Authors: Mosab Hassan Yousef, Mosab Hassan Yousef
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Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices
Copyright © 2010 by Mosab Hassan Yousef. All rights reserved.
Author and cover photo copyright © 2009 by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
Interior map copyright © 1993 by Digital Wisdom. All rights reserved.
Scripture taken from theHoly Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Yousef, Mosab Hassan.
Son of Hamas : a gripping account of terror, betrayal, political intrigue, and unthinkable choices / Mosab Hassan Yousef, with Ron Brackin.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 978-1-4143-3307-6 (hc)
1. Yousef, Mosab Hassan. 2. Christian converts from Islam—Israel—Biography. I. Brackin, Ron.
ISBN 978-1-4143-3668-8 (International Trade Paper Edition)
To my beloved father and my wounded family.
To the victims of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
To every human life my Lord has saved.
My family, I am very proud of you; only my God can understand what you have been through. I realize that what I have done has caused another deep wound that might not heal in this life and that you may have to live with its shame forever.
I could have been a hero and made my people proud of me. I knew what kind of hero they were looking for: a fighter who dedicated his life and family to the cause of a nation. Even if I was killed, they would have told my story for generations to come and been proud of me forever, but in reality, I would not have been much of a hero.
Instead, I became a traitor in the eyes of my people. Although I once brought pride to you, I now bring you only shame. Although I was once the royal prince, I am now a stranger in a foreign country fighting against the enemy of loneliness and darkness.
I know you see me as a traitor; please understand it was not you I chose to betray, but your understanding of what it means to be a hero. When Middle Eastern nations—Jews and Arabs alike—start to understand some of what I understand, only then will there be peace. And if my Lord was rejected for saving the world from the punishment of hell, I don’t mind being a reject!
I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that I am not afraid. And now I want to give you something that has helped me to survive so far: all the guilt and shame I have carried for all these years is a small price to pay if it saves even one innocent human life.
How many people appreciate what I have done? Not so many. But that’s okay. I believed in what I did and I still believe, which is my only fuel for this long journey. Every drop of innocent blood that has been saved gives me hope to carry on to the last day.
I paid, you paid, and yet the bills of war and peace continue to come. God be with us all and give us what we need to carry this heavy weight.
A Word from the Author
Time is sequential—a thread spanning the distance between birth and death.
Events, however, are more like a Persian carpet—thousands of richly colored threads woven into intricate patterns and images. Any attempt to place events into purely chronological order would be like pulling the threads loose and laying them end to end. It might be simpler, but you would lose the design.
The events in this book are my best recollections, sorted out from the maelstrom of my life in the occupied territories of Israel and woven together as they occurred—consecutively and concurrently.
To provide you with reference points and to sort out the Arabic names and terms, I have included a brief time line in the appendices, along with a glossary and a list of players.
For security reasons, I have intentionally omitted much of the detail from the accounts of sensitive operations conducted by the Israel Security Agency, the Shin Bet. The information revealed in this book in no way jeopardizes the ongoing global war on terrorism in which Israel plays a leading role.
Finally,Son of Hamas,like the Middle East, is a continuing story. So I invite you to keep in touch by visiting my blog at http://www.sonofhamas.com, where I share my insights on breaking regional developments. I also post updates on what the Lord is doing with the book and in my family and where he is leading me today.
Peace in the Middle East has been the holy grail of diplomats, prime ministers, and presidents for more than five decades. Every new face on the world stage thinks he or she is going to be the one to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. And each one fails just as miserably and completely as those who have come before.
The fact is, few Westerners can come close to understanding the complexities of the Middle East and its people. But I do—by virtue of a most unique perspective. You see, I am a son of that region and of that conflict. I am a child of Islam and the son of an accused terrorist. I am also a follower of Jesus.
Before the age of twenty-one, I saw things no one should ever see: abject poverty, abuse of power, torture, and death. I witnessed the behind-the-scenes dealings of top Middle Eastern leaders who make headlines around the world. I was trusted at the highest levels of Hamas, and I participated in the so-called Intifada. I was held captive in the bowels of Israel’s most feared prison facility. And as you will see, I made choices that have made me a traitor in the eyes of people I love.
My unlikely journey has taken me through dark places and given me access to extraordinary secrets. On the pages of this book I finally reveal some of those long-hidden secrets, exposing events and processes that to this point have been known only by a handful of shadowy individuals.
The uncovering of these truths will likely send shock waves through parts of the Middle East, but I hope it will also bring comfort and closure to the families of many victims of this unending conflict.
As I move among Americans today, I find that many of them have a lot of questions about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but very few answers and even less good information. I hear questions like:
• “Why can’t people just get along in the Middle East?”
• “Who is in the right—the Israelis or the Palestinians?”
• “To whom does the land really belong? Why don’t Palestinians just move to other Arab countries?”
• “Why doesn’t Israel give back the land and property it won in the 1967 Six-Day War?”
• “Why are so many Palestinians still living in refugee camps? Why don’t they have their own state?”
• “Why do Palestinians hate Israel so much?”
• “How can Israel protect itself from suicide bombers and frequent rocket attacks?”
These are good questions, all of them. But none of them touch on the real issue, the root problem. The current conflict stretches all the way back to the animosity between Sarah and Hagar described in the first book of the Bible. To understand the political and cultural realities, however, you really don’t have to look much further than the aftermath of World War I.
When the war ended, the Palestinian territories, national home of the Palestinian people for centuries, fell under the mandate of Great Britain. And the British government had an unusual notion for the area, which it stated in the Balfour Declaration of 1917: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Encouraged by the British government, hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe, flooded into the Palestinian territories. Clashes between Arabs and Jews were inevitable.
Israel became a state in 1948. However, the Palestinian territories remained just that—nonsovereign territories. Without a constitution to maintain some semblance of order, religious law becomes the highest authority. And when everyone is free to interpret and enforce the law as he sees fit, chaos ensues. To the outside world, the Middle Eastern conflict is simply a tug-of-war over a small stretch of land. But the real problem is that no one yet has understood the real problem. And as a result, negotiators from Camp David to Oslo confidently continue to splint the arms and legs of a cardiac patient.
Please understand, I did not write this book because I think I’m smarter or wiser than the great thinkers of the age. I am not. But I believe that God has given me a unique perspective by placing me on multiple sides of an apparently insoluble conflict. My life has been partitioned like the crazy little piece of real estate on the Mediterranean known as Israel by some, Palestine by others, and the occupied territories by still others.
My purpose in the pages that follow is to set the record straight on some key events, lay bare some secrets, and if all goes well, leave you with hope that the impossible can be accomplished.
I steered my little white Subaru around a blind corner on one of the narrow roads that led to the main highway outside the West Bank city of Ramallah. Stepping lightly on the brake, I slowly approached one of the innumerable checkpoints that dot the roads running to and from Jerusalem.
“Turn off the engine! Stop the car!” someone shouted in broken Arabic.
Without warning, six Israeli soldiers jumped out of the bushes and blocked my car, each man carrying a machine gun, and each gun pointed directly at my head.
Panic welled up in my throat. I stopped the car and threw the keys through the open window.
“Get out! Get out!”
Wasting no time, one of the men jerked open the door and threw me to the dusty ground. I barely had time to cover my head before the beating began. But even as I tried to protect my face, the heavy boots of the soldiers quickly found other targets: ribs, kidneys, back, neck, skull.
Two of the men dragged me to my feet and pulled me to the checkpoint, where I was forced onto my knees behind a cement barricade. My hands were bound behind my back with a sharp-edged plastic zip tie that was cinched much too tight. Somebody blindfolded me and shoved me into the back of a jeep onto the floor. Fear mingled with anger as I wondered where they were taking me and how long I would be gone. I was barely eighteen years old and only a few weeks away from my final high school exams. What was going to happen to me?
After a fairly short drive, the jeep slowed to a halt. A soldier pulled me from the back and removed my blindfold. Squinting in the bright sunlight, I realized that we were at Ofer Army Base. An Israeli defense base, Ofer was one of the largest and most secure military facilities in the West Bank.
As we moved toward the main building, we passed by several armored tanks, which were shrouded by canvas tarps. The monstrous mounds had always intrigued me whenever I had seen them from outside the gates. They looked like huge, oversized boulders.
Once inside the building, we were met by a doctor who gave me a quick once-over, apparently to make sure I was fit to withstand interrogation. I must have passed because, within minutes, the handcuffs and blindfold were replaced, and I was shoved back into the jeep.
As I tried to contort my body so that it would fit into the small area usually reserved for people’s feet, one beefy soldier put his boot squarely on my hip and pressed the muzzle of his M16 assault rifle into my chest. The hot reek of petrol fumes saturated the floor of the vehicle and forced my throat closed. Whenever I tried to adjust my cramped position, the soldier jabbed the gun barrel deeper into my chest.
Without warning, a searing pain shot through my body and made my toes clench. It was as if a rocket were exploding in my skull. The force of the blow had come from the front seat, and I realized that one of the soldiers must have used his rifle butt to hit me in the head. Before I had time to protect myself, however, he hit me again, harder this time and in the eye. I tried to move out of reach but the soldier who had been using me for a footstool dragged me upright.
“Don’t move or Iwillshoot you!” he shouted.
But I couldn’t help it. Each time his comrade hit me, I involuntarily recoiled from the impact.
Under the rough blindfold, my eye was beginning to swell closed, and my face felt numb. There was no circulation in my legs. My breathing came in shallow gasps. I had never felt such pain. But worse than the physical pain was the horror of being at the mercy of something merciless, something raw and inhuman. My mind reeled as I struggled to understand the motives of my tormentors. I understood fighting and killing out of hatred, rage, revenge, or even necessity. But I had done nothing to these soldiers. I had not resisted. I had done everything I was told to do. I was no threat to them. I was bound, blindfolded, and unarmed. What was inside these people that made them take such delight in hurting me? Even the basest animal kills for a reason, not just for sport.
I thought about how my mother was going to feel when she learned that I had been arrested. With my father already in an Israeli prison, I was the man of the family. Would I be held in prison for months and years as he had been? If so, how would my mother manage with me gone too? I began to understand how my dad felt—worried about his family and grieved by the knowledge that we were worrying about him. Tears sprang to my eyes as I imagined my mother’s face.
I also wondered if all my years of high school were about to be wasted. If I indeed was headed for an Israeli prison, I would miss my final exams next month. A torrent of questions and cries raced through my mind even as the blows continued to fall:Why are you doing this to me? What have I done? I am not a terrorist! I’m just a kid. Why are you beating me like this?
I’m pretty sure I passed out several times, but every time I came to, the soldiers were still there, hitting me. I couldn’t dodge the blows. The only thing I could do was scream. I felt bile rising in the back of my throat and I gagged, vomiting all over myself.
I felt a deep sadness before losing consciousness. Was this the end? Was I going to die before my life had really even started?
The Ladder of Faith
My name is Mosab Hassan Yousef.
I am the oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the seven founders of the Hamas organization. I was born in the West Bank village of Ramallah, and I am part of one of the most religious Islamic families in the Middle East.
My story begins with my grandfather, Sheikh Yousef Dawood, who was the religious leader—or imam—for the village of Al-Janiya, located in the part of Israel that the Bible calls Judea and Samaria. I adored my grandfather. His soft, white beard tickled my cheek when he hugged me, and I could sit for hours, listening to the sound of his sweet voice chanting theadhan—the Muslim call to prayer. And I had plenty of opportunities to do so since Muslims are called to pray five times every day. Chanting adhan and the Qur’an is not an easy thing to do well, but when my grandfather did it, the sound was magical.
When I was a boy, some chanters bothered me so much that I wanted to stuff rags in my ears. But my grandfather was a passionate man, and he carried his listeners deep into the meaning of the adhan as he sang. He believed every word of it.
About four hundred people lived in Al-Janiya in the days when it was under Jordanian rule and Israeli occupation. But the residents of this little rural village had little use for politics. Nestled into the gently rolling hills a few miles northwest of Ramallah, Al-Janiya was a very peaceful and beautiful place. Its sunsets tinted everything in hues of rose and violet. The air was clean and clear, and from many of the hills’ peaks you could see all the way to the Mediterranean.
