An Unlikely Brotherhood

Mosab Hassan Yousef & Gonen Ben Itzhak talk The Green Prince, real-life espionage and mutual trust

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How else do you while away a pre-interview lull with a former Israeli intelligence officer than by talking about the weather? It’s a beautiful, sunny, and unexpectedly warm day in Boston as I wait patiently to chat with Gonen Ben-Itzhak about The Green Prince, a new documentary chronicling the erstwhile Shin Bet handler’s relationship with Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of Hamas co-founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef turned Israeli defector. Between 1997 and 2007, Gonen and Mosab worked closely together to prevent carnage in the Israel/Palestine conflict by foiling assassination attempts and suicide bombings. Today, they’re as close as brothers.

As we shuffle into the conference room to chat with the pair, I ask Gonen how they’re finding their visit to Beantown. Naturally, we come around to the subject of climate—it is remarkably balmy, even for September—but when the conversation turns to more seasonal matters, he pulls out a trump card and reminds us all of the fracas that broke out in his home region his past July: “This summer was okay in Israel. If you put the missiles out of the equation, everything else was nice.”

He presents his wry quip with a smile and a genuine, good-natured chuckle; the effect is disarming, though his words still strike a stark contrast between the world he and Mosab come from and our own. In fact, Gonen’s and Mosab’s account sounds an awful lot like the plot of a Robert Ludlum or John Le Carre yarn on paper, something begging to be adapted into a feature film (which Hollywood is in the process of doing, even as we speak). It turns out that truth really is stranger than fiction, and with The Green Prince, Israeli filmmaker Nadav Schirman has quite decisively beaten American studios to the punch.

As fantastical as their tale is, the story of how The Green Prince came to be is decidedly mundane, at least according to Mosab: Schirman read Mosab’s autobiography and thought it so compelling that he wanted to sculpt it into a movie. “The documentary … is based on the book Son of Hamas, and Son of Hamas was published back in 2010. It became very popular at that time, so that’s how Nadav heard about the story, and he came up with the idea of making the documentary. We liked his vision and we moved forward from there.”

For Gonen, participating in the production offered a chance to speak openly about everything that happened from the day he recruited Mosab all the way up to 2010, the year Mosab was nearly deported from the United States. That would have been a death sentence for Mosab if not for Gonen, who intervened by revealing his identity to testify in court on his friend’s behalf—an action that led to his expulsion from the Shin Bet. “For me, in the beginning it was like another hustle,” Gonen says. “I had enough trouble with the Shin Bet already, because of my relationship with Mosab and the deportation trial. Now, with the movie, I was supposed to ask for permission, but I knew if we were going to make a movie that I wasn’t going to ask for permission, and that maybe I’d get into trouble with the Shin Bet.

“So, it was a decision to go against the Shin Bet, but at the same time it was the first opportunity to talk about the events, because I’ve never spoken about what happened. Even my parents heard it for the first time when they watched the film in Tel Aviv last May at the Docaviv festival. I never had the opportunity to talk about it, so it was like going and unloading all of the events and experiences. It was a good feeling.”

But even though making the movie meant crossing the Shin Bet, Gonen doesn’t consider his involvement with The Green Prince to be courageous. “I don’t look at it that way. For me it was really an opportunity to talk about it and to process what happened, because everything was so tense during those years—the Second Intifada, working with the Shin Bet, and then I was thrown out of the Shin Bet, and then there were the events with the book and the trial. Everything was very tense. And now, I had an opportunity to talk about it, to process it. It was a great opportunity for me.”

The personal risks he and Mosab took to help get the film off the ground have paid off, however: after being released in Israeli theaters, The Green Prince wound up being a hit among Israeli moviegoers, much to Gonen’s surprise. “When the book was published,” he recalls, “the book was, and still is, the best-selling book in Israel. People love it. I know that for soldiers in the Israeli army, this is a must-read book. All the soldiers in Israel keep a copy of the book, and they read it, and they know the story. I wasn’t sure how the Israeli audiences were going to react to the movie because, first of all, Israelis tend to be very cynical. Second, there is a feeling among the Israelis that they’ve seen movies about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This is not, of course, a movie about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but you know, when people hear about the movie, that’s what they think.

“So I was very nervous before the first screening. I saw some of my old colleagues coming to watch the movie, and then during the screening I started to think, you know, ‘How are they going to feel about what we say in the movie regarding the Shin Bet?’ And for me it was very surprising, because we got tremendous love from the Israeli audience. People were really touched by the movie, even friends of mine that were very cynical before they watched it. They went to watch the movie, and they were amazed afterwards. For me, it’s very hard being part of the movie to see it how others see it, and to get it. It’s a success in the box office in Israel. More than 35,000 or 40,000 people have watched it in Israel. That’s a huge number for a documentary.”

If the film’s success comes as a shock, then what’s driving that success? Why are Israeli viewers packing into theaters to see it? There are some obvious reasons as to why, perhaps—it’s largely pro Israel in spite of its critiques of the Shin Bet—but Gonen thinks that there’s actually quite a lot behind the The Green Prince’s cultural resonance. “First, I must say that, like other things we did together during the time we were working with the Shin Bet, we had successful operations when we had teamwork. It was never the fact that there is one guy who is doing something. We had teamwork. There was a great asset, there was a handler, and there was a team behind it to make operations succeed. Here in the movie, it’s the same thing. We had just an unbelievable team around the world, in Israel, in Germany, in Munich, in Britain, in the U.S.—people who really put their hearts into the movie. So first of all, I think that the success is not just because of the story. It’s also because there was a team.”

