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Handling the Son of Hamas

November 11, 2015 | by Debra Heller

The riveting recollections of the Shin Bet handler who worked for ten years with Israel’s super-mole, Mosab Hassan Yousef.

“Hamas wasn’t just a movement to us. It was the family business. It was our identity. It was the cause for which my father had dedicated his life.”

Mosab Hassan Yousef wasn’t exaggerating when he uttered those words in The Green Prince, the documentary that was recently made about him. Mosab’s father, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, had helped found the Hamas terror organization, was one of the leaders of the Intifada, and was frequently imprisoned by the Israelis. In fact, as recently as October 19, the IDF raided his house in the West Bank village of Beitunia and arrested him yet again, accusing him of inciting the recent violence. That his son, Mosab, risked his life to spy on his father on behalf of Israel, thereby preventing countless terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, and bringing about the arrest of many in the Hamas hierarchy, including his own father, is perhaps one the most fascinating stories in the annals of espionage literature.

Few know Mosab’s story better than Gonen Ben-Yitzchak, his handler inside the Shin Bet, Israel's security service. Gonen, whose code name was "Captain Loai,” joined the Shin Bet a year after Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was murdered in November 1995, motivated by a desire to help Israel defend itself against violence.

His encounter with Mosab was almost coincidental. It all began when, as a 17-year-old in 1996, Mosab purchased a cache of illegal guns with the intention of murdering as many Israelis as he could.

“I hated Israel and believed we had the right to make the Israelis feel our pain.”

As detailed in his autobiography, Son of Hamas, co-written by journalist Ron Brackin, the youthful Mosab had been imbued with a hatred for Jews. He was jubilant when Saddam Hussein fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, and was disappointed when Israel wasn't destroyed. As set forth in its 1988 mission statement, he sincerely wanted Hamas to “obliterate Israel” and “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”

“I hated Israel and believed we had the right to make the Israelis feel our pain. I was seeking revenge, and thought this would be my chance to be a hero. I did not know how not to feel like that.

Mosab Hassan Yousef behind his father Sheikh Hassan Yousef

“My cousin Ibrahim was always talking about how he had access to people with guns. So when I decided to buy some, I asked for his help. We went together to the mountains, where the guns were waiting for us in a bag. They’d already been sprayed with pepper to disguise their scent just in case the Israelis stopped us for an inspection. We put them inside the panels of the doors. On our way back we were halted at a checkpoint. They checked our IDs and searched the trunk. It was a very scary moment for me as a teenager. Eventually we made it home to Ramallah through all the checkpoints with only one thing in mind: revenge.”

The Shin Bet, which had been monitoring him, nabbed him soon thereafter.

“When I came home my mother informed me that the Israelis had come to our house. ‘Did you do anything wrong?’ she wanted to know. ‘No,’ I replied. Of course, I couldn’t share with her that I’d bought guns to murder Israelis. After I left the house the Israeli Special Forces jumped out of the bushes and pointed their guns in my face. They started to drag me towards a car, and when I resisted I was pummeled from every side. The second we started driving I was bashed over the head with a rifle.

“I was later interrogated by an Israeli officer who asked, ‘Who gave you the order to buy the guns? Who gave them to you?’ I tried not to show that I was afraid but deep in my heart I was terrified. He had a smirk on his face as if to say, ‘We already know everything.’ Then he said, ‘Your father was here, and he was tough. Do you want to be tough, or do you want to talk?’ I told him I had nothing to talk about. ‘Mosab,’ he said with a laugh, ‘welcome to the slaughterhouse.’

“In the beginning I wasn’t allowed to sleep, neither by night nor by day. I felt it would go on forever. Half of my body was numb, and the other half was in a tremendous amount of pain. I started to lose my sense of reality. I started to forget what I looked like. I couldn’t think very well. I missed my mother a lot and wondered how she was handling the situation. Usually, whenever my father was arrested, I was there to help her with the responsibilities. I hoped she didn’t know where I was.

“After a few weeks I was at the breaking point. An officer came in and sat down said, ‘Why did you get yourself into trouble like this? You’re still young. Why didn’t you tell them you were only trying to be a tough guy?’ I said, ‘Listen, I bought those guns but we never used them. We aren’t connected to any military cell.’