By four o’clock every morning, my grandfather was on his way to the mosque. When he finished morning prayers, he would take his little donkey to the field, work the soil, tend his olive trees, and drink fresh water from the spring that flowed down the mountain. There was no air pollution because only one person in Al-Janiya had a car.
When he was at home, my grandfather welcomed a steady stream of visitors. He was more than the imam—he was everything to the people in that village. He prayed over every newborn baby and whispered the adhan in the child’s ear. When someone died, my grandfather washed and anointed the body and wrapped it in winding clothes. He married them, and he buried them.
My father, Hassan, was his favorite son. Even as a young boy, before it was required of him, my father went regularly with my grandfather to the mosque. None of his brothers cared anything about Islam like he did.
At his father’s side, Hassan learned to chant the adhan. And like his father, he had a voice and a passion that people responded to. My grandfather was very proud of him. When my father was twelve years old, my grandfather said, “Hassan, you have shown that you are very interested in God and Islam. So I am going to send you to Jerusalem to learn sharia.” Sharia is Islamic religious law that deals with daily life, from family and hygiene to politics and economics.
Hassan knew and cared nothing about politics or economics. He simply wanted to be like his father. He wanted to read and chant the Qur’an and to serve people. But he was about to learn that his father was much more than a trusted religious leader and beloved public servant.
Because values and traditions have always meant more to the Arab people than government constitutions and courts, men like my grandfather often became the highest level of authority. Especially in areas where secular leaders were weak or corrupt, the word of a religious leader was considered law.
My father was not sent to Jerusalem simply to study religion; his father was preparing him to rule. So for the next few years, my father lived and studied in the Old City of Jerusalem beside Al-Aqsa Mosque—the iconic golden-domed structure that visually defines the profile of Jerusalem in the eyes of most of the world’s people. At the age of eighteen, he completed his studies and moved to Ramallah, where he was immediately employed as imam of the mosque in Old Town. Filled with passion to serve both Allah and his people, my father was eager to begin his work in that community, just as his father had done in Al-Janiya.
But Ramallah was not Al-Janiya. The former was a bustling city. The latter was a sleepy little village. The first time my father entered the mosque, he was shocked to find only five old men waiting for him. Everyone else, it seemed, was in the coffeehouses and pornographic theaters, getting drunk and gambling. Even the man who chanted the adhan for the mosque next door had run a microphone and cord from the minaret, so he could continue the Islamic tradition without interrupting his card game.
My father’s heart was broken for these people, though he wasn’t sure how he would ever reach them. Even his five old men admitted they only came to the mosque because they knew they were going to die soon and wanted to go to heaven, but at least they were willing to listen. So he worked with what he had. He led these fellows in prayer, and he taught them the Qur’an. In a very short amount of time, they grew to love him as if he were an angel sent from heaven.
Outside the mosque, it was a different story. For many, my father’s love for the god of the Qur’an only highlighted their own casual approach to the faith, and they were offended.
“Who is this child doing the adhan?” people scoffed, pointing to my baby-faced father. “He doesn’t belong here. He is a troublemaker.”
“Why is this little guy embarrassing us? Only old people go to the mosque.”
“I would rather be a dog than be like you,” one of them shouted in his face.
My father quietly endured the persecution, never shouting back or defending himself. But his love and compassion for the people would not let him give up. And he continued to do the work he had been called to do: urging the people to return to Islam and Allah.
He shared his concerns with my grandfather, who quickly realized that my father had even greater zeal and potential than he had originally thought. My grandfather sent him to Jordan for advanced Islamic study. As you will see, the people he met there would ultimately change the course of my family’s history and even affect the history of conflict in the Middle East. But before I continue, I need to pause briefly to explain a few important points of Islamic history that will help you understand why the countless diplomatic solutions that have been put forward have uniformly failed and can offer no hope for peace.
* * *
Between 1517 and 1923, Islam—personified by the Ottoman Caliphate—spread from its base in Turkey across three continents. But after a few centuries of great economic and political power, the Ottoman Empire became centralized and corrupt and began its decline.
Under the Turks, Muslim villages throughout the Middle East were subject to persecution and crushing taxation. Istanbul was simply too far away for the caliph to protect the faithful from abuses by soldiers and local officials.
By the twentieth century, many Muslims were becoming disillusioned and began to look for a different way of life. Some embraced the atheism of the recently arrived communists. Others buried their problems in liquor, gambling, and pornography, much of which was introduced by Westerners who were lured to the area by mineral wealth and growing industrialization.
In Cairo, Egypt, a devout young primary schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna wept for his countrymen who were poor, jobless, and godless. But he blamed the West, not the Turks, and he believed that the only hope for his people, especially the youth, was a return to the purity and simplicity of Islam.
He went to the coffeehouses, climbed up on tables and chairs, and preached to everyone about Allah. Drunkards mocked him. Religious leaders challenged him. But most of the people loved him because he gave them hope.
In March 1928, Hassan al-Banna founded the Society of the Muslim Brothers, popularly known as the Muslim Brotherhood. The goal of the new organization was to rebuild society according to Islamic principles. Within a decade, every province in Egypt had a branch. Al-Banna’s brother established a chapter in the Palestinian territories in 1935. And after twenty years, the Brotherhood numbered about half a million in Egypt alone.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood were largely drawn from the poorest and least influential classes—but they were fiercely loyal to the cause. They gave out of their own pockets to help their fellow Muslims, as called for in the Qur’an.
Many people in the West who stereotype all Muslims as terrorists don’t know about the side of Islam that reflects love and mercy. It cares for the poor, widows, and orphans. It facilitates education and welfare. It unites and strengthens. This is the side of Islam that motivated those early leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Of course, there is also the other side, the one that calls all Muslims to jihad, to struggle and contend with the world until they establish a global caliphate, led by one holy man who rules and speaks for Allah. This will be important for you to understand and to remember as we go along. But back to our history lesson. . . .
In 1948, the Muslim Brotherhood attempted a coup against the Egyptian government, which the Brotherhood blamed for the nation’s growing secularism. The uprising was interrupted before it could get traction, however, when the British Mandate ended and Israel declared its independence as a Jewish state.
Muslims throughout the Middle East were outraged. According to the Qur’an, when an enemy invades any Muslim country, all Muslims are called as one to fight to defend their land. From the viewpoint of the Arab world, foreigners had invaded and now occupied Palestine, home of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest place on earth after Mecca and Medina. The mosque was built on the site from which it was believed that Mohammad had traveled with the angel Gabriel to heaven and spoken with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq immediately invaded the new Jewish state. Among the ten thousand Egyptian troops were thousands of Muslim Brotherhood volunteers. The Arab coalition, however, was outnumbered and outgunned. Less than a year later, the Arab troops had been driven out.
As a result of the war, about three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes in the territories that became the State of Israel.
Although the United Nations passed Resolution 194, which stated in part that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so” and that “compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return,” this recommendation was never implemented. Tens of thousands of Palestinians who fled Israel during the Arab-Israeli War never regained their homes and land. Many of these refugees and their descendants live in squalid refugee camps operated by the United Nations (UN) to this day.
When the now-armed members of the Muslim Brotherhood returned from the battlefield to Egypt, the suspended coup was on again. But news of the overthrow plan leaked out, and the Egyptian government banned the Brotherhood, confiscated its assets, and imprisoned many of its members. Those who escaped arrest assassinated Egypt’s prime minister a few weeks later.
Hassan al-Banna, in turn, was assassinated on February 12, 1949, presumably by the government secret service. But the Brotherhood was not crushed. In just twenty years, Hassan al-Banna had shaken Islam out of its dormancy and created a revolution with armed fighters. And for the next few years, the organization continued to add to its numbers and its influence among the people, not only in Egypt but also in nearby Syria and Jordan.
By the time my father arrived in Jordan in the mid-1970s to continue his studies, the Muslim Brotherhood there was well established and beloved by the people. Its members were doing everything that was on my father’s heart—encouraging renewed faith among those who had strayed from the Islamic way of life, healing those who were hurt, and trying to save people from the corrupting influences in society. He believed these men were religious reformers to Islam, as Martin Luther and William Tyndale were to Christianity. They only wanted to save people and improve their lives, not to kill and destroy. And when my father met some of the early leaders of the Brotherhood, he said, “Yes, this is what I have been looking for.”
What my father saw in those early days was the part of Islam that reflects love and mercy. What he didn’t see, what he perhaps has never yet allowed himself to see, is the other side of Islam.
Islamic life is like a ladder, with prayer and praising Allah as the bottom rung. The higher rungs represent helping the poor and needy, establishing schools, and supporting charities. The highest rung is jihad.
The ladder is tall. Few look up to see what is at the top. And progress is usually gradual, almost imperceptible—like a barn cat stalking a swallow. The swallow never takes its eyes off the cat. It just stands there, watching the cat pace back and forth, back and forth. But the swallow does not judge depth. It does not see that the cat is getting a little bit closer with every pass until, in the blink of an eye, the cat’s claws are stained with the swallow’s blood.
Traditional Muslims stand at the foot of the ladder, living in guilt for not really practicing Islam. At the top are fundamentalists, the ones you see in the news killing women and children for the glory of the god of the Qur’an. Moderates are somewhere in between.
A moderate Muslim is actually more dangerous than a fundamentalist, however, because he appears to be harmless, and you can never tell when he has taken that next step toward the top. Most suicide bombers began as moderates.
The day my father first put his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, he could never have imagined how far from his original ideals he would eventually climb. And thirty-five years later, I would want to ask him: Do you remember where you started? You saw all those lost people, your heart broke for them, and you wanted them to come to Allah and be safe. Now suicide bombers and innocent blood? Is this what you set out to do? But speaking to one’s father about such things is not done in our culture. And so he continued on that dangerous path.
When my father returned to the occupied territories after his studies in Jordan, he was filled with optimism and hope for Muslims everywhere. In his mind he saw a bright future brought about by a moderate manifestation of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Accompanying him was Ibrahim Abu Salem, one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. Abu Salem had come to help breathe life into the stagnated Brotherhood in Palestine. He and my father worked well together, recruiting young people who shared their passion and forming them into small activist groups.
In 1977, with only fifty dinars in his pocket, Hassan married Ibrahim Abu Salem’s sister Sabha Abu Salem. I was born the following year.
When I was seven years old, our family moved to Al-Bireh, the twin city of Ramallah, and my father became imam of Al-Amari refugee camp, which was established within Al-Bireh’s municipal borders. Nineteen camps dotted the West Bank, and Al-Amari had been established in 1949 on about twenty-two acres. By 1957, its weathered tents had been replaced by wall-to-wall, back-to-back concrete houses. Streets were the width of a car, their gutters flowing with raw sewage like rivers of sludge. The camp was overcrowded; the water, undrinkable. One lone tree stood at the center of the camp. The refugees depended on the United Nations for everything—housing, food, clothing, medical care, and education.
When my father went to the mosque for the first time, he was disappointed to find only two rows of people praying, with twenty men in each row. Several months after he began to preach in the camp, however, people filled the mosque and overflowed into the streets. In addition to his devotion to Allah, my father had a great love and compassion for the Muslim people. And in return, they, too, grew to love him very much.
Hassan Yousef was so likable because he was just like everyone else. He did not think of himself as higher than those he served. He lived as they lived, ate what they ate, prayed like they prayed. He didn’t wear fancy clothes. He drew a small salary from the Jordanian government—barely enough to cover his expenses—which supported the operation and maintenance of religious sites. His official day off was Monday, but he never took it. He didn’t work for wages; he worked to please Allah. For him, this was his holy duty, his life’s purpose.
In September 1987, my father took a second job teaching religion to the Muslim students who attended a private Christian school in the West Bank. Of course, that meant we saw less of him than before—not because he didn’t love his family but because he loved Allah more. What we didn’t realize, however, was that a time was coming in the days ahead when we would hardly see him at all.
While my father worked, my mother carried the burden of raising the children alone. She taught us how to be good Muslims, waking us for dawn prayer when we were old enough and encouraging us to fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. There were now six of us—my brothers Sohayb, Seif, and Oways; my sisters Sabeela and Tasneem; and myself. Even with my father’s income from two jobs, we barely had enough money to pay the bills. My mother worked hard to stretch every dinar until it snapped.
