He was the son of a top Hamas leader — then he became an Israeli informant

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Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter in for Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. First off, I have to tell you this next story sounds unbelievable, but it's true. It's about the son of a founder of the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, and how he got recruited by Israel's intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, to become an informant. Mosab Hassan Yousef ended up spying on his dad and Hamas for a decade. Shin Bet called him "The Green Prince." Now Mosab and his handler, Gonen Ben Yitzhak, are the subjects of a new documentary, also called "The Green Prince." Both informant and handler were here in The World's studio today and I started by asking Mosab just how he ended up working for the Shin Bet. Mosab Hassan Yousef: I saw brutality in prison from the Hamas organization against our own people. I came to realize that the organization my father organized were the enemy of our people. I wanted to stop the madness somehow. Working with the Israelis, side by side, helped stop suicide bombing, helped stop some of the bloodshed and I was honored to do that. For me, it was not based on short term selfish desires. It was coming from the point of view of my conscience. Schachter: Gonen, what were your impressions of Mosab before and after you met him? Gonen Ben Yitzhak: For me, this was the first time meeting any Hamas member. My expectation was to meet a monster. Then I walked into the room, I see a young guy with glasses at that time, he looked like Harry Potter with his hair cut. He was a very nice Harry Potter. Like Harry Potter, he was a magician in his ability to understand and bring us the right information that would stop killing and terror attacks. It was just amazing. Schachter: Gonen, in the film you spoke a little bit about the role of doubt as an intelligence officer. I want to play this clip. Gonen Ben Yitzhak: Doubt is the most important tool for a handler. You have to doubt. For me, as a handler, soon it was very hard to doubt and this is a big danger for a handler, when he forgets that the source is not a friend but he is a potential enemy. Schachter: That is a really incredible situation both of you put yourselves in. That, as we see in the film, created a lot of tension. How do you deal with that? Ben Yitzhak: I think this is a problem that any given handler has. It's not just gathering information together, but you have a responsibility toward your asset and in some sense he becomes like your child. Like any father, it's very hard to see the witnesses of your source. When this begins, it's hard to doubt. The problem is that you have always the danger that your source is going to betray you because he's under a lot of pressure. At the same time, it's your son. Schachter: And did you ever stop doubting Mosab? Ben Yitzhak: Yes, I did. Our mutual respect and trust was to a level where I didn't need to doubt him. Maybe as intelligence personnel, it was a mistake. But as a person, as a human being, this was the only way to deal with this situation. Schachter: The really interesting thing about the movie is it talks about the two of you coming together but there's a fair amount of brutality on both sides. Are there good guys and bad guys in this or are there just two peoples? Yousef: This is a good question. What we see in the Middle East is basically a human condition. People on both sides are the same. If we take a group of Israeli children and put them under the circumstances of a refugee Palestinian camp, we expect them to be terrorists at some point. If we take a bunch of Palestinian children and put them in the Israeli environment, they're going to serve in the IDF at some point. Our environment in the Middle East shapes us in a certain way and people write scripts for us. Now, some of us on both sides know how to say "no" and stand for our own truth, write our scripts. Gonen and myself are an example of that. We had to go against our systems and follow our moral compass. Schachter: Speaking of writing scripts, Mosab, at some point after 2007 when you stopped working with the Shin Bet, you decided to leave Palestinian territories, eventually write a book. How did that all come about? How did you get out, first of all, and end up in California and then decide to write a book? Yousef: I did as much as I could during the most difficult times in the second Palestinian intifada. When things calmed down, I asked the Israeli intelligence to leave. Of course they were very selfish, they wanted me to stay. I insisted on leaving, to move on in my life. When I moved to the United States of America, Hamas movement took over the Gaza strip and things got worse. I thought by writing my story and documenting all the events of my life, I thought that could bring a better understanding to the people in the West and the people in the East, and bring them to their responsibilities finally. Schachter: Part of the drama was once you were in America, having you stay. You applied for political asylum and it seemed like the United States was ready to send you back, or send you to Jordan at least, right? I don't think that would have been very good for you. Yousef: Yes. Leaving that region and that culture, I became somehow unfit; unfit anywhere. Schachter: A traitor, they would say, right? Yousef: A traitor and misunderstood and whatever people want to think. I had to transcend all the barriers for my own sake, for my own salvation and to emancipate myself and to be free, basically. Schachter: Your family back in Ramallah is devastated. They don't understand the choice that you made. I wonder if you have any contact with your family and what do you tell them? Yousef: Since the popularity of my book, "Son of Hamas," back in 2010, my parents disowned me publicly, and since that moment I did not speak to them. I know it's very hard for them to see my reality. We live in two different realities. They live in the reality of the tribe and the family, what's good for our national or religious identity. They never crossed that boundary. For me today, my reality is that humanity is my family and the world is my country. Schachter: The end of the film is rather moving. Gonen, you go out on a limb and eventually get fired from the Shin Bet, which you'd spent your life getting into, right? Tell us about that. Ben Yitzhak: I was fired from the Shin Bet. The main thing was that I'm not working by the book, which I never did. Later on, I read an article in the newspaper that Mosab moved to the US and he lives like a homeless. I contacted him without getting information from the Shin Bet, because I really wanted to help him to go and testify in the US court that he was working for Israel, which was against the Israeli Shin Bet law. There is a law in Israel that actually says that former agents in the Shin Bet are not allowed to expose their assets. My father was a journalist in the Israeli army and he always told us "You never leave a soldier behind." Mosab was our soldier. I couldn't just look and see that he's going to be deported, and his life would end when he was deported, so I had to take a stand and this is what I did. Schachter: What has it been like for both of you this summer to watch the conflict in Gaza? Are you optimistic or pessimistic that this kind of thing can ever end? Yousef: It's not an easy thing to watch, innocent children caught up in a situation like this. I don't care if it was Israel or Palestinian leaderships. It's really hard to watch innocent children dying. But in the meantime, I personally cannot be emotional about the situation simply because I understand the motive of the leaderships of the Palestinian people especially. Basically, they are the shepherd who gives the sheep water and food and eventually take the sheep to the slaughterhouse. I hope that the sheep, at some point, come to realize that the shepherd is not their best friend, that the shepherd is their worst enemy. Ben Yitzhak: We shouldn't lose hope. You see our story; I came from a very zionist family, my father was a general. His father founded Hamas in the West Bank, and yet we are brothers. So you ask if there is hope? Of course there is hope. Hope is our weapon against the brutality and violence in our region. Schachter: Gonen Ben Yitzhak and Mosab Hassan Yousef, they are subjects of the new documentary, "The Green Prince." A real pleasure. Thank you guys for coming in. Ben Yitzhak: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure. Yousef: Thank you.