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Son of Hamas, By Mosab Hassan Yousef | Tyndale House Publishers | 265 pages | $26.99
A novelist would hesitate to create a plot like this one: Mosab, the eldest son of Hassan Yousef, a founder of Hamas, not only becomes a top agent of the Shin Bet, Israel’s famous security service, but converts to Christianity and publishes his story under a well-known American Christian imprint. The offspring of one of Israel’s most implacable enemies turns into a loyal servant of the Jewish state. An Islamic fundamentalist passionately embraces the pacifist principles of Jesus.
I must confess that my first instinct was to doubt the authenticity of the account, but Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz’s Arab affairs correspondent, quotes Yousef’s Shin Bet handler as expressing genuine admiration for his source. “So many people owe him their life and don’t even know it,” the handler (named in Yousef’s book as “Capt. Loai”) tells Issacharoff. “People who did a lot less were awarded the Israel Security Prize. He certainly deserves it. The amazing thing is that none of his actions were done for money. He did things he believed in. He wanted to save lives.”
In point of fact, as the book makes clear, the Shin Bet was pretty generous to Yousef, paying for his education, funding a successful business and offering to make him the West Bank’s leading communications tycoon. At the same time, it should be noted that he refused this last offer, protesting that money didn’t interest him, and today he apparently lives from hand to mouth, without a regular job or income.
Yousef describes growing up in a conventional Muslim family, with a loving mother and a devout father, who, despite his leadership of a terrorist organization, is depicted throughout as a gentle, saintly figure. Mosab’s description of his arrest by IDF soldiers and the abuse he suffered at their hands does not make for pleasant reading, nor does his brutal treatment in an Israeli lockup and his subsequent imprisonment. The best he can say about his Israeli jailers is that the Hamas prisoners were even worse, torturing alleged collaborators among their fellow prisoners mercilessly.
Perhaps the most interesting part is his account of his recruitment by the Shin Bet. All of us have read sinister stories about the combination of brutality and blackmail by which informers are recruited to all intelligence services, including Israel’s, but apparently the Shin Bet is often much more imaginative in its techniques.
In Yousef’s account, the Shin Bet officers are by far the nicest Israelis whom he meets. His handler treats him decently, shows appropriate respect for his father, offers him money to study at university and holds off giving him operational tasks. When Yousef is eventually mobilized, his status, as the son of Hassan Yousef, affords him a uniquely advantageous position for intelligence gathering.
The Truman Institute’s Hillel Cohen, the author of Good Arabs (reviewed here February 5), finds Yousef’s version of his recruitment entirely credible. “The Shin Bet is extremely flexible,” he maintains. “It is very clever at recognizing the individual motivations of people and relates to them according to their special characteristics.”
Yousef not only grows to like Israelis and even, in the Christian
phrase, to “love his enemies,” he buys into a lot of what might be
termed the “official” Israeli version of events. Thus he writes that
Yasser Arafat, whom he despised, deliberately missed the chance of an
Israeli-Palestinian peace at Camp David in the summer of 2000, having
planned a violent intifada anyway. Marwan Barghouti, whose arrest Yousef
facilitated, is not only a political leader but a terrorist, personally
responsible for the deaths of many innocent people. The Palestinian
Authority, which he abhors, is corrupt; Hamas, which he repudiates, is
violent and uncompromising.
Finally, Yousef “retires” from his intelligence work, after converting
to Christianity. Today he lives in the United States, far away from the
scenes of his unique adventure. He speaks to his father on the phone and
still reveres him, but rejects the Koran for what he sees as its
message of violence.
Despite its inherent contradictions and an often hyperbolic style, Son
of Hamas is a good read. Occasionally obvious mistakes occur, such as
the description of the “iconic golden dome” of the Aksa Mosque, but
generally the editing and writing are of a high standard, and the
narrative moves along smartly. It is certainly one of the most unusual
books to come out of our region in recent years.
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