January 22, 2019

From Hamas to Shin Bet agent: Mosab Hassan Yousef

Few human relationships are as complex and intriguing as one between an intelligence agent and a potential informer, with the Middle East as an ideal proving ground for this thesis, at least cinematically.

Last year, Israel’s “Bethlehem” and the Palestinian “Omar” vied for an Oscar nomination, with both films centering on a Shin Bet agent and his Palestinian source. In addition, the earlier Israeli documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” had six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, talking about mistakes they and their government had made in dealing with the Palestinians.

The latest entry is the documentary “The Green Prince,” which describes the strangest handler/informant pairing yet, exceeding just about anything a screenwriter could think up.

The title character is Mosab Hassan Yousef, the eldest son of one of the founders of Hamas, who grew up fighting under its green banner for the destruction of Israel.

This son of terrorist royalty, raised in the belief that “collaborating with Israel is more shameful than raping your mother,” went on to become the prize informer for his father’s enemies.

His Shin Bet handler was Gonen Ben Yitzhak, whose unorthodox methods eventually led to his discharge from the agency.

Implanting Yousef into the heart of the enemy’s operations was a tremendous coup for Shin Bet, and he was handled with kid gloves.

“It was as if the son of the Israeli prime minister were spying for Hamas,” Ben Yitzhak noted in an interview with the Journal, joined by director-writer Nadav Schirman. Yousef was also slated to participate in the interview, but dropped out due to illness, according to the film’s spokeswoman.

The film, a German-Israeli-British co-production, is based on Yousef’s autobiography, “Son of Hamas.” Schirman had long envisioned a documentary on this theme and had a ready-made cast in the two principals.

Yousef was first arrested in the mid-1990s for buying illegal weapons, and Ben Yitzhak was assigned to be his chief interrogator. Both the prisoner and the Shin Bet agent realized that the security agency had a prize catch on its hands, yet an initial attempt to turn the son against the father was rejected out of hand.

The gradual change in Yousef’s attitude apparently was based on two factors. One was his growing disillusionment with Hamas — its indiscriminate use of suicide bombers and the harsh treatment it meted out to its own people. He came to believe that he could help save both Palestinian and Israeli lives by working against Hamas.

The other, more intriguing, influence was the sense of mutual trust that slowly developed between the handler and the source.

Contrary to frequent assumptions, enemies rarely turn into reliable informers as a result of torture, threats to their families or bribes.

Ben Yitzhak follows a basic working rule that “if you blackmail your source, he will betray you.” Even when following that rule, only about one in 100 attempts to enlist the services of an enemy informer succeed, according to the former agent.

The key to success, said Ben Yitzhak, who holds a degree in psychology, is not only to fully understand the other’s perspective, but also “to be like an olive tree, nurturing and giving food [to the informer].”

If Yousef took the bigger risks in the relationship, Ben Yitzhak also had something to lose. To prove his trust in Yousef, the agent violated a basic Shin Bet rule never to meet with an informant without a weapon or a backup bodyguard.

Shin Bet fired Ben Yitzhak after 10 years of service, which, he said, “was painful and shameful.” However, he subsequently became a lawyer and celebrity, and remains a regular on Israeli talk shows.

Yousef worked with Shin Bet from 1997 to 2007, then decided on a radical life change. He moved to San Diego, where he found himself without friends or work. “Nobody believed my story, so I decided to go public and write it up myself,” he said. 

Schirman said he hopes his film will convey the idea that “individuals who have the guts to go against their own systems and speak up can succeed where politicians fail, in establishing a relationship of trust.”

While Yousef’s book was widely praised as a page-turner, as a film, “The Green Prince” is a rather static production. Except for some brief archival and repeated drone surveillance footage, the film mainly depends on the talking heads of the two principals, speaking directly to the camera and, in the case of Yousef, showing little emotion.