The transformation of a terrorist: Former security prisoner will fight PA

Mahmoud al-Massab spent seven years in an Israeli prison. Now, he is hoping to fight the Palestinian Authority on American college campuses.

MAHMOUD AL-MASSAB on a wanted poster ahead of the Bahrain conference (photo credit: Courtesy)
MAHMOUD AL-MASSAB on a wanted poster ahead of the Bahrain conference
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A former terrorist, who served time in an Israeli security prison, will come to the US later this month to talk about his experiences and share his vision for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Palestinians and Jews can live together,” Muhammad al-Massab told The Jerusalem Post. “There are so many countries that talk about peace, but it does not seem like they are really interested in reaching a solution. I believe the solution will come from the people.”
It’s a striking sentiment coming from the same man who keeps in his wallet photographs of himself as a teenager holding an M-16 that he used to shoot at Israeli soldiers.
Today, Massab – married, with four children – is a resident of Haifa, where he plants olive trees and harvests olive oil. But he was born and raised in a small village outside of Jenin.
“I was born into a middle-class family, a respected family,” he said, in between sips of black coffee, his dark face smiling slightly as he revealed his sordid past.
“In the beginning of the First Intifada, in 1987, I was 13,” Massab went on. “I was recruited to the Fatah Youth movement to throw stones at Israeli soldiers.
“By the time I was 15 or 16, they gave me a gun and I joined the Jenin Black Panthers. They asked me to fight against Israel.”
But the truth is that his militarization started even earlier.
Massab said that he attended his first protest when he was only eight years old. He went with an 11-year-old friend. In the madness, his friend was shot and killed by an IDF bullet to his head.
“People from Fatah came, all covered up, wearing masks, and they said, ‘Look what the soldiers have done. This poor boy only threw some stones and they shot him,’” Massab recalled.
Fatah leaders would praise the children for throwing stones, and the youth would compete for who was the strongest.
“When that boy died, we went to his funeral,” said Massab. “They made him into such a hero. They put his face on posters, wrote a poem about him. The rest of us were actually jealous of him for dying – we wanted to be praised like him, too.”
Within years, Massab was recruited by Hamas terrorist mastermind Yehiyeh Ayash, known as “The Engineer” and perhaps the biggest arch-terrorist ever to have operated against Israel. Ayash designed and built the first suicide bombs and trained the first group of suicide bombers in the mid-1990s.
In 1996, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) killed Ayash with a booby-trapped phone.
“He wanted a small group of five of us from the Black Panthers to work for him,” Massab told the Post. “He told us that Hamas was working on a new kind of ammunition – on suicide and car bombs – and that if we joined him, we could cause even greater damage to Israeli civilians.
“I almost joined him,” he continued. “But at the last moment, I didn’t. We didn’t. Our goal was to improve our lives, not to die. We did not want to become suicide bombers.”
Nonetheless, Massab did not stay out of trouble.
In the early ’90s he and some colleagues approached an IDF armored vehicle with intent to attack. The mission was botched and they fled, but they were nabbed days later and jailed. Massab spent seven-and-a-half years in prison. He was released in a goodwill gesture shortly after Oslo.
“When I got out of prison, I was considered a hero,” he recalled. “I was brought into Yasser Arafat’s inner circle.”
ARAFAT WAS president of the Palestinian Authority at the time, and Massab could have been at the height of his military and political career. Instead, his life began to crumble.
“As I rose in rank, I realized that the terrorism to which I had been so committed was not about improving lives, but about money,” Massab explained. “I saw that there was massive corruption among the top tier of the Palestinian Authority – the same corruption that exists today.
“I discovered that the Palestinian citizens, the people, are not important to the leadership,” he continued. “They don’t want a peace agreement. They want to see how much money they can make for themselves and their families.
“I looked at my life, at how much I had given up for these people. My friends and I died, were wounded, arrested, while our leaders went to the discotheque to find girls. I decided it had to end.”
