his numerous imprisonments.
I begin to understand why Israel lets Hamas prisoners guard themselves. By doing so, they avoid having to deal with the violence committed against prisoners and against themselves. There is of course a cynicism in this: It may be so, as Yousef describes, that the Hamas guards playing loud music to muffle the screams of the men they are torturing so that the Israel guards won’t know what’s going on, how can they not know when they find the dead bodies? I have the distinct impression that “good riddance” is part of Israeli motivation.
A MAJOR DEFECT OF THE FILM is to omit the fact that as early as 1999, Yousef attended a Christian study group and, while still living in Ramallah, was baptized. In the film we are given the impression that his conversion happened after he came to the U.S. and settled in San Diego. An awareness of the earlier conversion and of the fact that Yousef was smitten with the Sermon on the Mount and its messages of love, peace and forgiveness makes it easier to understand how, by the beginning of the second Intifada, he is so horrified by the random murder of Israeli civilians by suicide bombers — close to 1,000 killed and approximately 5,700 injured — that he embraces his work for Shin Bet with a new enthusiasm for doing everything he can to stop this killing.
Also omitted from the documentary is Yousef’s perspective on the 2000 Camp David Summit and the subsequent Intifada. Here again, something important is left out in terms of understanding his willingness — at great personal cost — to spy for Israel for ten years. Yousef is used to picking up the phone with Yasser Arafat on the line wanting to speak to his father; he has met Arafat often, views him as deeply corrupt, and holds him in utter contempt. As he sees it, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s Camp David land-for-peace offer “represented a historic opportunity for the long suffering Palestinian people… Arafat had been handed the keys to peace in the Middle East along with real nationhood for the Palestinian people — and he had thrown them away.”
Yousef is convinced that Arafat never intended to accept any offer made by the Israelis; he enjoyed extraordinary wealth as the international symbol of victimhood, and the last thing he wanted was the responsibility of building a functioning society. He chose his own self-interest over the well-being of the Palestinian people, and was determined to spark another intifada so that the Palestinians’ anger would be focused on the Israelis not on his selling his compatriots short. Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, which is widely viewed as leading to the second Intifada, took place on September 28, 2000. On the 27th, Yousef’s father tells him that “Sharon is scheduled to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque tomorrow and the PA [Palestinian Authority] believes this is a good opportunity to launch an uprising.” The P.A. wants Hamas to be at the forefront and calls upon Sheik Yousef to help them.
By 2007, Yousef can no longer tolerate his double life. He tells Shin Bet that he wants to leave. They try to dissuade him, but finally agree to let him take some time off and then come back to them. They facilitate his leaving for the U.S. — ostensibly he is going for medical care. Yousef has no intention of returning. When the U.S. views him as a security risk and threatens to send him back to the West Bank where, as a collaborator, he is certain to be killed, Ben Itzak, who has been ousted from Shin Bet for becoming too friendly with Yousef, comes to the U.S. to testify that Yousef is no terrorist but spied for Shin Bet for ten years. Yousef is then given asylum in the U.S., where he continues to be a devout Christian.
When reading books by sons highly critical of their powerful and famous fathers’ politics and actions, there is a tendency to wonder about the psychological underpinnings. Is the son reacting to childhood abuse or neglect, looking for public affirmation and revenge? Is he looking to catch the limelight — perhaps even outshining his father — by rejecting his father and forging an identity of his own? Or is he simply on a different wave length, finding his father’s life and actions repellent, not fitting to his temperament? Is it some combination of the above?
I find Yousef’s relationship to his father to be particularly interesting. Unlike Osama Bin Laden’s fourth son Omar, author (with his mother) of Growing Up Bin Laden, who clearly has considerable anger at and distaste for his father and his actions, or Zak Ebrahim, author of The Terrorist’s Son, who came to hate his father El-Sayyid Nosair, who was responsible for murdering Meir Kahane and for planning, from prison, the first 1993 attack on the Twin Towers, Yousef seems to adore his father, even as he comes to be repelled by his violent actions. Repeatedly he describes his father as being a loving, kind, open-minded man who is pressured into supporting violence — as when he becomes the leading spokesman for the Second Intifada. In the film, Yousef has a big smile on his face when he describes being in the kitchen cooking dinner with his father, who is unaware that they are both about to be arrested. It is perhaps not that uncommon for men who commit or encourage acts of extreme violence or warfare to act lovingly with their families — which makes it difficult for family members to acknowledge their violent public behavior.
In 2005, Yousef describes his father as having had “a sort of epiphany.” In a public speech he suggests the possibility of a two-state solution. Yousef is thrilled: “My father was actually acknowledging the right of Israel to exist!” Sheik Hassan has been described as a member of the moderate West Bank wing of Hamas. In the postscript to the book, Yousef describes himself as “the son of a terrorist organization dedicated to the extinction of Israel.”
Yousef’s willingness to become a spy for Shin Bet may well have been facilitated by the fact that he experienced his handler Gonen Ben Itzak to be a lot like the father he loved so much. Contrary to my first impression, the Israeli is an exceptionally decent person, caring, and deeply concerned about Yousef. The day before Son of Hamas was published, Yousef was disowned by his father. It seems that Ben Izhak, his wife and children are the closest thing to Yousef having a family. He speaks to them often by phone; the children call him “Uncle Mossad.”
Former philosophy professor Myriam Miedzian , is the author of Boys Will Be Boys, and writes frequently on social and political issues. Her website is: www.myriammiedzian.com