“Then he said suddenly, ‘Would you consider working for us?’ I thought to myself, Is this guy out of his mind or what? How could he convince someone like me to work for Israel? I would never betray my father.’

“Then I thought that if I just told them yes I would get out of prison, so I agreed. But it wasn’t so simple. ‘Well,’ they said, ‘if we simply release you, everyone will want to know why. You’ll be exposed and possibly killed. You’ll have to be transferred to the Megiddo Prison. Just take care of yourself and get to know all the Hamas leaders. When you get out, we’ll meet again and talk.

“Let me tell you, the government isn’t in charge of things inside the Israeli prisons, and neither is the Shin Bet. The prisons are run by the prisoners. The jails are divided into various sections, and each one has its own ‘security force’ made up of prisoners. So when I got to the Hamas section, I told them openly that the Shin Bet had asked me to work for them and I’d said yes, but my plan was to take revenge. If ever I had an opportunity to kill my handler, or any Israeli, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. I told them the truth but it didn’t make sense to them.

“I remember one time the Hamas security guys told everyone to evacuate the section so nobody would witness what they were about to do. Then they turned all the TVs up to full volume and asked some guys to start singing so the soldiers outside wouldn’t hear the screams of the person they were torturing. Whoever he was, he was screaming like crazy and we didn’t know what was happening. I had never heard a human being scream like that before.

“They would always torture people in a certain corner. The Hamas guys would put needles under their fingernails; burn plastic on their bodies; there was no limit. Sometimes they burned them to death. We’re not talking about one or two, we’re talking about hundreds. I started to realize what my father was involved in.

“My father would sometimes talk about his goals with us. ‘I work for Allah,’ he would say. ‘There’s a good chance I might get killed. If anything happens to me, take care of your mother.’ I heard this countless times. I also had to grow up witnessing the Israeli soldiers pulling him out of the house, humiliating him and throwing him into prison for long periods of time. For what? For the sake of Hamas. But now I was seeing Hamas torturing its own people! As much as I wanted to, I simply couldn’t find a way to justify the violence.”

Over the course of the 16 months Mosab was in prison he came to a decision: he would accept the Shin Bet’s offer and go undercover. Mosab, code named “the Green Prince,” eventually became their most important mole in Hamas.

“In my culture, collaborating with Israel is the worst thing a person can do. But nobody held a gun to my head. No one threatened to expose or send me to jail. It’s just that everything I was experiencing was the exact opposite of what we’d been taught about Israeli intelligence. I don’t even know if they knew what was going on in my mind, but I started to realize that we were living a lie, and a lot of people were dying because of it.

“A couple of weeks after I was released I got a phone call from the same person who recruited me. ‘I know you have questions,’ he said, ‘but we can’t talk over the phone. Let’s have a cup of coffee so we can discuss these things.’ I was curious so I went.

“At the time, I was still afraid that the agency might me taping me for some ulterior motive. Maybe the whole thing was only a plot to embarrass my family because their son was willing to work with the enemy. Eventually I saw they were serious.

“A few months later they arranged my father’s release from prison so I could start gathering information. My father needed someone to be his assistant, and who could be more trustworthy than his oldest son? My father thought he’d be grooming a future version of himself. He had no clue that I was spying for Israel.

“As the oldest of five brothers and three sisters, I was very enmeshed in my family. I changed my siblings’ diapers and cooked and babysat for them often. The two youngest even called me ‘Papa’ when our father was in prison. Yet here I was, working for the enemy.

After ten years of spying for Israel Mosab decided to “come clean” to his father, who was again in prison.

“My father had dedicated his entire life for the cause of Islam, thinking that its philosophy and ideology would solve the problems of humanity. People would come from all over the country to hear his sermons in the Ramallah mosque on Fridays. Still, he lived a humble life and never took advantage of his position. That taught me a lot. I was always very proud of him. He was the highest authority in my life.”

After ten years of spying for Israel Mosab decided to “come clean” to his father, who was again in prison. “My father had access to a cell phone that had been smuggled inside the prison. I called him and said, ‘I’m not who you think I am. I’ve been working for Israel for ten years and I’m writing a book about my relationship with Israeli intelligence. I’m the one who put you in prison, but I did it to protect you. It’s the only reason you were never assassinated.’