Sabeela and Tasneem started helping my mother with the chores when they were very young. Sweet and pure and beautiful, my sisters never complained, even though their toys were covered with dust because they didn’t have time to play with them. Instead, their new toys were kitchen utensils.
“You do too much, Sabeela,” my mother told my oldest sister. “You need to stop and rest.”
But Sabeela just smiled and continued working.
My brother Sohayb and I learned very early how to build a fire and use the oven. We did our share of cooking and washing dishes, and we all looked after Oways, the baby.
Our favorite game was called Stars. My mother wrote our names on a sheet of paper, and every night before bedtime, we gathered in a circle so she could award us “stars” based on what we had done that day. At the end of the month, the one who had the most stars was the winner; it was usually Sabeela. Of course, we had no money for actual prizes, but it didn’t matter. Stars was more about earning our mother’s appreciation and honor than anything else, and we always waited eagerly for our little moments of glory.
The Ali Mosque was just half a mile away from our house, and I felt very proud to be able to walk there by myself. I desperately wanted to be like my father, just as he had wanted to be like his father.
Across the street from Ali Mosque loomed one of the largest cemeteries I had ever seen. Serving Ramallah, Al-Bireh, and the refugee camps, the cemetery was five times as big as our entire neighborhood and was surrounded by a two-foot-high wall. Five times a day, when the adhan called us to prayer, I walked to and from the mosque past thousands of graves. For a boy my age, the place was unbelievably creepy, especially at night when it was totally dark. I couldn’t help imagining the roots of the big trees feeding on the buried bodies.
Once when the imam called us to noon prayer, I purified myself, put on some cologne, dressed in nice clothes like my father wore, and set off for the mosque. It was a beautiful day. As I neared the mosque, I noticed that more cars than usual were parked outside, and a group of people were standing near the entrance. I removed my shoes like I always did and went in. Just inside the door was a dead body, wrapped in white cotton in an open box. I had never seen a corpse before, and even though I knew I shouldn’t stare, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was wrapped in a sheet, with only his face exposed. I watched his chest closely, half expecting him to start breathing again.
The imam called us to line up for prayer, and I went to the front with everyone else, though I kept glancing back at the body in the box. When we finished our recitations, the imam called for the body to be brought to the front to receive prayer. Eight men lifted the coffin to their shoulders, and one man shouted,“La ilaha illallah![There is no God but Allah!]” As if on cue, everyone else began shouting as well:“La ilaha illallah! La ilaha illallah!”
I put on my shoes as quickly as I could and followed the crowd as it moved into the cemetery. Because I was so short, I had to run between the legs of the older guys just to keep up. I had never actually been inside the cemetery, but I reasoned that I would be safe since I was with so many other people.
“Do not step on the graves,” someone shouted. “It is forbidden!”
I carefully made my way through the crowd until we arrived at the edge of a deep, open grave. I peered to the bottom of the eight-foot hole where an old man was standing. I had heard some of the kids in the neighborhood talk about this man, Juma’a. They said he never attended mosque and did not believe in the god of the Qur’an, but he buried everybody, sometimes two or three bodies a day.
Isn’t he afraid of death at all?I wondered.
The men lowered the corpse into Juma’a’s strong arms. Then they handed him a bottle of cologne and some green stuff that smelled fresh and nice. He opened the winding sheet and poured the liquid over the body.
Juma’a turned the body onto its right side, facing Mecca, and built a little box around it with pieces of concrete. As four men with shovels filled in the hole, the imam began to preach. He began like my father.
“This man is gone,” he said as the dirt fell onto the dead man’s face and neck and arms. “He left everything behind—his money, building, sons, daughters, and wife. This is the destiny of each of us.”
He urged us to repent and stop sinning. And then he said something I had never heard from my father: “This man’s soul will soon return to him and two terrible angels named Munkar and Nakir will come out of the sky to examine him. They will grab his body and shake him, asking, ‘Who is your God?’ If he answers incorrectly, they will beat him with a big hammer and send him down into the earth for seventy years. Allah, we ask you to give us the right answers when our time comes!”
I stared down into the open grave, horrified. The body was nearly covered by now, and I wondered how long it would be before the interrogation would begin.
“And if his answers are not satisfactory, the weight of the dirt above him will crush his ribs. Worms will slowly devour his flesh. He will be tormented by a snake with ninety-nine heads and a scorpion the size of a camel’s neck until the resurrection of the dead, when his suffering may earn Allah’s forgiveness.”
I couldn’t believe all this was happening right by my house every time they buried someone. I had never felt good about this cemetery; now I felt even worse. I decided that I needed to memorize the questions, so when the angels interrogated me after I died I would be able to answer correctly.
The imam said that the examination would begin as soon as the last person left the cemetery. I went home, but I could not stop thinking about what he had said. I decided to head back to the cemetery and listen for the torture. I went around the neighborhood, trying to get my friends to come with me, but they all thought I was crazy. I would have to go alone. All the way back to the cemetery, I trembled with fear. I couldn’t control it. Soon I found myself standing in an ocean of graves. I wanted to run, but my curiosity was stronger than my dread. I wanted to hear questions, screaming—anything. But I heard nothing. I moved closer until I touched a headstone. Only silence. An hour later, I was bored and went home.
My mother was busy in the kitchen. I told her that I had gone to the cemetery where the imam said there would be torture.
“And . . . ?”
“And I went back after the people left the dead man, but nothing happened.”
“Torture can only be heard by animals,” she explained, “not humans.”
For an eight-year-old boy, that explanation made perfect sense.
Every day after that, I watched as more bodies were brought to the cemetery. After a while, I actually began to get used to it and started hanging around just to see who had died. Yesterday, a woman. Today, a man. One day, they brought two people in, and then a couple of hours later, they brought someone else. When no one new came, I walked among the tombs and read about the people already buried there. Dead a hundred years. Dead twenty-five. What was his name? Where was she from? The cemetery became my playground.
Like me, my friends were afraid of the cemetery at first. But we dared each other to go inside the walls at night, and since none of us wanted to be seen as cowards, we all eventually overcame our fears. We even played soccer in the open spaces.
* * *
As our family grew, so did the Muslim Brotherhood. Before long, it had transitioned from an organization of the poor and refugees to include educated young men and women, businessmen, and professionals who gave out of their own pockets to build schools and charities and clinics.
Seeing this growth, many young people in the Islamic movement, particularly those in Gaza, decided that the Brotherhood needed to take a stand against the Israeli occupation. We have taken care of society, they said, and we will continue to do that. But will we accept occupation forever? Doesn’t the Qur’an command us to drive out the Jewish invaders? These young men were unarmed, but they were tough and hard and spoiling for a fight.
My father and the other West Bank leaders disagreed. They were not ready to repeat the mistakes of Egypt and Syria, where the Brotherhood had attempted coups and failed. In Jordan, they argued, our brothers do not fight. They participate in elections and have a strong influence on society. My father did not oppose violence, but he didn’t think his people were in any position to take on the Israeli military.
For several years, the debate within the Brotherhood continued and the grassroots pressure for action increased. Frustrated with the inaction of the Muslim Brotherhood, Fathi Shaqaqi had founded Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the late 1970s. But even so, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to maintain its nonviolent stance for another decade.
In 1986, a secret and historic meeting took place in Hebron, just south of Bethlehem. My father was there, though he didn’t tell me about it until many years later. Contrary to some inaccurate historical accounts, the following seven men were present at this meeting:
• a wheelchair-bound Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who would become the spiritual leader of the new organization
• Muhammad Jamal al-Natsheh from Hebron
• Jamal Mansour from Nablus
• Sheikh Hassan Yousef (my father)
• Mahmud Muslih from Ramallah
• Jamil Hamami from Jerusalem
• Ayman Abu Taha from Gaza
The men who attended this meeting were finally ready to fight. They agreed to begin with simple civil disobedience—throwing stones and burning tires. Their objective was to awaken, unify, and mobilize the Palestinian people and make them understand their need for independence under the banner of Allah and Islam.1
Hamas was born. And my father climbed a few more rungs toward the top of the ladder of Islam.
Hamas needed a move—any move—that could serve as a justification for an uprising. That move came in early December 1987, even though it was all a tragic misunderstanding.
In Gaza, an Israeli plastics salesman named Shlomo Sakal was stabbed to death. Just a few days later, four people from Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp were killed in a routine traffic accident. Word spread, however, that they had been killed by Israelis in revenge for Sakal’s murder. Riots broke out in Jabalia. A seventeen-year-old threw a Molotov cocktail and was shot dead by an Israeli soldier. In Gaza and the West Bank, everyone took to the streets. Hamas took the lead, fueling the riots that became a new style of fighting in Israel. Children threw stones at Israeli tanks, and their pictures appeared on the covers of magazines throughout the international community the same week.
The First Intifada had begun, and the Palestinian cause became world news. When the intifada started, everything changed at our cemetery-playground. Every day, more bodies were arriving than ever before. Anger and rage stalked hand in hand with grief. Palestinian crowds began to stone Jewish people who had to drive past the cemetery to get to the Israeli settlement a mile away. Heavily armed Israeli settlers killed at will. And when Israel Defense Forces (IDF) arrived on the scene, there was more shooting, more wounding, more killing.
Our house was right in the center of all the chaos. Many times, the water storage tanks on our roof were shredded by Israeli bullets. The dead bodies the maskedfeda’iyeen,or freedom fighters, brought to our cemetery were no longer only old people. Sometimes they were still-bleeding corpses on stretchers, not washed, not wrapped in winding sheets. Each martyr was buried immediately so no one would be able to take the bodies, steal the organs, and return the corpses to their families stuffed with rags.
There was so much violence that I actually became bored during those rare seasons when things were quiet. My friends and I started throwing stones too—to stir things up and to be respected as fighters in the resistance. We could see the Israeli settlement from the cemetery, high up on top of the mountain, surrounded by a high fence and guard towers. I wondered about the five hundred people who lived there and drove new cars—many of them armored. They carried automatic weapons and seemed to be free to shoot anyone they wanted. To a ten-year-old kid, they seemed like aliens from another planet.
One evening just before sunset prayer, some friends and I hid by the road and waited. We decided to aim at a settlers’ bus because it was a bigger target than a car and would be easier to hit. We knew the bus came every day at the same time. As we waited, the familiar strains of the imam chanted over the loudspeakers:
When we finally heard the low rumble of a diesel engine, we each picked up two stones. Though we were hidden and couldn’t see the street, we knew exactly where the bus was by the sound. At just the right moment, we jumped up and let our ammunition fly. The unmistakable sound of stone striking metal assured us that at least a few of our projectiles had found their target.
But it wasn’t the bus. It was a big military vehicle filled with edgy, angry Israeli soldiers. We quickly ducked back into our hiding place in the ditch as the vehicle came to a stop. We couldn’t see the soldiers, and they couldn’t see us. So they just started shooting into the air. They continued to fire aimlessly for a couple of minutes, and ducking low, we quickly made our escape into a nearby mosque.
Prayer had already begun, but I don’t think anybody there was really focused on what they were saying. Everyone was listening to the stutter of automatic weapons just outside and wondering what was going on. My friends and I slipped into line in the last row, hoping no one would notice. But when the imam had finished his prayers, every angry eye turned toward us.
Within seconds, IDF vehicles began screeching to a halt in front of the mosque. Soldiers poured into the room, forcing us all outside and ordering us to lie facedown on the ground as they checked our IDs. I was the last one out and terrified that the soldiers knew I was responsible for all the trouble. I thought surely they would beat me to death. But no one paid any attention to me. Maybe they figured a kid like me wouldn’t have had the nerve to throw rocks at an IDF vehicle. Whatever the reason, I was just glad they weren’t targeting me. The interrogation went on for hours, and I knew that many of the people there were angry at me. They may not have known exactly what I had done, but there could be no doubt that I had triggered the raid. I didn’t care. I was actually exhilarated. My friends and I had challenged the might of the Israeli arm and come out unscathed. The rush was addictive, making us even bolder.
A friend and I hid again another day, this time closer to the road. A settler car came, and when I stood up, I threw a stone as hard as I could. It hit the windshield, sounding like a bomb exploding. It didn’t break the glass, but I could see the driver’s face, and I knew he was terrified. He drove another forty yards or so, hit the brakes, and then threw his car into reverse.
