Yoga, Hamas and hope: The story behind The Green Prince

Mosab Hassan Yousef and his startling memoir ‘Son of Hamas’ is the subject of a new documentary which picked up the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

FROM LEFT, Nadav Schirman, Gonen Ben-Itzhak and Mosab Hassan Yousef in a publicity still for the Sundance Film Festival. (photo credit: Courtesy)
FROM LEFT, Nadav Schirman, Gonen Ben-Itzhak and Mosab Hassan Yousef in a publicity still for the Sundance Film Festival.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A wish that I think I won’t regret is to see outside thousands of people in this region every morning practicing yoga.
And I think this will definitely bring a huge difference not only to the Middle East, but to humanity, to the world,” replies Mosab Hassan Yousef, the author of the memoir Son of Hamas and the subject of a remarkable new documentary by Nadav Schirman, The Green Prince, when he is asked what he wishes for.
The film, which won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, just opened at Lev Cinemas around Israel, and Yousef is here for a rare visit.
“I believe by daily [yoga] practice every morning and breathing to clear our minds from pollution, from all type of mental intoxications, we are able to handle the challenges of life, the challenges of the mind that we create for ourselves, better,” he continues.
Yousef knows a bit about challenges of life, and has earned the right to have an unlikely dream for the Middle East. Yousef, 36, the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, was arrested by Israel in the late Nineties, then recruited by the Shin Bet to give highly sensitive information about Hamas leaders. He cooperated not because he was forced to but because he was disillusioned with the violent struggle that his father and friends were waging. In the process he was imprisoned in Israel several times, and most certainly saved his father’s life. He was also instrumental in preventing an untold number of suicide bombings in Israel.
Eventually, after over 10 years of this extraordinarily perilous double life, he made his way to California, where he wrote his book, delved further into Christianity, which offered him spiritual solace, and applied for political asylum in the US. Upon the publication of Son of Hamas, his family disowned him. Then, the US turned down his asylum request, based on the fact that he had once been a member of Hamas. This Catch-22 situation was compounded by the fact that the Israeli government did nothing to help him.
Threatened with deportation from the US to Jordan – where agents of Hamas were likely to take his life – Yousef found help from the most unlikely source: Gonen Ben Itzhak, the former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) handler whom he had only known by the code name “Loai.” Ben Itzhak had known Yousef by his code name, “The Green Prince.” Risking arrest, Ben Itzhak, revealed his identity as a former Shin Bet agent and was able to persuade US officials that Yousef’s incredible story was true. This led to reprimands from the Shin Bet, although no legal action was taken against Ben Itzhak.
Ben Itzhak, who now practices law in Ramat Gan, says Mosab has “become a brother to me.” The two have appeared together publicly in Israel several times in recent weeks, at screenings at the Docaviv Festival in Tel Aviv and at the Lev Smadar theater in Jerusalem.
When Son of Hamas was published, the story caught the attention of Nadav Schirman, an Israeli director who had made two documentaries on spies and terror: The Champagne Spy (2007), about Wolfgang Lutz, a German Jew who emigrated to Israel and posed as a former Nazi in Cairo in the Sixties to gather information on nuclear scientists who were working with the Egyptian government, and In the Dark Room (2013), a look at the life and family of the terror mastermind known as Carlos the Jackal.
“I read Son of Hamas in two hours. I was amazed at the insider’s perspective on Hamas. Mosab offered a totally different perspective,” says Schirman.
“Next I was introduced to Gonen.... His story gave me goosebumps and the sensation of hope, the nature of their relationship filled me with hope... against all odds.”
His first meeting with Mosab, in New York City in 2011, was both fortuitous and revealing.
“I went to the lobby [of the hotel where Yousef was staying] and I found out Osama bin-Laden had just been killed. The whole city of New York went quiet for a minute. Mosab came and said, ‘Did you hear the news? We gotta go to Ground Zero.’ So three minutes after having met the ‘Son of Hamas’ we were in a cab on the way to Ground Zero. And we were there with all these young Americans screaming, ‘America, America!’ and Mosab was trying to partake in the celebration.
“He remembered how he would climb on the rooftops of Ramallah during the First Gulf War cheering for the SCUDs as they fell. And here he was trying to be part of the society that was celebrating the death of bin-Laden.... This identity crisis he was going through was fascinating.”
Getting to know both men, Schirman felt, “It was a big privilege to tell that story, of the choices they made and how they found themselves alienated from their respective systems.”
Although Schirman and Yousef are around the same age, the director sounds almost fatherly as he speaks of the subject of his film.
“He went through so much for 10 years, but he’s psychologically strong. He’s aware and he’s changing.
It’s very difficult for him to be torn apart from his family, he misses them very much. But Mosab keeps working on himself, he’s studying yoga, becoming a teacher, reinventing himself.”
While they were making the film, Schirman was impressed with how the two men opened up.
“Gonen said, ‘I’m used to being the handler but when I come to your set, I feel I’m being handled.’ I was touched by their willingness to let themselves be ‘handled’ by me. They followed me to the darkest corners.”
One of these corners was Yousef’s admission that he was raped as a child by a member of his extended family, a secret he had never been able to reveal before.
In the film, he speaks movingly about his decision to forgive this man, and this extraordinary ability to let go and move on has informed his life.
Yousef is a wary interviewee, who notes, over coffee last week at the Jerusalem Cinematheque: “Israelis tell me to my face, ‘You’re a hero.’ It’s a matter of perception. If I’m a hero to Israelis, then I’m a traitor to Palestinians.”
In his mind, he is neither.
“I have dedicated my life to the practice of yoga. My life is as simple as possible... I want to keep on growing spiritually, and learn from my own journey.
Every human being has enough challenges in their life. I don’t feel a victim. I don’t feel unique. Many people go through what I went through. Many people go through much worse than what I went through.... Our mission is to fight the good fight without losing our true self in the process.”
He speaks calmly, grateful to share his thoughts about the practice of yoga that has helped him so much recently, and peppers his conversation with philosophical references, including one to Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave. Truth, and not illusion, is what matters to him now: Not the book, not the movie, not even his life story.
For Ben Itzhak, the release of the movie seems to have offered more of a sense of closure.
“I was surprised by how people reacted to the movie. At Sundance, people got very emotional. I thought that when the movie would come to Israel, people will be more cynical. But there’s been an amazing, amazing response. People are really touched by it, people on both the left and the right.”
He adds, “We have to find a better way to thank these people [who work for Israeli intelligence]... I think it’s time for Israel to stand beside Mosab and hug him.... The part where we become friends and brothers, it’s not the end of the story. It’s a new beginning.”
Both of them have been interviewed often recently, and they are eager to spend some time away from the press. Yousef is especially generous as he answers questions he’s been asked dozens of times before, but at the end, a trace of the determination and generosity that led him to where he is today shows itself: He insists on picking up the check.
I argue with him, saying that buying his espresso is the least I can do, but Ben Itzhak, who knows this side of Yousef very well, just laughs and says, “Don’t even try.”