“My father was devastated. ‘Come back,’ he said. ‘I will protect you. Don’t worry about anybody else.’ But I told him I wasn’t coming back. I asked him to disown me because I knew how much pressure he was under but he said it wasn’t an option. He was grieving. He was in pain. He was in shock. ‘You are my son,’ he said, ‘and you’ll always be my son. No one can take that away.’

“I knew that I was really hurting the people I loved. When I thought about my brothers and sisters, who were like my children, I felt like I had stabbed them in the back. I still feel that way, as if I took them and slaughtered them on the altar.”

In 2005 Mosab converted to Christianity. Two years later he moved to California, with the help of Gonen Ben-Yitzhak.

Interview with the Handler

Ami caught up with Gonen a few days after Israel announced that it rearrested Sheikh Hassan Yousef, Mosab’s father.

Q: Your relationship with Mosab is one of the most intriguing things I’ve ever heard. Did the Shin Bet consider him the biggest catch they ever had?

A: Well, he was a big one. I don’t know if he was the biggest, but he was considered very important. It was something special when he was recruited. It was a real achievement in the war against Hamas.

His father, Sheikh Hassan Yosef, was always in the middle of things, handling the flow of money to the terrorist organization and apportioning it out. Some of it was civil work, some of it wasn’t. Whoever wanted to meet with him, whether from Gaza, Nablus or Syria, had to go through Mosab. He was the gatekeeper and answered all his phone calls. We were therefore also able to manipulate the answers Hassan Yosef was sending through Mosab to other Hamas operatives, so in a way we were creating a new reality.

Mosab loved it. He was addicted to the action. As his handler, I utilized that. I taught him how to ask questions, how not to ask questions. Otherwise, he’d be exposed after a week and either he or I would be dead.

Mosab Hassan Yousef and Gonen Ben-Yitzchak

Q: Was Mosab an official member of Hamas?

A: No. We tried very hard to convince him to join. We encouraged him to go the mosque to pray, to grow his beard, but he wouldn’t listen. In the beginning it was really frustrating, because we really wanted to push him deeper and deeper into Hamas, but he wouldn’t do it. He had lines that he wouldn’t cross.

Mosab had his own views and never agreed to follow orders without thinking about it first. He didn’t act like a very religious guy, and this was another concern we had, because we were always worried it would arouse suspicion.

Q: Were you the one who discovered him as a potential spy Israel?

A: No. He was actually recruited in 1997 in an interrogation center in Jerusalem. Because of his father, he was already under surveillance of the Shin Bet. He was a very important target, not just to prevent him from doing anything wrong but because we wanted to recruit people who had the access he did. He started working for us around 1998.

It was during his interrogation that the offer was made for him to work for us. He agreed, but his real plan was to kill his handler. That was his main reason. He thought he’d just go home and meet his handler and kill him.

Q: Do you think he was vulnerable, and that’s why he did it?

A: Mosab was only 17 when he was arrested. It was his first arrest, and he’d never been interrogated or anything. His fear must have been tremendous, not knowing what was going to happen, worrying about what to say, whether or not to lie. Are they going to beat me? Will I be tortured? The interrogators understand all that and take advantage of it.

Q: When did you get involved?

A: I joined the Shin Bet in 1996. The first time I heard about Mosab was when I was in training. It was a big secret, but we’d been told there was a new recruit whose nickname was ‘the Green Prince.’

I basically started to work as a handler around the same time Mosab started to work as a spy. I met him after he’d been to a few secret meetings. I sat in on one just to observe how to handle a source like him. This was not a regular situation. He was considered a very special person, very dangerous, extremely intelligent and with a big ego.

In 2002 I was appointed in charge of all the handlers in the Ramallah area, including Mosab’s. Later on, I became his direct handler.

Gonen Ben-Yitzchak

Q: Is Mosab the only case of someone turning on his father like that?