I ran into the cemetery. He followed but stayed outside, steadying his M16 against the wall and scanning the graves for me. My friend had run off in the opposite direction, leaving me on my own against an angry, armed Israeli settler.
I lay quietly on the ground between the graves, knowing the driver was just waiting for me to lift my head over the low tombstone. Finally, the tension was too much; I couldn’t keep still any longer. I jumped up and ran as hard and fast as I could. Fortunately, it was getting dark, and he seemed afraid to enter the cemetery.
I hadn’t gone very far when I felt my feet fall out from underneath me. I found myself at the bottom of an open grave that had been prepared for the next person to die. Would that be me? I wondered. Above me, the Israeli sprayed the cemetery with bullets. Stone fragments rained into the grave.
I crouched there, unable to move. After about half an hour, I heard people talking, so I knew he had gone and it was safe to climb out.
A couple of days later, as I was walking along the road, the same car passed me. There were two guys in it this time, but the driver was the same. He recognized me and quickly jumped out of the car. I tried to run again, but this time I wasn’t so lucky. He caught me, slapped me hard across the face, and dragged me back to the car. No one said a word as we drove up to the settlement. Both of the men seemed nervous and gripped their guns, turning from time to time to look at me in the backseat. I wasn’t a terrorist; I was just a scared little kid. But they acted like big-game hunters who had bagged a trophy tiger.
At the gate, a soldier checked the driver’s ID and waved him through. Didn’t he wonder why these guys had a little Palestinian kid with them? I knew I should be scared—and I was—but I couldn’t help but stare at my surroundings. I had never been inside an Israeli settlement before. It was beautiful. Clean streets, swimming pools, a gorgeous view of the valley from the mountaintop.
The driver took me to the IDF base inside the settlement, where the soldiers took my shoes and made me sit on the ground. I thought they were going to shoot me and leave my body in a field somewhere. But when it started getting dark, they told me to go home.
“But I don’t know how to get home,” I protested.
“Start walking, or I will shoot you,” one of the men said.
“Could you please give me my shoes?”
“No. Just walk. And the next time you throw a stone, I will kill you.”
My house was more than a mile away. I walked all the way back in my socks, gritting my teeth as the rocks and gravel dug into the soles of my feet. When my mother saw me coming, she ran down the sidewalk and hugged me tight, nearly squeezing the breath right out of my lungs. She had been told that I was kidnapped by Israeli settlers, and she was afraid they would kill me. Over and over, she scolded me for being so foolish, all the while kissing my head and holding me tightly against her chest.
One might think I had learned my lesson, but I was a dumb little kid. I couldn’t wait to tell my cowardly friends about my heroic adventure. By 1989, it was a normal occurrence for Israeli soldiers to knock on our door and push their way into our home. They always seemed to be looking for somebody who had thrown stones and fled through our backyard. The soldiers were always heavily armed, and I couldn’t understand why they cared so much about a few rocks.
Because Israel controlled the borders, it was nearly impossible for Palestinians to get weapons in the First Intifada. I don’t ever remember seeing a Palestinian with a gun during this time—only stones and Molotov cocktails. Nevertheless, we had all heard the stories of the IDF firing into unarmed crowds and beating people with clubs. Some reports said that as many as thirty thousand Palestinian children were injured badly enough to require medical treatment. It just didn’t make sense to me.
One night, my father was especially late coming home. I sat by the window, watching for his little car to turn the corner, my stomach rumbling with hunger. Though my mother urged me to eat with the younger children, I refused, determined to wait for my dad. Finally, I heard the engine of his old car and shouted that Dad was home. My mother immediately started filling the table with steaming dishes and bowls.
“I am so sorry to be late,” he said. “I had to travel out of town to resolve a dispute between two families. Why didn’t you eat?”
He changed his clothes quickly, washed his hands, and came to the table.
“I’m starving,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t eaten a thing all day.” This was not unusual because he could never afford to eat out. The delicious aroma of my mother’s stuffed zucchini filled the house.
As we settled in and began to eat, I felt a rush of admiration for my father. I could see the exhaustion on his face, yet I knew how much he loved what he did. The grace he showed toward the people he served was matched only by his devotion to Allah. As I watched him talking with my mother and my brothers and sisters, I thought about how different he was from most Muslim men. He never thought twice about helping my mother around the house or taking care of us children. In fact, he scrubbed his own socks in the sink every night, just so my mother would not have to deal with them. This was unheard of in a culture where women considered it a privilege to scrub their husbands’ legs after a long day.
Now as we went around the table, each of us took turns telling our father all about what we were learning at school and what we had been doing with our time. Since I was the oldest, I let the little ones talk first. But just when it was my turn to speak, I was interrupted by a knock at the back door. Who could be visiting at this time? Maybe somebody had a big problem and had come to ask for help.
I ran to the door and opened the small window that served as a peephole. I did not recognize the man.
“Abuk mawjood?”he asked in fluent Arabic, meaning, “Is your father here?” He was dressed like an Arab, but something about him did not seem right.
“Yes, he is,” I said. “Let me call him.” I did not open the door.
My father had been standing behind me. He opened the door, and several Israeli soldiers came into our home. My mother quickly put a scarf on her head. Being uncovered in front of the family was okay, but never in front of others.
“Are you Sheikh Hassan?” asked the stranger.
“Yes,” my father said, “I am Sheikh Hassan.”
The man introduced himself as Captain Shai and shook my father’s hand.
“How are you?” the soldier asked politely. “How is everything? We are from the IDF, and we would like you to come with us for five minutes.”
What could they want with my father? I searched his face, trying to read his expression. He smiled kindly at the man, with no hint of suspicion or anger in his eyes.
“Okay, I can go with you,” he said, nodding at my mother as he walked toward the door.
“Wait here at home and your father will be back shortly,” the soldier said to me. I followed them outside, scanning the neighborhood for more soldiers. There were none. I sat down on the front steps to wait for my father to return. Ten minutes passed. An hour. Two hours. Still he did not come back.
We had never spent the night without our father before. Even though he was busy all the time, he was always home in the evening. He woke us for dawn prayer every morning, and he was the one who took us to school every day. What would we do if he didn’t come home tonight?
When I came back inside, my sister Tasneem was asleep on the couch. The tears were still wet on her cheeks. My mother tried to busy herself in the kitchen, but as the hours dragged on, she became more and more agitated and upset.
The next day, we went to the Red Cross to see if we could get any information about my father’s disappearance. The man at the desk told us that he had definitely been arrested but that the IDF would not give the Red Cross any information for at least eighteen days.
We went back home to count off the two and a half weeks of waiting. During all that time, we heard nothing. When the eighteen days were up, I went back to the Red Cross to see what they had learned. I was told they had no new information.
“But you said eighteen days!” I said, struggling to fight back the tears. “Just tell me where my father is.”
“Son, go home,” the man said. “You can come back next week.”
I did go back, again and again for forty days, and each time I received the same answer: “There is no new information. Come back next week.” This was very unusual. Most of the time, families of Palestinian prisoners learned where their loved one was being held within a couple of weeks of detention.
When any prisoner was released, we made a point of asking him if he had seen my father. They all knew he had been arrested, but no one knew anything else. Even his lawyer knew nothing because he was not allowed to visit him.
We learned only later that he had been taken to Maskobiyeh, an Israeli interrogation center, where he was tortured and questioned. The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, knew my father was at the top level of Hamas and assumed that he knew everything that went on or was planned. And they were determined to get it out of him.
It wasn’t until many years later that he told me what really happened. For days, he was handcuffed and hung from the ceiling. They used electric shock on him until he passed out. They put him in with collaborators, known as “birds,” hoping he would talk to them. When that failed, they beat him some more. But my father was strong. He remained silent, never giving the Israelis any information that could hurt Hamas or his Palestinian brothers.
The Israelis thought if they captured one of the leaders of Hamas, things would get better. But during the time my father was in prison, the intifada only became more violent. In late 1989, Amer Abu Sarhan of Ramallah had seen all the Palestinian deaths he could take. Since no one had guns, he grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed three Israelis to death, in effect launching a revolution. This incident marked the start of a significant escalation of violence.
Sarhan became a hero to the Palestinians who had lost friends or family members, whose land had been seized, or who had any other reason to want revenge. They were not terrorists by nature. They were just people who had run out of hope and options. Their backs were to the wall. They had nothing left and nothing to lose. They cared nothing for the world’s opinion or even their own lives.
For us kids in those days, going to school became a real problem. It was not uncommon for me to walk out of school to find Israeli jeeps driving up and down the streets, announcing an immediate curfew through loudspeakers. Israeli soldiers took curfews very seriously. These were not like curfews in American cities, where authorities call a teenager’s parents if he’s caught driving around after 11 p.m. In Palestine, if a curfew had been declared and you were on the street for any reason, you were shot. No warning, no arrest. They just shot you.
The first time a curfew was called while I was at school, I didn’t know what to do. I had a four-mile walk ahead of me and knew there was no way I could make it home before curfew. The streets were already empty, and I was scared. I couldn’t stay where I was, and even though I was just a kid trying to get home from school, if the soldiers saw me, I knew they would shoot me. A lot of Palestinian kids got shot.
I began to dodge from house to house, creeping through backyards and hiding in bushes along the way. I tried to avoid barking dogs and men with machine guns as best I could, and when I finally turned the corner onto our street, I was so thankful to see that my brothers and sisters had already made it home safely.
But curfews were just one change we dealt with as a result of the intifada. On many occasions, a masked man would show up at school and tell everybody that a strike had been called and to go home. The strikes, called by one of the Palestinian factions, were designed to hurt Israel financially by reducing the sales tax revenue the government collected from store owners. If the stores were not open, the owners would have to pay less tax. But the Israelis were not stupid. They just started arresting shopkeepers for tax evasion. So who was hurt by the strikes?
On top of that, the various resistance organizations were incessantly fighting with one another for power and prestige. They were like kids scrapping over a soccer ball. Nevertheless, Hamas was steadily growing in power and had begun to challenge the dominance of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
* * *
The PLO had been founded in 1964 to represent the Palestinian people; its three largest member organizations include: Fatah, a left-wing nationalist group; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a communist group; and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), also communist in ideology.
The PLO demanded that Israel return all of the land that had belonged to the Palestinian territories prior to 1948 and grant Palestine the right to self-determination. To this end, it fought a global campaign of public relations, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism from its base, first in neighboring Jordan, then in Lebanon and Tunisia.
Unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the PLO was never an inherently Islamic organization. Its groups were made up of nationalists, not all of them practicing Muslims. In fact, many of them did not believe in God. Even as a young boy, I saw the PLO as corrupt and self-serving. Its leaders sent people, many of whom were just teenagers, to carry out one or two high-profile terrorist attacks a year in order to justify fund-raising for the struggle against Israel. The young feda’iyeen were little more than fuel to stoke the fires of anger and hatred and to keep the donations flowing into the personal bank accounts of PLO leaders.2
In the initial years of the First Intifada, ideological differences kept Hamas and the PLO on very separate paths. Hamas was largely animated by religious fervor and the theology of jihad, while the PLO was driven by nationalism and the ideology of power. If Hamas called a strike and threatened to burn the stores of anyone who stayed open, PLO leaders across the street threatened to burn the stores of anyone who closed.
What the two groups shared, however, was a deep hatred for what they labeled “the Zionist entity.” Finally, the two organizations agreed that Hamas would have its strike on the ninth of every month, and Fatah—the PLO’s largest faction—would have its strike on the first. Whenever a strike was called, everything stopped. Classes, commerce, cars—everything. Nobody worked, earned, or learned.
The whole West Bank was shut down, with masked men demonstrating, burning tires, writing graffiti on walls, and shutting down businesses. But anyone could put on a ski mask and say they were PLO. No one ever really knew who was under the masks; everybody was simply driven by individual agendas and personal vendettas. Chaos reigned.
