Hamas’s prodigal son returns... to Tel Aviv

An exclusive interview with former Hamas leader and one-time Israeli double agent Mosab Hassan Yousef.

Hassan Yousef (photo credit: Reuters)
Hassan Yousef
(photo credit: Reuters)
Mosab Hassan Yousef leans back in his chair in an upscale cafe in the Dizengoff shopping center in downtown Tel Aviv. As he sips water and chats in fluent English, one unfamiliar with his story would never suspect that this young man, barely into his 30s and dressed in a subtle grey suit, was the son of Hamas founder Hassan Yousef, one of the biggest names in terrorism in the 20th century.
In fact, he looks like a movie star.
Now living in Los Angeles as a Christian, the younger Yousef was once considered one of Hamas’s top men and was raised in a radical Islamic environment of hatred and violence inconceivable to most Westerners. Growing up in Ramallah, he took part in Hamas terrorist activity from the beginning, aiding his father and growing close to both the radical Islamic organization and its secular-nationalist counterpart, Fatah.
Over a period of years, however, he slowly began to reconsider his values and his life’s mission, and during a stint in an Israeli jail, he made the decision to risk his life spying on Hamas for the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
He served as a Shin Bet agent for a decade, preventing terror attacks and giving up information leading to the arrests of many of Hamas’s top figures, including his own father.
While reevaluating his nationalistic convictions, he began a process of religious renewal in which he replaced his Islamic upbringing with a newfound faith in Christianity, eventually undergoing a secret baptism on a Tel Aviv beach at the hands of a foreign tourist.
Finally deciding that he could handle no more, he traveled to America seeking political asylum. He is now working on the big-screen version of his bestselling book Son of Hamas, which details his career as an Israeli spy.
Yousef’s adventures seem like something out of a James Bond novel. On one occasion, the Shin Bet sent the army to arrest him, only to call him with a warning so that in escaping the IDF, he could maintain the image of a wanted man, cementing his cover as a hardcore militant.
After more than six years abroad, he has finally returned to the land of his birth to scout locations for his upcoming movie, which he wants to film in east Jerusalem. Ramallah, of course, is out of the question.
While waiting for Yousef, who has been spending the day with his former handler Gonen Ben-Itzhak, to arrive, Likud MK and Druse community leader Ayoub Kara explains the significance of Yousef’s change of loyalties.
Yousef, Kara explains, can better promote Israel’s agenda than anyone in the government’s public relations department. As a Palestinian and as a former Hamas insider, he is uniquely positioned to tell truths that, Kara believes, would have less credibility coming from an Israeli.
This, adds the MK, referring to himself, is the same reason he, as an Arabic-speaking non-Jew, has been such an effective spokesman for his country in the Arab world.
While Yousef, whose lanky figure and flowing hair make him appear a different man than the one who left this country six years ago, says that he would prefer to spend his time in Israel “having fun, riding my bicycle, working out and enjoying the beach,” Kara has different plans. During his time here, Yousef is to speak in various political, academic and media forums at Kara’s request.
Shrugging and saying he does not have an agenda and that he just wants to live “day by day,” Yousef acts resigned and explains that he “cannot say no” when people ask him to relate his experiences.
“So a few days from now, I will just be having fun, I guess,” he says hopefully.
A man without a country, he arrived in Israel last week to a delay of several hours at the airport, as officials debated what to do with the Palestinian man who had arrived with no visa and no advance notice at Ben-Gurion Airport.
While the local news media, in a story the local Palestinian papers picked up, reported that he had been harassed at the airport, both he and Mendi Safadi, assistant to Kara, tell a different version of events.
“I waited about an hour. They were confused and tried to figure out how come I am Palestinian originally and coming through Ben-Gurion Airport,” Yousef explains.
Safadi notes that Yousef is not an American citizen, and even though he was traveling with American documents, he did not have all of the necessary paperwork for entering Israel.
However, the issue was one of bureaucracy and not spite, and when the security officers realized who he was, Yousef says, they gave him a “warm welcome.”
“We started with hugs and we ended with hugs,” he says, adding that the chief concern of the country’s security forces was that for his own safety, he not return to Ramallah.
Asked if he is worried about his safety now that he is in Tel Aviv, he answers with pique, asking whether this correspondent is nervous sitting in a cafe in Tel Aviv.
“Why should I be scared?” he asks.
When reminded that there are senior members of Hamas who would like nothing better than to see him dead, he replies sarcastically, “Really? That’s surprising.