A: I’m not saying that there were others, but the real question is why he would do a thing like that. There’s something very complicated about his personality. What I’m trying to say is that when you look for a person’s motive, it’s usually something very deep. So it could happen to others. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ever came out that the sibling or child of an American official was working for a foreign government. A lot of psychological techniques are used to find recruits.

Q: Did you ever get the feeling that Mosab was conflicted about his father? Did you have to send him to a psychiatrist to make peace with that?

A: I have to admit that at that time we weren’t really sure why he was working for us. We now know that it had to do with being in prison and seeing the members of Hamas torturing their own people. He was very critical that his father had told him it was the other way around, that the Israelis were the only torturers. When he realized the truth, it caused him to feel hate for Hamas.

Q: Do you think he was trying to save his father from Hamas? Or was he just going against him?

A: I think he realized there was a chance his father would be held responsible for the tremendous violence, especially during the Second Intifada, and might be assassinated. So by isolating his father in a safe house and later on actually putting him in prison, which was something we coordinated, he saved him.

Q: Mosab maintains that his father had no clue he was spying for Israel.

A: I had a feeling that Hassan Yosef knew his son was working for us. All the signs were there. He just made the decision not to look at them.

Q: Mosab took considerable risks in a society that considers working for the Israelis the biggest betrayal. But whose lives was he trying to save, Palestinian lives or Israeli lives?

A: I think he realized he was saving both. I don’t think he ever made a distinction. In the beginning his moral philosophy wasn’t clearly articulated, but somewhere along the way this was part of what he was doing.

Mosab and I once had a speaking engagement in Israel. Afterwards, someone in the audience stood up and was very hostile. “Your story is very touching,” he said, “but in the end you’re a traitor. You betrayed your father, you betrayed your family, and you betrayed your people. In the final analysis, you’re nothing but a dirty traitor.’ The crowd started to get angry and told the person to sit down. But Mosab said, “Everyone, quiet down. It’s okay if someone thinks that way.” Then he addressed his comments to the guy himself. “I want to explain something to you. I wasn’t even 18 years old and I was faced with two terrible choices. One was to become like my father, a terrorist or maybe even a suicide bomber, and the other was to work for the enemy and save innocent lives. So I chose the second option. At the time, I also thought it was a bad choice. What would you have done?” The guy didn’t answer. He was too shocked.

And it’s true. Mosab was young and very confused. But when I look at his decision I see that he did the humane thing. This is how someone chooses between good and evil.

Q: How many lives did he save? Was he a real asset in the end?

A: I don’t know how to answer that because he prevented so many attacks. One Shavuot there were five suicide bombers simultaneously on their way to perpetrate five attacks in Jerusalem and he stopped them. How many lives? Who knows? Mosab was a key player in many operations, one of which was to find out where the Hamas leaders were hiding. There were times when we only had 24 hours to take action before everybody ran away.

Q: How often did he give you information?

A: Constantly, particularly during the Second Intifada. After Arafat died we didn’t really know what would happen. We were worried Hamas would take over Ramallah. So we did what we knew how to do: we started gathering information. Mosab worked day and night. Information is power. I think he realized what kind of power he had in his hands.

Q: How did he convey this information? You met in Ramallah?

A: This is something about which I’d rather not go into detail, but we were in constant communication. He once told us that Arafat had told his father to be prepared because they were planning to “blow up everything.”

Being in charge of all the operations in Ramallah was a huge responsibility. I hardly slept. I don’t know how my wife dealt with it. I was coming home very late at night and sometimes didn’t come home at all. Plus, I was getting phone calls all hours of the day. They don’t tell you months in advance that there’s going to be a terrorist attack. It’s always in two hours, an hour, a half-hour, and you have to do something immediately. There were bombings every day, sometimes twice a day. We’d wake up in the morning and wonder what was going to happen next. It was like an unstoppable flood, and if you didn’t stop it, a dozen Israelis would be killed because of you.

Q: Your relationship was obviously more than just between a handler and a spy. It was a friendship. Was that permissible according to the rules of the Shin Bet?

A: Well, you always have to remember that your sources can very easily turn against you. Doubt is the most important tool for a handler. If you don’t doubt your source, you are doomed to failure. The problem was that it soon became difficult for me to doubt him, and that’s a big danger for a handler. You can never forget that the source isn’t a friend but a potential enemy.