And Israel took advantage of the confusion. Since anyone could be an intifada fighter, Israeli security troops put on masks and infiltrated the demonstrations. They could walk into any Palestinian city in the middle of the day and pull off amazing operations dressed as masked feda’iyeen. And since no one could be certain who any particular masked man was, people did what they were told rather than risk a beating, having their business burned, or being called an Israeli collaborator, which often resulted in a hanging.
After a while, the chaos and confusion even reached the point of silliness. Once or twice when an exam was scheduled, my fellow students and I persuaded older kids to come to school wearing masks and say there was a strike. We thought it was fun.
In short, we were becoming our own worst enemies.
Those years were especially hard for our family. My father was still in prison, and the endless succession of strikes kept us kids out of school for nearly a full year. My uncles, religious leaders, and everyone else, it seemed, decided it was their job to discipline me. Because I was the firstborn son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, they held me to very high standards. And when I didn’t meet their expectations, they beat me. No matter what I did, even if I went to the mosque five times a day, it was never good enough.
Once I was running in the mosque, just playing with a friend, and the imam chased me down. When he caught me, he lifted me over his head and threw me to the floor onto my back. It knocked the breath out of me, and I thought I was going to die. Then he kept punching me and kicking me. Why? I really wasn’t doing anything that any of the other kids weren’t doing. But because I was the son of Hassan Yousef, I was expected to be above that.
I was friends with a boy whose father was a religious leader and big shot in Hamas. This man used to encourage people to throw stones. But while it was okay for other men’s sons to get shot at for pelting settlers with rocks, it was not okay for his only son. When he found out we had been throwing stones, he called us to his place. We thought he wanted to talk to us. But he ripped the cord out of a space heater and started to whip us with all his might until we bled. He broke up our friendship in order to save his son, though my friend would eventually leave home, hating his father more than the devil.
Apart from trying to keep me in line, no one helped our family while my father was in prison. With his arrest, we lost the extra income he earned teaching at the Christian school. The school promised to hold his job for him until his release, but in the meantime, we did not have enough money to buy what we needed.
My father was the only one in our family with a driver’s license, so we couldn’t use our car. My mother had to walk long distances to go to the market, and I often went along to help her carry the parcels. I think the shame was worse than the want. As we went through the market, I crawled under the carts to pick up broken, rotting produce that had fallen on the ground. My mother negotiated a lower price for these unappetizing vegetables nobody else wanted, telling the vendors we were buying them to feed livestock. She still has to negotiate for everything to this day because my father has been in prison thirteen times—more times than any other Hamas leader. (He is in prison as I write this.)
I think maybe no one helped us because everybody believed that our family had plenty of money. After all, my father was a prominent religious and political leader. And people undoubtedly trusted that our extended family would help us. Surely Allah would provide. But our uncles ignored us. Allah did nothing. So my mother took care of her seven children alone (our little brother Mohammad had arrived in 1987).
Finally, when things got really desperate, my mom asked a friend of my father’s for a loan—not so she could go shopping and buy clothes and cosmetics for herself, but so she could feed her children at least one meal a day. But he refused her. And instead of helping us, he told his Muslim friends that my mother had come to him begging for money.
“She has a salary from the Jordanian government,” they said, judging her. “Why is she asking for more? Is this woman taking advantage of her husband’s imprisonment to become rich?”
She never asked for help again.
“Mosab,” she said to me one day, “what if I make some baklava and other homemade sweets and you go and sell them to the workers in the industrial area?” I said I would be glad to do anything to help our family. So every day after school, I changed my clothes, filled a tray with my mother’s pastries, and went out to sell as many as I could. I was shy at first, but eventually I went boldly to every worker and asked him to buy from me.
One winter day, I left as usual to sell my pastries. But when I got to the area, I found that it was empty. No one had come to work that day because it was so cold. My hands were freezing, and it had started to rain. Holding the plastic-covered tray over my head as an umbrella, I noticed a car containing several people parked on the side of the street. The driver spotted me, opened his window, and leaned out.
“Hey, kid, what have you got?”
“I have some baklava,” I said, walking over to the car.
Looking inside, I was shocked to see my uncle Ibrahim. His friends were shocked to see Ibrahim’s nephew all but begging on a cold, rainy day, and I was ashamed to be an embarrassment to my uncle. I didn’t know what to say. They didn’t either.
My uncle bought all the baklava, told me to go home, and said he would see me later. When he arrived at our house, he was furious with my mother. I couldn’t hear what he said to her, but after he left, she was crying. The next day after school, I changed and told my mom I was ready to go back out to sell pastries.
“I don’t want you to sell baklava anymore,” she said.
“But I’m getting better every day! I am good at it. Just trust me.”
Tears came into her eyes. And I never went out again.
I was angry. I didn’t understand why our neighbors and family wouldn’t help us. And on top of that, they had the nerve to judge us for trying to help ourselves. I wondered if the real reason they would not lend a hand to our family was that they were afraid of getting into trouble themselves if the Israelis thought they were helping terrorists. But we weren’t terrorists. Neither was my father. Sadly, that would change too.
A Hero’s Return
When my father was finally released, our family was suddenly treated like royalty after being shunned for a year and a half. The hero had returned. No longer the black sheep, I became the heir apparent. My brothers were princes, my sisters princesses, and my mother was the queen. No one dared to judge us anymore.
My father got his job back at the Christian school, in addition to his position at the mosque. Now that he was home, my father tried to help my mom around the house as much as possible. This eased the workload we kids had been carrying. We certainly weren’t rich, but we had enough money to buy decent food and even an occasional prize for the winner of Stars. And we were rich in honor and respect. Best of all, my father was with us. We didn’t need anything else.
Everything quickly returned to normal. Of course,normalis a relative term. We still lived under Israeli occupation with daily killing in the streets. Our house was just down the road from a cemetery gorged with bloody corpses. Our father had horrifying memories of the Israeli prison where he had been incarcerated for eighteen months as a suspected terrorist. And the occupied territories were degenerating into little more than a lawless jungle.
The only law respected by Muslims is Islamic law, defined byfatwas, or religious rulings on a particular topic. Fatwas are intended to guide Muslims as they apply the Qur’an to daily living, but because there is no central unifying rule maker, different sheikhs often issue different fatwas about the same matter. As a result, everyone is living by a different set of rules, some much more strict than others.
I was playing indoors with my friends one afternoon when we heard screaming outside. Yelling and fighting were nothing new in our world, but when we ran outside, we saw our neighbor, Abu Saleem, waving a big knife around. He was trying to kill his cousin, who was doing his best to avoid the shiny blade as it slashed through the air. The entire neighborhood tried to stop Abu Saleem, but this man was huge. He was a butcher by trade, and I once watched him slaughter a bull in his backyard, which left him covered from head to foot in sticky, steaming blood. I couldn’t help but think about what he had done to that animal as I watched him running after his cousin.
Yes,I thought to myself,we are truly living in a jungle.
There were no police to call, no one in authority. What could we do but watch? Fortunately, his cousin ran away and did not return.
When my father came home that night, we told him what had happened. My father is only five foot seven and not what you would call athletic. But he went next door and said, “Abu Saleem, what’s going on? I heard there was a fight today.” And Abu Saleem went on and on about wanting to kill his cousin.
“You know that we are under occupation,” my father said, “and you know that we don’t have time for this foolishness. You’ve got to sit down and apologize to your cousin, and he has to apologize to you. I don’t want any more problems like this.”
Like everyone else, Abu Saleem respected my father. He trusted in his wisdom, even in matters such as this. He agreed to work things out with his cousin, and then he joined my father in a meeting with the other men in the neighborhood.
“Here is the situation,” my father said quietly. “We don’t have a government here, and things are getting completely out of control. We can’t keep fighting each other, shedding the blood of our own people. We are fighting in the streets, fighting in our homes, fighting in the mosques. Enough is enough. We are going to have to sit down at least once every week and try to solve our problems like men. We don’t have police, and we don’t have room for anybody to kill anybody. We have bigger problems to deal with. I want your unity. I want you to help each other. We need to be more like a family.”
The men agreed that what my father was proposing made sense. They decided to meet together every Thursday night to discuss local issues and resolve any conflicts they might be having with one another.
As imam of the mosque, it was my father’s job to give people hope and help them resolve their problems. He was also the closest thing they had to a government. He had become just like his father. But now he also spoke with the authority of Hamas—with the authority of a sheikh. A sheikh has more authority than an imam and is more like a general than a priest.
Since my father had come home three months before, I had tried to spend as much time as I could with him. I was now president of the Islamic student movement in our school, and I wanted to know all I could about Islam and the study of the Qur’an. One Thursday evening, I asked if I could join him at the weekly neighborhood meeting. I was nearly a man, I explained, and I wanted to be treated as such.
“No,” he said, “you stay here. This is for men. I will tell you later what went on.”
I was disappointed, but I understood. None of my friends were allowed to attend the weekly meetings either. At least I would be privy to what happened at the meeting once my father returned home.
So he left for a couple of hours. While my mother prepared a delicious fish dinner, somebody knocked at the back door. I opened the door just wide enough to peek through and saw Captain Shai, the same man who had arrested my father nearly two years earlier.
“No, he’s not here.”
“Then open the door.”
I didn’t know what else to do, so I opened the door. Captain Shai was polite, just as he had been the first time he came for my father, but I could tell he didn’t believe me. He asked if he could look around, and I knew I didn’t have a choice but to let him. As the soldier began to search our house, moving from room to room, looking in closets and behind doors, I wished that somehow I could keep my father from coming home. We didn’t have a cell phone back then, so I couldn’t warn him. But the more I thought about it, I realized that it wouldn’t have mattered if we had. He would have come home anyway.
“Okay, everybody stay quiet,” Captain Shai said to a group of soldiers who had been stationed outside. They all ducked down behind bushes and buildings, waiting for my dad. Feeling helpless, I sat down at the table and listened. After a while, a loud voice shouted, “Stop right there!” Then came the sound of movement and men talking. We knew this couldn’t be good. Would my father have to go back to prison?
Within minutes, he slipped back inside, shaking his head and smiling apologetically at each of us.
“They are taking me back,” he said, kissing my mother and then each one of us. “I don’t know how long I will be gone. Be good. Take care of one another.”
Then he put on his jacket and left as his fried fish grew cold on his plate.
Once again we were treated like refugees, even by the men in the neighborhood he had tried to protect from themselves and others. Some people would ask about my father with feigned concern, but it was clear to me they really didn’t care.
Although we knew my father was being held in an Israeli prison, no one would tell us which one. We spent three months looking for him in every prison, until we finally heard that he was being held in a special facility where they interrogate only the most dangerous people.Why?I wondered. Hamas had made no terrorist attacks. It wasn’t even armed.
Once we found out where my father was being held, the Israeli officials allowed us to visit him once a month for thirty minutes. Only two visitors could go in at once, so we took turns going with our mother. The first time I saw him, I was surprised to see that he had let his beard grow long, and he looked exhausted. But it was so good to see him, even like that. He never complained. He only wanted to know how everything was for us, asking us to tell him all the little details of our lives.
During one visit, he handed me a bag of candies. He explained that the prisoners were given one piece every other day, and instead of eating his, he had saved every piece so he could give them to us. We cherished the wrappers until the day he was released again.
Finally, that longed-for day came. We weren’t expecting him, and when he walked through the door, we all clung to him, afraid we might be dreaming. Word of his arrival spread quickly, and for the next six hours, people poured into our house. So many came to welcome him that we drained our storage tanks trying to give everyone a drink of water. I felt proud as I watched the obvious admiration and respect the people had for my father, but at the same time, I was angry. Where had all these people been while he was gone?
After everyone had left, my father said to me, “I am not working for these people, for their praise, or for them to take care of me and my family. I am working for Allah. And I know that you all are paying as heavy a price as I am. You, too, are servants of Allah, and you must be patient.”
I understood, but I wondered if he knew just how bad things were when he wasn’t here.
As we were talking, there was another knock at the back door. The Israelis arrested him again.
In August 1990, while my father was in prison for the third time, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Palestinians went crazy. Everybody ran out into the streets, cheering and looking for the missiles that would surely rain down on Israel. Our brothers were finally coming to our rescue! They were going to hit Israel hard, in the heart. Soon, the occupation would be over.