“The other reason is because I think what Israelis see in the movie is that Nadav Schirman was successful in giving people hope,” he adds. “In Israel, people look for this glimpse of hope, to see something that’s more optimistic. I thought that during the Gaza clashes and war that we would lose it, but still, even during the war we had screenings, and all the screenings were sold out. So even during missile attacks, people went out of their homes to watch the movie! This shows how strong the impact on the Israelis the movie had.”

There’s no doubting the film’s inspirational mien, of course, but there’s an undercurrent of darkness beneath its more uplifting themes. Unlike spy thrillers, which are fantastical by nature and can only recreate the dangers and strains of espionage, The Green Prince is characterized by its authenticity—and that authenticity makes it all the more harrowing. That Mosab is able to speak so freely about his background and upbringing is nothing short of incredible, particularly in regard to what led him to cooperate with the Shin Bet and inform for them in the first place.

“You know, at that time, I was still very young,” Mosab says, “ and if you can imagine what it’s like for a Palestinian child to grow up in that environment—the oldest son of a top Hamas leader, very conservative Muslim family with national and political and religious agendas—you can see that the environment shaped me in a certain way that was very hard to change or reshape. At the time, when the Israeli intelligence came to offer me to work for them, I was … how I can say this … I hated Israel for many reasons. Political reasons, ideological reasons, personal reasons. My father was arrested many times, and I’d even seen lots of violence and bloodshed, so basically when they approached me for the first time, I was motivated by revenge. I wanted to take advantage of whatever offer that they had on the table. That was why I agreed to work with Israeli intelligence, motivated by revenge to play a double agent, to take information to Hamas, to do things against Israeli intelligence—even though I didn’t have an exact plan.”

Mosab’s 1996 imprisonment allowed him to see Hamas in a new light, and provided the ultimate catalyst for his change in perspective. “My agreement to work with the Israeli intelligence was not to help Israel by any chance. That was not the original motive. I had to go to prison, and spend some time in prison, and in prison I discovered the brutality and the real nature of the Hamas movement, which is my father’s movement. At home, I saw my father as a father on a personal level, but I did not see his Hamas persona in action. His Hamas persona was completely different than the one I knew at home, and also the other leaders of Hamas were completely different.

“So now in prison, I came to face the real nature of Hamas and to understand its core, which had me ask questions about its nature. Is this what I want to be associated with? Is this why me and my family have been suffering, because my father worked for this type of organization? My father taught us how to think like leaders, not to think like soldiers, and when I saw the brutality and torture that took place in prison, Hamas versus the Palestinian people, I came to understand that those guys don’t differentiate. They don’t care about our people. So if Israel cares about our people, at least they take the person to a court—there’s a judge, there’s justice!” Mosab states emphatically. “Hamas people, they just kidnap somebody and torture him physically and mentally and kill some of them for suspicion of collaborating with Israel. I came to question the nature of that movement, and that was the beginning of this journey.”

So how did someone with his level of notoriety and visibility manage to keep his duplicity a secret from so many people, and for so many years? “My cover was very strong,” affirms Mosab. “To be a son of a top Hamas leader, one of the top politicians of the country, usually you fly under everybody’s radar. Nobody would expect that such a recruitment could happen. I lived my life normally. I kept a low profile, and Israeli intelligence had to play some games to convince everybody that I was a high profile terrorist. This is how everybody was deceived, I guess!”

At this, he smiles; perhaps he sees the irony in how much deceit and trust have gone hand in hand throughout so much of his life. Above all else, though, The Green Prince is about the latter. Gonen’s and Mosab’s very friendship hinges on trust, and on the leap of faith that both men took simply by putting their trust in one another nearly two decades ago. If they can make that leap, then how do others make the same leap and find the same bonds as they did?

“It depends with whom,” Gonen concedes. “I think that sometimes people don’t understand that in order to get this kind of relationship, you have to have some mutual ground or some mutual values, some common values, because when we talk about Hamas, I don’t see any possibility to have peace with Hamas. Hamas is an organization that doesn’t share any values with us. When I say ‘with us’, I’m not talking just about Israelis, I’m talking about people in the Western world…”

Mosab quickly interjects. “Western and Eastern!”

That may sound pessimistic, but Gonen believes it’s possible the film may help audiences shift the way that think. “But what people see when they watch the film is people who made decisions and took responsibility for what they do. We give the audience the opportunity to watch the film and criticize us. Maybe some of the things we did are wrong, we made our mistakes, we did some good things, and they can evaluate. And then when they go home, maybe if they understand it, they’ll follow their heart, they’ll take responsibility for what they do, and this will make the change.”

“I believe in our case, we were able to transcend the barriers, the cultural barriers, the religious ones, political ones,” says Mosab, “and come to a place where we can see and understand the oneness, that there is no difference, there is no separation. All this separation is created by the mind. It is very limited. Our true nature is not like this. We’re part of the divine, the heavenly father, and all of us are the same. This is, I think, the main message of the film.”