While this mutual chemistry didn’t always exist, I really liked most of my sources. I admired that they risked their lives to save other people’s lives. In different situations I would have considered being friends with them. But of course, when you work in the Shin Bet, the only thing they know is your code name. So the possibility of being a friend is highly unlikely.

After Mosab left the Shin Bet and went to New York, a reporter for Haaretz wrote a long article on how the son of one of the leaders of Hamas in the West Bank had converted to Christianity and asked for asylum in the US. I saw it as an opportunity to help him. That’s when we established our friendship.

Q: Were you surprised to see Mosab’s name in Haaretz?

A: I was shocked. He was one of the Shin Bet’s most sensitive secrets. Seeing him on the front page of the newspaper was something I couldn’t even contemplate. I felt responsible for him both as a source and as a human being. I couldn’t just abandon him to his destiny.

I started to consider all the legal implications. I knew that if I asked permission I wouldn’t get it. I wasn’t looking to get arrested and be accused by the Shin Bet of treason. But I also felt it was something I had to do. So I took off and flew to San Diego. This was a very tough decision. As I was walking down this long corridor in the airport I spotted Mosab all the way down by the end. When we hugged each other we both started to laugh. I don’t know why we were laughing, but we laughed for ten minutes.

Mosab then told me that some people were misreading the book and thought he was really a terrorist and a threat to the United States. That made me so mad. He’d helped us for over a decade. When I called the Shin Bet they refused to respond, so I decided I’d had enough. It was ridiculous. This wasn’t some reality show on TV where you’re waiting for the judge to decide if Mosab stays in the US and lives or he’s deported to Jordan and probably gets killed. I couldn’t just stand aside and watch.

Q: So what did you do?

A: When Homeland Security decided to deport him I told him to file an appeal. I also offered to testify on his behalf. Another thing I managed to do was get an official letter from the Israeli Defense and Security Committee, the most prestigious committee in the Knesset, signed by the chairman and another MK thanking him for his efforts during the time he worked for us. Armed with this document I went to the court, but the case was dropped before I could testify. Homeland Security claimed to have gotten new information.

Q: Was the Shin Bet upset with you?

A: They didn’t like it, especially because I didn’t consult with them first, but I think they understood. It would also have been a big mistake to allow Mosab to be deported to Jordan and then to the West Bank, considering that he was in possession of secret information. So in that sense I was doing the Shin Bet a service, which is probably why they never stopped me. They might have had legal reason to take me to court but they never tried.

As I mentioned, my father was a general in the Israeli army. One of his mottos was how you must never leave a soldier behind. Mosab had been our number one soldier in Ramallah. He was willing to sacrifice his life to prevent violence against us. So when I saw that he was big trouble I knew I had to save him. It was what my parents taught me to do.

Q: Do you think you’re a target of Hamas?

A: Probably. But I’m not afraid, because as a Jew I’m a target for Hamas anyway. Everyone walks around Jerusalem making sure that no one is walking behind him.

Q: Have you been in touch with Mosab since his father’s most recent arrest?

A: I spoke with him several times yesterday. I’m the one who told him about it. Mosab replied that his father was devoted to his ideology and needed to pay for it. He was okay with that. He wasn’t happy or sad, just that his father had to live with his decisions.

Q: Given that most of the perpetrators are lone wolves, what can the Shin Bet do to prevent the stabbings?

A: It’s very hard. When you don’t have an infrastructure and young people are just waking up in the morning and deciding to kill Jews it’s almost impossible to stop it in advance. Maybe we need to learn some new tactics; I have some ideas. But it’s a different type of terrorism compared to the Second Intifada.

Q: To sum, do you think of the people you handled as heroes? Or were some of them just opportunists?

A: No. I consider all of them heroes. I respect each and every one for what he did. Everyone had his own motives, but they were all people who wanted to bring peace to the region and were against innocent people being killed. Some were very religious Muslims who opposed suicide attacks on religious grounds and insisted that’s not what Islam is all about. I think that part of the reason they worked with me was that they could sense that I respected them.

Reprinted with permission from Ami Magazine.

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