Expecting another poison gas attack like the one that had killed five thousand Kurds in 1988, the Israelis distributed gas masks to every citizen. But Palestinians received only one gas mask per household. My mother had one, but the seven of us had no protection. So we tried to be creative and make our own masks. We also bought nylon sheets and taped them to the windows and doors. But in the morning, we woke to find that the humidity had caused all the tape to peel off.
We were riveted to the Israeli TV channel, and we cheered with each warning of incoming missiles. We climbed up to the roof to watch the Scuds from Iraq light up Tel Aviv. But we saw nothing.
Maybe Al-Bireh is not the best place to get a good view,I reasoned. I decided to go to my uncle Dawood’s house in Al-Janiya, where we would be able to see all the way to the Mediterranean. My younger brother Sohayb came with me. From my uncle’s roof, we saw the first missile. Actually it was just the flame, but still, it was an awesome sight!
When we heard the news that about forty Scuds had reached Israel and that only two Israelis had been killed, we were sure the government was lying. As it turned out, it was true. When the Iraqis jerry-rigged the missiles to make them travel farther, they sacrificed power and accuracy.
We stayed at my uncle Dawood’s house until the UN forces drove Saddam Hussein back to Baghdad. I was angry and bitterly disappointed.
“Why is the war finished? Israel is not finished. My father is still in an Israeli prison. The Iraqis have got to keep launching missiles!”
Indeed, all Palestinians were disappointed. After decades of occupation, a real war had finally been called, with devastating warheads being fired at Israel. And yet, nothing had changed.
* * *
Following my father’s release after the Persian Gulf War, my mother told him that she wanted to sell her dowry gold to buy a piece of land and get a loan to build a house of our own. We had been renting up to this point, and whenever my father was away, the owner cheated us and became rude and abusive to my mother.
My father was moved that she was willing to part with something so precious, but he was also concerned that he might not be able to keep up the loan payments since he could be arrested again at any time. Nevertheless they decided to chance it, and in 1992, we built the house where my family still lives today in Betunia, by Ramallah. I was fourteen.
Betunia seemed to be less violent than either Al-Bireh or Ramallah. I attended the mosque near our new house and got involved in ajalsa, a group that encouraged us to memorize the Qur’an and taught us principles that leaders claimed would lead to a global Islamic state.
A few months after we moved, my father was arrested again. Often, he was not even charged with anything specific. Because we were under occupation, emergency laws allowed the Israeli government to arrest people merely because they were suspected of being involved with terrorism. As a religious—and by default, political—leader, my father was an easy target.
It seemed this was becoming a pattern—and though we didn’t realize it at the time, this pattern of arrest, release, and rearrest would continue for many years to come, putting increasing strain on our family each time. Meanwhile, Hamas was growing more violent and aggressive as the younger Hamas men pressured the leadership to push even harder.
“The Israelis are killing our children!” they cried. “We throw stones, and they shoot us down with machine guns. We are under occupation. The United Nations, the whole international community, every free man in the world recognizes our right to fight. Allah, himself, may his name be praised, requires it. Why do we wait?”
Most attacks in those days were personal, not organizational. Hamas leaders had no control over members who had their own agendas. My father’s goal was Islamic freedom, and he believed in fighting Israel in order to achieve freedom. But for these young men, fighting became its own goal—not a means to an end, but an end in itself.
As dangerous as the West Bank had become, Gaza was even more so. Due to geography, Gaza’s dominant influence was the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. And overcrowding only made things worse. Gaza was one of the most densely populated pieces of real estate on earth—really not much more than a 139-square-mile refugee camp packed with more than a million people.
Families hung real estate documents and door keys on their walls as silent evidence and daily reminders that they had once owned homes and beautiful farms—property that had been taken by Israel as spoils of past wars. It was an ideal environment for recruiting. The refugees were motivated and available. They were persecuted not only by Israelis but also by Palestinians—their own people—who viewed them as second-class citizens. In fact, they were considered invaders themselves, since their camps had been built on their neighbors’ lands.
Most of the impatient young Hamas activists were from the refugee camps. Among them was Imad Akel. The youngest of three sons, Imad was studying to be a pharmacist when he must have finally had his fill of injustice and frustration. He got hold of a gun, killed several Israeli soldiers, and took their weapons. As others followed his example, Imad’s influence grew. Operating independently, Imad established a small military cell and moved to the West Bank, which offered more targets and more room to move around. I knew from the conversations among the men in town that Hamas was very proud of him, although he was not at all accountable to the organization. Nevertheless, the leaders did not want to mix what he was doing with Hamas’s other activities. So they added the military wing, the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, and made Imad its leader. He was soon the most wanted Palestinian in Israel.
Hamas was now armed. As guns quickly replaced stones, graffiti, and Molotov cocktails, Israel had a problem it had never encountered before. It was one thing to deal with PLO attacks from Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, but now the attacks were coming from inside its own borders.
Fanning the Flames
On December 13, 1992, five Al-Qassam members kidnapped Israeli border policeman Nissim Toledano near Tel Aviv. They demanded that Israel release Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Israel refused. Two days later, Toledano’s body was discovered, and Israel launched a massive crackdown on Hamas. Immediately, more than sixteen hundred Palestinians were arrested. Then Israel decided to secretly deport 415 leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Among them were my father, who was still in prison, and three uncles.
I was only fourteen years old at this time, and none of us knew that this was happening. As the news leaked out, however, we were able to piece together enough details to figure out that my father was probably among the large group of teachers, religious leaders, engineers, and social workers who had been handcuffed, blindfolded, and loaded onto buses. Within hours of the story breaking, lawyers and human rights organizations began to file petitions. The buses were halted as the Israeli High Court convened at 5 a.m. to consider the legal challenges. And throughout the following fourteen hours of debate, my father and the other deportees were kept on the buses. Blindfolds and handcuffs remained in place. No food. No water. No bathroom breaks. In the end, the court backed the government, and the buses resumed their trek north. We later learned that the men were then driven to a snow-covered no-man’s-land in southern Lebanon. Although we were in the middle of a bitter winter, they were dumped there with no shelter or provisions. Neither Israel nor Lebanon would allow relief agencies to deliver food or medicine. Beirut refused to transport the sick and injured to its hospitals.
On December 18, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 799, calling for the “safe and immediate return” of the deportees. Israel refused. We had always been able to visit my dad when he was in prison, but since the Lebanese border was closed, we had no way to see him in exile. A couple of weeks later, we finally saw him on television for the first time since his deportation. Apparently, Hamas members had named him secretary-general of the camp, second only to Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, another Hamas leader.
Every day after that, we watched the news, hoping to catch another glimpse of my father’s face. From time to time, we would see him with a bullhorn delivering instructions to the deportees. When spring came, he even managed to send us mail and photographs taken by reporters and members of relief organizations. Eventually, the deportees gained access to cell phones, and we were able to talk to him for a few minutes every week.
Hoping to generate global sympathy for the deportees, the media interviewed their family members. My sister Tasneem brought tears to the eyes of the world as she cried “Baba! Baba![Daddy! Daddy!]” on camera. Somehow, our family became the unofficial representatives of all the other families. We were invited to attend every protest, including the ongoing demonstration in front of the Israeli prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. My father told us he was very proud, and we did take some comfort in the support we received from people all over the world, even Israeli peacemakers. About six months later, we heard the news that 101 deportees were going to be allowed to come home. Like all the families, we desperately hoped my father would be among them.
The next day, we visited with the heroes who had returned from Lebanon to see if we could find out any news about my father. But they could tell us only that he was doing well and would be home soon. About three more months passed before Israel agreed to allow the remaining deportees to return home. We were overjoyed at the prospect.
On the designated day, we waited impatiently outside the Ramallah prison where the remaining deportees were to be released. Ten came out. Twenty. He wasn’t with them. The last man passed by, and the soldiers said that was all. There was no sign of my father and no word of his whereabouts. The other families joyously took their loved ones home, and we were left standing outside alone in the middle of the night with no idea where my father was. We went home discouraged, frustrated, and worried. Why hadn’t he been released with the rest of the prisoners? Where was he now?
The next day, my father’s attorney called to tell us that my father and several other deportees had been returned to prison. Apparently, he said, the deportation had proved counterproductive for Israel. During their exile, my father and other Palestinian leaders had been all over the news, earning the world’s sympathy because the punishment was perceived as excessive and an abuse of their human rights. Throughout the Arab world, the men were seen as heroes of the cause, and as such, they became far more important and influential.
The deportation also had another unintended but disastrous effect for Israel. The prisoners had used their time in exile to forge an unprecedented relationship between Hamas and Hezbollah, the main Islamic political and paramilitary organization in Lebanon. This connection carried major historical and geopolitical ramifications. My father and other Hamas leaders often snuck out of the camp to avoid the media in order to meet with Hezbollah and Muslim Brotherhood leaders, something they could never do inside the Palestinian territories.
While my father and the others had been in Lebanon, the most radical Hamas members were still free and becoming more furious than ever. And as these radicalized new men filled the temporary leadership roles within Hamas, the gap between Hamas and the PLO widened.
About that time, Israel and Yasser Arafat entered into secret negotiations, which resulted in the 1993 Oslo Accords. On September 9, Arafat wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in which he officially recognized “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security” and renounced “the use of terrorism and other acts of violence.”
Rabin then formally recognized the PLO as “the representative of the Palestinian people,” and President Bill Clinton lifted the ban on American contact with the organization. On September 13, the world stared in amazement at a photograph of Arafat and Rabin shaking hands at the White House. A poll at that time showed that the vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza supported the terms of the Accords, also known as the Declaration of Principles (DOP). This document led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA); called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and Jericho; granted autonomy to those areas; and opened the door for the return of Arafat and the PLO from exile in Tunisia.
But my dad was against the DOP. He didn’t trust Israel or the PLO and therefore put no trust in the peace process. Other Hamas leaders, he explained, had their own reasons for opposing it, including the risk that a peace accord might actually stick! Peaceful coexistence would mean the end of Hamas. From their perspective, the organization could not thrive in a peaceful atmosphere. Other resistance groups also had a stake in the continuation of conflict. It’s hard to achieve peace in a place where so many have different goals and interests.
So the attacks continued:
• An Israeli man was stabbed to death on September 24 by a Hamas feda’iyeen in an orchard near Basra.
• The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the deaths of two Israelis in the Judean desert two weeks later.
• Two weeks after that, Hamas shot and killed two IDF soldiers outside a Jewish settlement in Gaza.
But none of these killings captured world headlines like the Hebron massacre on Friday, February 25, 1994.
During the Jewish festival of Purim and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, an American-born physician named Baruch Goldstein entered Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron where, according to local tradition, Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah are buried. Without warning, Goldstein opened fire, killing twenty-nine Palestinians who had come to pray and wounding well over one hundred before he was beaten to death by an enraged, grief-stricken mob.
We sat and watched through the lens of the television camera as one bloody corpse after another was carried from that holy place. I was in shock. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. One moment my heart pounded with a rage I had never known before, a rage that startled and then soothed me. The next minute I was frozen with grief. Then I was suddenly enraged—then numb again. And I was not alone. It seemed that the emotions of everyone in the occupied territories rose and fell to that surreal rhythm, leaving us exhausted.
Because Goldstein was wearing his Israeli military uniform and the IDF presence was smaller than normal, Palestinians were convinced that he had been sent, or at least covered, by the government in Jerusalem. To us, trigger-happy soldiers and crazy settlers were all one and the same. Hamas now spoke with a voice of terrible resolve. They could only think of revenge for this betrayal, this atrocity.
On April 6, a car bomb destroyed a bus in Afula, killing eight and injuring forty-four. Hamas said it was reprisal for Hebron. That same day, two Israelis were shot and killed and four others were wounded when Hamas attacked a bus stop near Ashdod.
A week later, a historic and awful threshold was crossed as Israel felt the impact of the first official suicide bombing. On Wednesday morning, April 13, 1994—the same day my father was finally released from prison after his deportation to Lebanon—twenty-one-year-old Amar Salah Diab Amarna entered the Hadera bus station between Haifa and Tel Aviv in central Israel. He carried a bag containing hardware and over four pounds of homemade acetone peroxide explosive. At 9:30, he boarded the bus to Tel Aviv. Ten minutes later, as the bus was pulling out of the station, he placed the bag on the floor and detonated it.