I think there are lots of Hamas people who don’t like you as a Jew and Israeli, either. So we are in the same boat. If you are not afraid, I shouldn’t be.”
His trip was not planned in advance, and he “didn’t know about it two weeks ago,” he says.
“I was having a conversation with my producer for Son of Hamas, because my wish is to shoot here in Israel. So our plan is to shoot in Jerusalem, and one of the goals on my part is to bring attention to the Israeli security necessities and to bring attention to the human drama that is happening because of all the conflict, and I think that the Son of Hamas movie is going to shed light on lots of facts that the world doesn’t know,” he explains. “This is my dream.”
When his producer invited him to come along, he immediately booked tickets and called Ben-Itzhak, who contacted Kara to help facilitate the trip.
According to Kara, many Israeli politicians have invited Yousef to return to Israel for a trip, but he refused the previous offers.
Nonetheless, the former Shin Bet agent remains open to Israeli citizenship, telling The Jerusalem Post that an offer of citizenship is a “great idea.”
“It would be a great honor for me,” he says. “I’m not going to say no to that.”
Such a statement is a far cry from the hatred on which he was raised. In his book, the Hamas member once known as the Green Prince – for the color of Islam and his position as the son of the terror group’s founder – paints a portrait of his family that is nuanced and sometimes sympathetic toward some of the greatest war criminals of this generation.
Without whitewashing their evil, he humanizes men who would kill, and have killed, innocent civilians – not to make their crimes less horrific, but to bring his readers into a world that they would never otherwise understand.
As he explains it, “whatever Hamas members are doing is their conviction. They don’t see themselves as terrorists. They have codes to fight for and they believe in those codes.”
He says that he, too, once believed in those codes, but “gradually I started to question them. That did not happen overnight. It took many years. It took several years to figure out that that was not the place I wanted to be and my ambition was much bigger than becoming a Hamas terrorist.”
DESPITE HIS sympathy for the Israelis and his willingness to risk his life for theirs, he was completely integrated into the world of radical Islam and Palestinian nationalism at all times and did not have a true understanding of Israel.
“Six years ago, I was in the West Bank and I was involved in all types of operations and activities. I had never gotten a chance to live in Israel and get to know the Israeli people, except my Shin Bet guys, and honestly we never had the chance to learn about Jewish or the Israeli culture because I was not meant to become an Israeli or an Israeli soldier. The goal was to make me into a Hamas terrorist,” he explains.
“So the whole environment was a Hamas environment, even when we met with Israeli intelligence.”
However, after getting to know the Jewish community in the United States through his speaking tours and after spending time in a less culturally circumscribed world than that of Ramallah, he feels that he now knows Israel in a way he was previously unable to achieve.
After his years abroad, he says that he “wanted to see Israel again through the new lenses of knowledge and wisdom and whatever I learned. It’s really amazing.
When I walk down the street, I feel that I know everyone.”
While professing his desire to “avoid talking about politics,” he does say that the Palestinian historical narrative is not as accurate as he was originally taught.
“All I can say is that the Israeli historic right to this land is obvious and clear to any person who can read. I don’t want to say that they have to be a historian, but anyone who can read can find out the real history of this land and the Israeli historic right to it.”
The conflict, he believes, is not “a Palestinian problem,” but a clash of ideologies between totalitarian and democratic societies in the region.
“The values of Israel are totally different than those of the surrounding countries, and this is where the conflict starts,” he contends. “It’s not a Palestinian- Israeli conflict in my opinion. It has its depth in the whole surrounding areas.”
Hopefully, he says, Israel’s neighbors “can see the Israeli experience and learn from it” to bring prosperity and freedom to the Middle East.
A solution to the conflict, in Yousef’s opinion, will only come when “people have the courage to stand and say the truth,” and he says he tried very hard “to set an example for standing for the truth.”
“I would love for my people to see where I came from and look at me today and see that it’s possible for every individual in this region to achieve their dreams the right way, and not by killing and destroying.”
Yousef presents a mix of cynicism – in that he does not sugar-coat the difficulties inherent in reaching a peace accord with the Palestinians – and hope that all challenges will one day be overcome by men of good will.
“The Palestinian Authority does not qualify to be a peace partner – yet,” he says.
Despite the positive coverage of his visit in the Jewish and Israeli media, he knows that his message has not penetrated the Arabic media, and that saddens him. However, he remains hopeful that his actions will inspire change and that one day there will be a solution to the region’s endless conflicts.
If he can change, he believes, anyone can.