Interview With The Green Prince and His Handler

September 21, 2014

in Interviews


Gonen ben Itzhak and  Mosab Hassan Yousef

Gonen ben Itzhak and Mosab Hassan Yousef
Photo: Charles Munitz

An interview with Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of a founder of Hamas, and Gonen ben Itzhak, a former Israeli Shin Bet agent with whom he worked for ten years.

Mosab Hassan Yousef, a former Hamas insider, and Gonen ben Itzhak, a former Israeli agent, are featured in The Green Prince, a new documentary that tells the story of their relationship.

I met with them in Boston during a recent trip to promote the film. Their warmth and openness was as obvious as the closeness of their connection.

Mosab Hassan Yousef’s father is Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founder and leader of the West Bank based Hamas. He was recruited in 1997 at the age of 19 as an informer for the Israeli security agency, the Shin Bet. His recruiter was Gonen ben Itzhak, the son of an Israeli general. Mosab worked closely with Gonen (who worked under the alias Captain Loai), serving in this extremely dangerous role for ten years. Their story, first told by Mosab in his 2010 book, “Son of Hamas,” is now the subject of the riveting new documentary, “The Green Prince,” directed by Nadav Schirman.

Mosab left the West Bank for the United States in 2007. When he sought asylum in 2009, he was initially refused by the Department of Homeland Security, on grounds of his affiliation with Hamas. In June, 2010, in a highly atypical departure from expected protocol, Gonen came forward, revealing his true identity to testify at an immigration hearing in San Diego on Mosab’s behalf, declaring him a “true friend” and “one who had risked his life to prevent violence.”

Sincere and expressive in manner, Mosab is a spiritually-motivated thinker who has traveled considerable distance from the Muslim orthodoxy within which he was raised. “I was threatened by hell and tempted by heaven,” he says, reflecting on the “religious box” in which he came to feel trapped. His ardor for Islam was strong until, in his late teens, he became disillusioned with Hamas’ integration of religion and violence.

Later on, Mosab found inspiration in Jesus but he came to question institutional Christianity. “I found walls of separation again and this was not what I was looking for,” he said.

He has more recently embraced the practice of yoga, noting that when “we align our physical body, eventually we align our mental, spiritual and emotional bodies,” and credits it for helping him “to heal from the damage that happened to him as a result of being influenced by distorted ‘truths.'”

Reflecting on their association, Gonen observed that they “came from a place where we had an uneven relationship. He knew me by my nickname and didn’t really know who I was, and I knew “everything ”about him. Yet we managed to find an understanding that became mutual honor and respect.”

Gonen remarked about the distinctiveness of their relationship, in contrast to other intelligence “assets” with whom he had worked.

“It was a very brutal time, the time of the Second Intifada, and we had to deal with a very deadly Hamas terror cell in Ramallah. They were behind many of the terror attacks inside Israel and without this mutual respect, understanding and trust I don’t think we would have been able to achieve what we did” he said.

In order to gain Mosab’s complete trust, Gonen sometimes had to employ what he called “creative” techniques.

“I was seeing him without Shin Bet security around which was a real breach of protocol, but this was the only way to give him a sense that I really trusted him, which was essential for the relationship at the time.”

Eventually, Gonen was dismissed from the Shin Bet because of his unorthodox, though highly effective, methods.

“Either you’re creative or you’re a bureaucrat. You cannot be a bureaucrat when you deal with people’s lives,” he explained, adding, “If you want to stop killing, you have to take a risk. He took a risk, and I needed to take a risk. The main reason I was dismissed is that the Shin Bet could not handle that I was creative.”

Gonen credits Mosab with courageously helping to prevent many, many terror attacks inside Israel, yet Mosab came across not as an operative but as a philosophically inspired thinker. “What is happening there is not only a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but a conflict between the lower self and the higher self; the lower self which fights for animal survival, and the higher self which fights for enlightenment and salvation,” he shared.

Invoking his own imaginative invention, which he calls, “The Allegory of the Sheep,” Mosab explained, “Sheep believe that the shepherd is their best friend. He provides food, water, and guides them. But eventually the shepherd takes the sheep to the slaughterhouse.”

He continued, “He’s ‘using’ the sheep, not a friend to them. He’s actually the worst enemy of the sheep, but the sheep follow as long as the shepherd gives them food and water. If Hamas is paying me a salary, I can provide food for my family. This is how the shepherd comes and hijacks a whole nation. What we need is for the sheep to evolve.”

Speaking idealistically, and identifying as a student of yoga, he wished that people in the Middle East would learn to breathe and to eat better, and to develop the kind of personal balance that might enable more critical and independent thinking.

Both men were philosophical about the impact of their story.

For Gonen, “the movie gives us a great opportunity to speak to people. We don’t try to throw it on the politicians and blame them, but we show them what we did and how we took responsibility for it.” He acknowledged that Shin Bet members have seen the film and were not pleased with him, but he is hopeful the film may inspire some of them to “think for themselves.”

Mosab too hopes his actions will help others to reach beyond the constraints and ideologies that limit them.

“People know what it took for me to come out,” he said. “ Maybe that would inspire them to question their own ‘truths,’ to be able to transcend the walls that confine them.”

– Charles Munitz (aka BADMan)

(Published originally in a slightly edited version in The Jewish Journal of the North Shore, 9/18/2014)

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