By any standards, this is an extraordinary story. Mosab Hassan Yousef is the oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas; as such, he comes from “one of the most religious Islamic families in the Middle East”, with a high public profile. The autobiography relates how this young Palestinian from such a prominent political background came to work for the Israeli security forces, Shin Bet, and how he finally turned his back on both Islam and politics to become a Christian.
There are some who, on reading this synopsis, will assume that Yousef became a traitor to his own people for money (the Israelis paid him well for the information he gave them); others might think that becoming a Christian was a strategy to escape from an intensely dangerous lifestyle (the author now lives in the US). The answer is both simpler and stranger than this: Yousef, still in his early 30s, manages to retain his love for his fellow Palestinians throughout, though he has completely rejected their terror tactics; he also learnt to respect the Israeli position and the security forces he worked with. What motivated him to work for Shin Bet was a wish to help save lives that might potentially be blown apart (literally; the suicide bombers of Hamas ensured that their deadly baggage would main or kill as many innocent people as possible.)
Yousef dedicates his book “to my beloved father and my wounded family”, at the same time admitting that “I made choices that have made me a traitor in the eyes of the people I love.” He grew up in the West Bank, learning from his father, who was the most important influence in his life, a love of Islam and the Koran and the devout practices associated with his faith. At the same time he witnessed the poverty and rootless lives of the Palestinians, the casual violence and obsessive hatred of Israel. The Palestinians were “not terrorists by nature. They were just people who had run out of hope and options.”
Hamas, in which his father played a central though equivocal role, was born in 1986, out of frustration at the continuing Israeli occupation of what the Palestinians believed were their own legitimate territories. As a young boy, Yousef witnessed his father’s arrest and imprisonment by the Israeli defence forces, which left his mother to struggle on her own with a large young family. In 1996, aged 18, and having already engaged with friends in some low-key rebellious tactics of his own, such as throwing rocks and stones at Israeli soldiers, he was captured by the Israelis, severely beaten up and thrown into prison.
Here the first most significant intervention in his life occurred: he was interrogated by Shin Bet which proposed, given his unrivalled access to the heart of Hamas, that he work for them as a spy. The first official suicide bombing of Israeli citizens had already begun, on April 13, 1994, and Yousef was both mature enough and idealistic enough to want to help halt the escalating death toll. He was also aware that the Palestinian resistance organisations treated each other with the same violence and contempt with which they treated the Israelis; everyone was driven by individual agendas and vendettas; “chaos reigned.”
In contrast Shin Bet, and in particular his link with them, a captain called Loai, struck him as moderate, reasonable and with a valid case of their own: Loai told him during their long conversations that “Israel is a small country and we have to protect ourselves.” In addition, Yousef came to see the fatal divisions among the Palestinians; the religious fervour and theology of jihad of Hamas in conflict with the nationalism, irreligion and cynical power-mongering of the PLO. He has harsh words for Yasser Arafat, dismissing him as corrupt, self-serving and greedy. “Arafat had grown rich “as the international symbol of victimhood. He wasn’t about to surrender that status and take on the responsibility of actually building a functioning society”. Indeed, the author sees him as “an historic catastrophe for his people”.
A deeper element of this book, deeper than the author’s despair at the in-fighting among his own people and his painful realisation that if all the Jewish settlers left the country, the Palestinians would still carry on fighting each other, is his love for his father, a devout Muslim, and his further realisation that Islam itself was fatally flawed. Depicting Islam as a ladder, Yousef analyses it thus: at the bottom are largely secular Muslims who pay lip-service to their faith; halfway up are the ‘moderates’, sincere believers like his father, who deplored violence and wanted to lead peaceable lives; finally, “the highest rung is jihad” – towards which moderates were inexorably pulled.
It put his father in the schizophrenic position of refusing to participate in violence that at the same time he was not willing to condemn. “What he could not justify as right for himself he rationalised as right for others.” Yousef grieves that the “beautiful side of Islam” cannot overcome the “cruel side that required its followers to conquer and enslave the earth.”
A chance encounter with evangelical Christians is the second most significant intervention in his life. The author was encouraged by them to read the Gospels. Although for a long time unable to accept that Jesus is God, Yousef was overwhelmed by what he read: “What a difference between Jesus and Allah! Islam’s god was very judgemental…” The more he read and studied the Bible in his Christian study group, the more the young Palestinian and “son of Hamas” acknowledged “this single truth: loving and forgiving one’s enemies is the only real way to stop the bloodshed.” By 2005, his father had also come to see that Israel was “an immutable reality” and had begun to consider the possibility of a 2-state solution.
Yousef himself recognises that over time he had become addicted to the work he was doing for Shin Bet. However valuable it had been in saving lives from the threat of suicide bombers, it has kept him constantly in danger for his life and the lives of his family members. When he told Loai he was quitting, security staff attempted to dissuade him; then realising his determination they reluctantly let him go. Now in the US, jobless, separated from his family and his people and a practising Christian, he believes his decision was worth it. Though written with the editorial aid of someone called Ron Brackin, this testimony has the ring of truth about it. For its author it has been a harsh but valuable journey.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.