Former Shin Bet agent Gonen Ben-Yitzhak’s given name means protecting, and he is going all-out to shield a Palestinian man from deportation from the United States and, Ben-Yitzhak believes, certain death.
The man, Ramallah native Mosab Hassan Yousef, worked with Ben-Yitzhak as an agent for Shin Bet within the Hamas terrorist organization, to which Yousef belonged. The intelligence helped Shin Bet (the acronym for Israel’s General Security Service) prevent attacks that saved countless Israeli and Arab lives, Ben-Yitzhak said. The two men were honored in Washington at a Capitol Hill dinner Wednesday.
Yousef, who has lived in Southern California for three years, faces a San Diego hearing next Wednesday morning at the federal Homeland Security Immigration Court. The U.S. government last year turned down Yousef’s appeal for asylum, and recently initiated deportation proceedings on the grounds that Yousef provided “material support” to terrorists. It bases the case on passages in Yousef’s bestselling book, “Son of Hamas,” including descriptions of his work for Hamas while serving as a Shin Bet agent.
Following the dinner, Ben-Yitzhak shook his head when asked about the U.S. government’s effort to deport Yousef. “It’s hard for me to understand — very hard for me to understand,” he said.
Former CIA director James Woolsey was less diplomatic. “My view is that the decision to deny him political refugee status was incredibly idiotic,” Woolsey said. “It’s hard to think of a worse immigration decision in history. It’s fundamentally nuts.”
Because he will testify on Yousef’s behalf, Ben-Yitzhak revealed his identity at Wednesday’s event. He previously was known only as “Gimel” (“G”). The central-Israel resident left the Shin Bet following 10 years’ service in Judea and Samaria and recently graduated from law school.
The Israeli and Palestinian pair resemble a Middle East Mutt and Jeff: Ben-Yitzhak, 39, a burly bear of a pale-skinned man who could be a bouncer at trendy LA clubs; Yousef, 32, a dark, slight guy with large, eager eyes that suggest an entrepreneur or a graduate student.
They bounded in tandem up the Russell Office Building’s white marble steps and into the stately Senate Caucus Room, where Yousef and Iranian émigré Amil Imani, both converts to Christianity, received Speaker of the Truth awards from the pro-Israel organization EMET: Endowment for Middle East Truth. Congressional honorees included Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).
Yousef and Ben-Yitzhak stand together, too, in their courage and selflessness. By going public, Ben-Yitzhak could be prosecuted under an Israeli law that prohibits Shin Bet officials from discussing their service or revealing their names within five years of leaving the intelligence agency.
A few weeks ago, Ben-Yitzhak said, he was summoned to Shin Bet’s offices and told he’d be breaking the law. When Ben-Yitzhak returns to Israel next week, though, his lawyer will be on vacation in America, “so I’ll be alone,” he noted with a smile. He isn’t concerned about legal ramifications, however.
“It’s my country, my land. I love the Shin Bet, and I love Israel. But I have to help my friend,” he said of the San Diego hearing. “This is my duty — to stand with him and say the truth. It’s something I need to do. He always stood beside me. In the harshest days of the second intifadah, I called and asked about his opinion because his understanding about Hamas is unbelievable.”
Neither Yousef nor Ben-Yitzhak considers his actions heroic. Asked in a March interview on Israel’s Channel Two television about the book’s revelation that his intelligence uncovered assassination plots against Israel’s president Shimon Peres and former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yousef said, “As a Christian person who loves everybody, I’m not trying to be a hero here. It wasn’t a big deal for me. Shimon Peres and a Palestinian child in the Gaza Strip, in my eyes, are the same. … I did what was right. If it was Ovadiah Yosef or if it was anybody [who] could get hurt, I would stop it, and I don’t regret that.”
As for his face not being masked during television appearances, Yousef told the Israeli interviewer, “Look, you are afraid when you do something wrong. When you don’t do something wrong, when you believe in what you are doing, you are not afraid.”
Ben-Yitzhak, however, expressed concern for Yousef. In America, he said, Yousef could remain safe, but not in Israel or Europe. He has advised Yousef to be extremely cautious and to attend advertised events only in the presence of security agents.