The shrapnel ripped through the passengers on the bus, killing six and wounding thirty. A second pipe bomb exploded at the scene just as rescue workers arrived. This was the “second in a series of five attacks” in revenge for Hebron, a Hamas pamphlet later announced.
I was proud of Hamas, and I saw the attacks as a huge victory against the Israeli occupation. At fifteen years of age, I saw everything in stark black and white. There were good guys and bad guys. And the bad guys deserved everything they got. I saw what a two-kilogram bomb packed with nails and ball bearings could do to human flesh, and I hoped it would send a clear message to the Israeli community.
After every suicide attack, Orthodox Jewish volunteers known as ZAKA (Disaster Victim Identification) arrived at the scene in fluorescent yellow vests. It was their job to collect blood and body parts—including those of non-Jews and the bomber himself—which were then taken to the forensic center in Jaffa. The pathologists there had the job of reassembling what was left of the bodies for identification purposes. Often, DNA testing was the only way for them to connect one piece to another.
Family members who had not been able to find their loved ones among the wounded at the local hospitals were directed to Jaffa, where they often showed up dazed with grief.
Pathologists frequently advised the families not to view the remains, telling them that it was better to remember their loved ones as they were when they were living. But most still wanted to touch the bodies one last time, even if a foot was all that was left.
Because Jewish law required that the entire body be buried the same day a person died, larger body parts were often buried first. Smaller pieces were added later, after identification was confirmed by DNA, reopening the wounds of grieving families.
While Hadera was the first official bombing, it was actually the third attempt, part of a trial-and-error phase during which Hamas bomb maker Yahya Ayyash perfected his craft. Ayyash was an engineering student at Birzeit University. He was not a radical Muslim or a nationalist zealot. He was embittered simply because he had once asked permission to continue his studies in another country, and the government of Israel had denied his request. So he made bombs and became a hero to the Palestinians and one of Israel’s most wanted men.
In addition to two failed attempts and the bombings on April 6 and 13, Ayyash would eventually be responsible for the deaths of at least thirty-nine people in five more attacks. He would also teach others, like his friend Hassan Salameh, how to make bombs.
* * *
During the Gulf War, Yasser Arafat had supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which alienated him from both the United States and the Arab states that supported the American-led coalition. Because of that, those states then started shifting their financial support from the PLO to Hamas.
Following the success of the Oslo Accords, however, Arafat was on top again. And the next year, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli minister of foreign affairs Shimon Peres.
The Oslo Accords required Arafat to establish the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. So on July 1, 1994, he approached Egypt’s Rafah border, crossed into Gaza, and settled in.
“National unity,” he told the crowds celebrating his return from exile, “is . . . our shield, the shield of our people. Unity. Unity. Unity.”3But the Palestinian territories were far from unified.
Hamas and its supporters were angry that Arafat had met secretly with Israel and promised that Palestinians would no longer fight for self-determination. Our men were still in Israeli prisons. We had no Palestinian state. The only autonomy we had was over the West Bank city of Jericho—a small town with nothing—and Gaza, a big, overcrowded refugee camp on the coast.
And now Arafat was sitting with the Israelis at the same table and shaking hands. “What about all the Palestinian blood?” our people asked one another. “Did he hold it so cheap?”
On the other hand, some Palestinians conceded that at least the PA had gotten us Gaza and Jericho. What had Hamas gotten us? Had it freed even one little Palestinian village?
Perhaps they had a point. But Hamas didn’t trust Arafat—mostly because he was ready to settle for a Palestinian state inside Israel instead of recovering the Palestinian territories that existed before Israel.
“What would you have us do?” Arafat and his spokesmen argued whenever they were pushed. “For decades, we fought Israel and found that there was no way to win. We were thrown out of Jordan and Lebanon and ended up over a thousand miles away in Tunisia. The international community was against us. We had no power. The Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States as the only world power. And it backed Israel. We were given an opportunity to get back everything we had before the Six-Day War in 1967 and to govern ourselves. And we took it.”
Several months after arriving in Gaza, Arafat visited Ramallah for the first time. My father, along with dozens of religious, political, and business leaders, stood in a reception line for him. When the PLO chief came to Sheikh Hassan Yousef, he kissed my father’s hand, recognizing him as a religious as well as a political leader.
Over the next year, my father and other Hamas leaders met frequently with Arafat in Gaza City in an attempt to reconcile and unify the PA and Hamas. But the talks ended in failure when Hamas ultimately refused to participate in the peace process. Our ideologies and goals were still a long way from being reconciled.
* * *
The transition of Hamas into a full-blown terrorist organization was complete. Many of its members had climbed the ladder of Islam and reached the top. Moderate political leaders like my father would not tell the militants that what they were doing was wrong. They could not; on what basis could they declare it was wrong? The militants had the full force of the Qur’an to back them up.
So even though he had never personally killed anyone, my father went along with the attacks. And the Israelis, unable to find and arrest the violent young militants, continued to pursue soft targets like my father. I think they figured that since my father was a leader of Hamas, which was carrying out these attacks, his imprisonment would put a stop to them. But they never made an effort to find out who or what Hamas really was. And it would be many painful years before they would begin to understand that Hamas was not an organization as most people understood organizations, with rules and a hierarchy. It was a ghost. An idea. You can’t destroy an idea; you can only stimulate it. Hamas was like a flatworm. Cut off its head, and it just grew another.
The trouble was that the central organizing premise and goal of Hamas was an illusion. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt had repeatedly tried and failed to drive the Israelis into the sea and transform its lands into a Palestinian state. Even Saddam Hussein and his Scud missiles failed. In order for millions of Palestinian refugees to recover the homes, farms, and property they had lost more than half a century ago, Israel would have to virtually trade places with them. And because that was clearly never going to happen, Hamas was like Sisyphus of Greek mythology—condemned eternally to roll a boulder up a steep hill, only to see it roll back down again, never reaching the goal.
Nevertheless, even those who recognized the impossibility of Hamas’s mission clung to the belief that Allah would one day defeat Israel, even if he had to do it supernaturally.
For Israel, the PLO nationalists had been simply a political problem in need of a political solution. Hamas, on the other hand, Islamized the Palestinian problem, making it a religious problem. And this problem could be resolved only with a religious solution, which meant that it could never be resolved because we believed that the land belonged to Allah. Period. End of discussion. Thus for Hamas, the ultimate problem was not Israel’s policies. It was the nation-state Israel’s very existence.
And what of my father? Had he, too, become a terrorist? One afternoon, I read a newspaper headline about a recent suicide bombing (or “martyrdom operation” as some in Hamas called them) that had killed many civilians, including women and children. It was impossible for me to mentally reconcile the kindness and character of my father and his leadership with an organization that carried out such things. I pointed to the article and asked him how he felt about such acts.
“Once,” he answered, “I left the house and there was an insect outside. I thought twice about whether to kill it or not. And I could not kill it.” That indirect answer was his way of saying that he could never personally participate in that kind of wanton killing. But the Israeli civilians were not insects.
No, my father did not build the bombs, strap them onto the bombers, or select the targets. But years later I would think of my father’s answer when I encountered a story in a Christian Bible that describes the stoning of a young innocent named Stephen. It said, “Saul was there, giving approval to his death” (Acts 8:1).
I loved my father so deeply, and I admired so much about who he was and what he stood for. But for a man who could not bring himself to harm an insect, he had obviously found a way to rationalize the idea that it was fine for somebody else to explode people into scraps of meat, as long as he didn’t personally bloody his hands.
At that moment, my view of my father grew much more complicated.
Winter 1995–Spring 1996
After the Oslo Accords, the international community expected the Palestinian Authority to keep Hamas in check. On Saturday, November 4, 1995, I was watching television when a news bulletin broke into programming. Yitzhak Rabin had been shot during a peace rally in Kings Square in Tel Aviv. It sounded serious. A couple of hours later, officials announced that he was dead.
“Wow!” I said aloud to no one in particular. “Some Palestinian faction still has the power to assassinate Israel’s prime minister! That should have happened a long time ago.” I was very happy for his death and the damage it would do to the PLO and its watered-down capitulation to Israel.
Then the phone rang. I recognized the caller’s voice immediately. It was Yasser Arafat, and he asked to speak to my father.
I listened as my father spoke into the telephone. He didn’t say much; he was kind and respectful, and mostly he just agreed with whatever Arafat was saying on the other end of the line.
“I understand,” he said. “Good-bye.”
Then he turned to me. “Arafat has asked that we try to keep Hamas from celebrating the death of the prime minister,” he said. “The assassination was a very big loss for Arafat because Rabin showed such political courage in entering into peace negotiations with the PLO.”
We later learned that Rabin had not been killed by a Palestinian after all. Instead, he had been shot in the back by an Israeli law student. Many in Hamas were disappointed by this piece of information; personally, I found it amusing that Jewish fanatics had shared a goal with Hamas.
The assassination put the world on edge, and the world put more pressure on Arafat to get control of the Palestinian territories. So he launched an all-out crackdown on Hamas. PA police came to our house, asked my father to prepare himself, and locked him away in Arafat’s compound—all the while treating him with the utmost respect and kindness.
Even so, for the first time, Palestinians were imprisoning other Palestinians. It was ugly, but at least they treated my father respectfully. Unlike many of the others, he was given a comfortable room, and Arafat visited with him from time to time to discuss various issues.
Soon all of the top leaders of Hamas, along with thousands of its members, were locked away in Palestinian prisons. Many were tortured for information. Some died. But others escaped arrest, became fugitives, and continued their attacks against Israel.
Now my hatred had multiple focal points. I hated the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat, I hated Israel, and I hated secular Palestinians. Why should my father, who loved Allah and his people, have to pay such a heavy price while godless men like Arafat and his PLO handed a great victory to the Israelis—whom the Qur’an likened to pigs and monkeys? And the international community applauded Israel because it got the terrorists to recognize its right to exist.
I was seventeen and only months away from my high school graduation. Whenever I visited my father in prison or brought him food from home and other things to make him more comfortable, he encouraged me, saying, “The only thing you have to do is pass your tests. Focus on your school. Don’t worry about me. I don’t want this to interfere with anything.” But life no longer meant anything to me. I could think of nothing else except joining the military wing of Hamas and taking revenge on Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I thought about everything I had seen in my life. Was all the struggle and sacrifice going to end like this, in a cheap peace with Israel? If I died fighting, at least I would die as a martyr and go to heaven.
My father had never taught me to hate, but I didn’t know how not to feel this way. Though he passionately fought the occupation, and though I don’t believe he would have hesitated to give the order to nuke the nation of Israel if he had had the bomb, he never spoke against Jewish people, like some racist leaders of Hamas did. He was much more interested in the god of the Qur’an than in politics. Allah had given us the responsibility of eradicating the Jews, and my father didn’t question that, though he personally had nothing against them.
“How is your relationship to Allah?” he asked me every time I visited him. “Did you pray today? cry? spend time with him?” He never said, “I want you to become a goodmujahid[guerilla soldier].” His admonition to me as his eldest son was always, “Be very good to your mother, very good to Allah, and very good to your people.”
I didn’t understand how he could be so compassionate and forgiving, even toward the soldiers who came again and again to arrest him. He treated them like children. When I brought him food at the PA compound, he often invited the guards to join us and share in my mother’s specially prepared meat and rice. And after a few months, even the PA guards loved him. While it was easy for me to love him, he was also a very difficult man to understand.
Filled with anger and a desire for revenge, I started hunting for guns. Though weapons were available in the territories by this time, they were very expensive, and I was a student with no money.
Ibrahim Kiswani, a classmate from a village next to Jerusalem, shared my interest and told me he could get the money we needed—not enough for heavy guns, but enough for some cheap rifles and maybe a pistol. I asked my cousin Yousef Dawood if he knew where I could get some weapons.
Yousef and I weren’t really that close, but I knew he had connections that I didn’t have.
“I have a couple of friends in Nablus who might help,” he told me. “What do you want with guns?”
“Every family has its own weapons,” I lied. “I want one to protect my family.”
Well, it wasn’t exactly a lie. Ibrahim lived in a village where every family did indeed have its own weapons for self-defense, and he was like a brother to me.