Itamar Marcus, a researcher and founder and director of Palestinian Media Watch, corroborated Massab’s account. He said that Arafat was in need of political and financial support from neighboring countries.
“He would give presents to people from whatever country just to keep them on his side,” Marcus told the Post. “Arafat had hundreds of millions of dollars that he pocketed in accounts around the world.”
Massab began raising awareness about this corruption. But the first time he spoke publicly about it, he was accused of being a collaborator.
He told the Post that the PA put together a file on him to try to demonstrate how he was collaborating with Israeli security forces against the PA, and it shared the information with his closest friends and colleagues. Then, the PA arrested him.
“I was shocked,” he shared. “I was not expecting this. I had given my whole life up until then for my nation.”
He said he spent 23 days being tortured, including receiving dozens of lashes. He was not allowed to consult a doctor or a lawyer.
“They kept asking me to tell them the date I connected with the Shin Bet,” he explained. “I had not collaborated. But I told myself that if I got out of this alive, collaborate is the first thing I would do.”
Marcus said that official Palestinian media and even private media do not report extensively about corruption within the PA, out of fear that they would be met with a fate similar to Massab’s.
“Anyone who would criticize the PA for financial corruption would find themselves tortured and imprisoned,” Marcus said. “There have been numerous stories about Mahmoud Abbas’s wealth and that of his sons – all by foreign press that cannot be damaged by the PA. The exact mechanisms are not known, but that there is corruption is well known.”
He added that in every public opinion poll taken by NGOs of residents of the PA-controlled areas of the West Bank in the last three years, around 80% of respondents said the PA government is corrupt.
When Massab returned to his village, he was physically alive, but his life was over. His family refused to speak with him, because of the shame he had brought upon them – even though technically his name had been cleared. He was unemployable and no one would marry him.
In 1997, he entered Israel with a work permit.
“The first thing I did when I got into Israel was go to the Haifa police and tell them I want to be a collaborator,” he said.
OVER THE next decade, including through the Second Intifada, he helped Israel – saving Palestinian lives by stopping sons from becoming suicide bombers, and saving the lives of those bombers’ potential victims. Massab could share little information about these efforts with the media, “because it would put others’ lives in danger.”
He also used the time to self-publish a book in Arabic about how terrorist regimes are “hijacking Islam” and taking the Koran out of context to promote death instead of life.
In 2009, he received permanent resident status in Israel, and he has been working quietly to give back to his community.
Earlier this year, Massab said he was invited to the Bahrain economic conference. He was planning to attend, but then his life was threatened once again. He said the PA hired a hit man to come into Israel and kill him.
“The PA organizations put strong pressure on me and my family and anyone connected to me to stop me from going,” he told the Post. “My face was put on signs so that if anyone saw me in the Palestinian territory, they would turn me in or kill me.”
He showed the Post images of these signs. Their official placement could not be confirmed.
“I wanted to go to the conference to help my people,” Massab said. “Any plan that could help the suffering of the people, that could take them out of poverty, stop the corruption, I am for it.”
The conference was four months ago. Massab did not attend, but he decided he would not stay silent. He reached out to Reservists on Duty and will travel to North America at the end of the month to deliver a series of talks on college campuses and before political and religious thought leaders. According to Reservists on Duty co-founder Amit Deri, Massab approached the organization and not the other way around.
He will speak in California, Texas, New York and Boston. The trip is being sponsored by Reservists on Duty as part of its efforts to expose and counter the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and antisemitism on college campuses.
“I want the PA out – they are causing death, and my people deserve to live,” he said. “I want the world to know that the Palestinian people are sick of wars, they are sick of spilled blood. We want the terrorism to end, too.”
He said he will also deliver a message to US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who have been outspoken proponents of the BDS movement:
“You don’t care about the Palestinian people,” he said. “You don’t know what it is like for us. If you would be here for one day and feel the suffering in which we live, only then can you give your opinions. Now, you are just barking.”