In addition to wanting to take revenge, I thought it would be cool to be a teenager with a gun. I no longer cared much about school. Why go to school in this crazy country?
Finally one afternoon, I got a call from my cousin Yousef.
“Okay, we’re going to Nablus. I know a guy who works for the PA security force. I think he can get us some weapons,” he said.
When we arrived in Nablus, a man met us at the door of the small house and led us inside. There he showed us Swedish Carl Gustav M45 submachine guns and a Port Said, which was an Egyptian version of the same weapon. He took us to a remote spot in the mountains and showed us how they operated. When he asked me if I wanted to try one, my heart started to race. I had never fired a machine gun before, and suddenly I was scared.
“No, I trust you,” I told him. I purchased a couple of Gustafs and a handgun from the man. I hid them in the door of my car, sprinkling black pepper over them to throw off any Israeli dogs that might be sniffing for weapons at the checkpoints.
As I drove back to Ramallah, I called Ibrahim on the way.
“Hey, I got the stuff!”
We knew better than to use words likegunsorweaponsbecause there was a good chance that the Israelis were listening to everything we said. We set up a time for Ibrahim to pick up his “things” and quickly said good night.
It was the spring of 1996. I had just turned eighteen, and I was armed.
* * *
One night, Ibrahim called me, and I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was really angry.
“The guns don’t work!” he shouted into the phone.
“What are you talking about?” I shot back, hoping no one was listening to our conversation.
“The guns don’t work,” he repeated. “We were cheated!”
“I can’t talk now,” I told him.
“Okay, but I want to see you tonight.”
When he arrived at my house, I immediately lit into him.
“Are you crazy, talking like that on the phone?” I said.
“I know, but the guns aren’t working. The handgun is okay, but the submachine guns won’t shoot.”
“Okay, they’re not working. Are you sure you know how to use them?”
He assured me that he knew what he was doing, so I told him I would deal with it. With my final exams just two weeks away, I didn’t really have time for any of this, but I went ahead and made the arrangements to take the malfunctioning guns back to Yousef.
“This is a disaster,” I told him when I saw him. “The handgun works, but the machine guns don’t. Call your friends in Nablus so we can at least get our money back.” He promised to try.
The next day my brother Sohayb gave me some sobering news. “Israeli security forces came to the house last night, looking for you,” he told me with a worried strain in his voice.
My first thought was,We didn’t even kill anyone yet!I was scared, but I also felt a bit important, as though I was becoming dangerous to Israel. The next time I visited my father, he had already heard that the Israelis were looking for me.
“What’s going on?” he asked sternly. I told him the truth, and he became very angry. Through his anger, however, it was clear to me that he was mostly disappointed and worried.
“This is very serious,” he warned me. “Why did you get yourself into this? You need to be taking care of your mother and brothers and sisters, not running from the Israelis. Don’t you understand that they will shoot you?”
I went home, threw together some clothes and my schoolbooks, and asked some Muslim Brotherhood students to hide me until I could take my exams and finish school.
Ibrahim clearly didn’t understand the seriousness of my situation. He continued to call me, often on my father’s cell phone.
“What’s going on? What is happening with you? I gave you all that money. I need it back.”
I told him about the security forces that had been to my house, and he started to shout and say careless things on the phone. I quickly hung up before he could implicate himself or me any further. But the next day, the IDF showed up at his place, searched it, and found the handgun. They arrested him immediately.
I felt lost. I had trusted someone I shouldn’t have. My father was in prison, and he was disappointed in me. My mother was worried sick about me. I had exams to study for. And I was wanted by the Israelis.
How could things possibly get any worse?
Although I had tried to take precautions, the Israeli security forces caught up with me. They had listened in on my conversations with Ibrahim, and now here I was, handcuffed and blindfolded, stuffed in the back of a military jeep, trying to dodge rifle butts as best I could.
The jeep rolled to a stop. We had been driving for what seemed like hours. The handcuffs cut deeply into my wrists as the soldiers lifted me by my arms and pulled me up a set of stairs. I could no longer feel my hands. All around me, I heard the sounds of people moving and shouting in Hebrew.
I was taken into a small room where my blindfold and handcuffs were removed. Squinting in the light, I tried to get my bearings. With the exception of a small desk in the corner, the room was empty. I wondered what the soldiers had in store for me next. Interrogation? More beatings? Torture? I didn’t have to wonder for long. After just a few minutes, a young soldier opened the door. He wore a ring in his nose, and I recognized his Russian accent. He was one of the soldiers who had beaten me in the back of the jeep. Taking me by the arm, he led me down a series of long, winding corridors and into another small room. A blood-pressure cuff and monitor, a computer, and a small TV sat atop an old desk. An overpowering stench filled my nostrils as I entered. I gagged, sure I was about to throw up again.
A man wearing a doctor’s jacket entered behind us, looking tired and unhappy. He seemed surprised to see my battered face and eye, which had now swollen to twice its original size. But if he was concerned about my well-being, he certainly didn’t show it. I had seen veterinarians who were kinder to their animals than this doctor was as he examined me.
A guard wearing a police uniform came in. He turned me around, put the handcuffs back on, and pulled a dark green hood over my head. I had found the source of the stench. The hood smelled like it had never been washed. It reeked of the unbrushed teeth and foul breath of a hundred prisoners. I retched and tried to hold my breath. But every time I gasped, I sucked the filthy cloth into my mouth. I panicked and felt like I would suffocate if I couldn’t get away from the bag.
The guard searched me, taking everything, including my belt and bootlaces. He grabbed me by the hood and dragged me through the corridors. A right turn. A left. Another left. Right. Right again. I didn’t know where I was or where he was taking me.
Eventually we stopped, and I heard him fumble for a key. He opened a door that sounded thick and heavy. “Steps,” he said. And I felt my way down several treads. Through the hood I could see some sort of flashing light, the kind you see on top of a police car.
The guard pulled off the hood, and I realized I was standing in front of a set of curtains. To my right I saw a basket of hoods. We waited a few minutes until a voice from the other side of the curtain gave us permission to enter. The guard locked manacles onto my ankles and stuffed my head into another bag. Then he grabbed the front of it and pulled me through the curtains.
Cold air poured out of the vents, and music blasted from somewhere in the distance. I must have been walking along a very narrow corridor because I kept bumping into the walls on either side. I felt dizzy and exhausted. Finally, we stopped again. The soldier opened a door and shoved me inside. Then he removed the hood and left, locking the heavy door behind him.
I looked around me, once again surveying my surroundings. The cell was about six feet square—just enough room for a small mattress and two blankets. Whoever had occupied the cell before me had rolled one of them into a pillow. I sat down on the mattress; it felt sticky and the blankets smelled like the hood. I covered my nose with the collar of my shirt, but my clothes reeked of vomit. One weak lightbulb hung from the ceiling, but I couldn’t find the switch to turn it on or off. A small opening in the door was the only window in the room. The air was clammy, the floor wet, the concrete covered with mold. Bugs swarmed everywhere. Everything was foul and rotting and ugly.
I just sat there for a long time, not knowing what to do. I had to go to the bathroom and stood to use the rusty toilet in the corner. I pushed the flush handle and immediately wished I hadn’t. The waste didn’t flush down the hole; instead, it leaked out onto the floor, soaking into the mattress.
I sat down in the only dry corner of the room and tried to think. What a place to have to spend the night! My eye throbbed and burned. I was finding it hard to breathe without choking on the smell of the room. The heat in my cell was unbearable, and my sweat-soaked clothes clung to my frame.
I had had nothing to eat or drink since some goat’s milk at my mother’s house. And that was now souring all over my shirt and pants. There was a pipe protruding from the wall, and I turned the handle, hoping to get some water from it. The liquid came out thick and brown.
What time was it? Were they going to leave me here all night?
My head pounded. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. The only thing I could do was pray to Allah.
Protect me,I asked.Keep me safe and bring me back to my family quickly.
Through the thick steel door, I could hear loud music playing in the distance—the same tape, over and over and over. I used the mind-numbing repetitions to help me gauge time.
Again and again, Leonard Cohen sang:
They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin4
In the distance, doors opened and closed—a lot of them. Slowly, the sounds drew nearer. Then someone opened the door to my cell, shoved a blue tray inside, and slammed the door shut. I looked at the tray as it sat in the sewage that had oozed out after I used the toilet. Its contents included one boiled egg, a single piece of bread, about a spoonful of sour-smelling yogurt, and three olives. A plastic container of water sat to one side, but when I lifted it to my lips, it didn’t smell right at all. I drank a little but used the rest to wash my hands. I ate everything on the tray, but I was still hungry. Was this breakfast? What time was it? I guessed afternoon.
While I was still trying to figure out how long I had been there, the door to my cell opened. Someone—or something—was standing there. Was it human? He was short, seemed to be about seventy-five years old, and looked like a hunchbacked ape. He shouted at me in a Russian accent, cursed me, cursed God, and spat in my face. I could not imagine anything uglier.
Apparently, this thing was a guard because he shoved another stinking hood at me and told me to put it over my head. Then he grabbed the front of it and jerked me roughly through the corridors. He opened the door to an office, shoved me inside, and forced me down onto a low plastic chair; it felt like a little child’s chair from an elementary school classroom. The chair was secured to the floor.
He handcuffed me, one arm between the chair legs and the other on the outside. Then he shackled my legs. The little seat was slanted, forcing me to lean forward. Unlike my cell, this room was freezing cold. I figured that the air-conditioning must be set around zero.
I sat there for hours, shaking uncontrollably in the cold, bent at an agonizing angle, and unable to shift into a more comfortable position. I tried to breathe through the foul bag without ever taking a full breath. I was hungry, exhausted, and my eye was still swollen with blood.
The door opened, and somebody pulled off my hood. I was surprised to see that it was a civilian, not a soldier or guard. He sat on the edge of the desk. My head was about the level of his knees.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“I am Mosab Hassan Yousef.”
“Do you know where you are?”
He shook his head and said, “Some call it Dark Night. Others call it the Slaughterhouse. You are in big trouble, Mosab.”
I tried not to show any emotion at all, keeping my eyes focused on a stain on the wall behind this guy’s head.
“How is your father doing in the PA prison?” he asked. “Is it more fun for him than an Israeli prison?”
I shifted slightly in my seat, still refusing to answer.
“Do you realize that you are now in the same place your father was taken after his first arrest?”
So that’s where I was: the Maskobiyeh Detention Center in West Jerusalem. My father had told me about this place. It used to be a Russian Orthodox church, perched on top of six millennia of history. The government of Israel had converted it to a high-security facility that included police headquarters, offices, and an interrogation center for the Shin Bet.
Deep underground was the ancient warren that served as a prison. Black and stained and dark, like the rat-infested medieval dungeons you see in the movies, Maskobiyeh had a nasty reputation.
Now I was suffering the same punishment my father had endured. These were the same men who had beaten him and tortured him all those years ago. They had spent a lot of time working on him, and they knew him well. They also never broke him. He stayed strong and became only stronger.
“Tell me why you are here.”
“I have no idea.” Of course, I assumed I was here because I had bought those stupid guns that didn’t even work. My back felt like it was on fire. My interrogator lifted my chin.
“You want to be tough like your father? You have no idea what is waiting for you outside this room. Tell me what you know about Hamas! What secrets do you know? Tell me about the Islamic student movement! I want to know everything!”
Did he really think I was that dangerous? I couldn’t believe that. But then, the more I thought about it, I realized that he probably did. From his point of view, the fact that I was the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef and was buying automatic weapons was more than enough cause for suspicion.
These men had imprisoned and tortured my father and were about to torture me. Did they really believe this would make me accept their right to exist? My point of view was very different. My people were struggling for our freedom, our land.
When I did not answer his questions, the man slammed the desk with his fist. Again, he lifted my chin.
“I’m going home to spend the night with my family. You have fun here.”
I sat in the small chair for hours, still leaning forward awkwardly. Finally, a guard came in, unlocked my handcuffs and shackles, threw another hood over my head, and pulled me back through the corridors. Leonard Cohen’s voice grew louder and louder.
We stopped, and the guard barked at me to sit down. The music was deafening now. Once again, I was chained hand and foot to a low chair that was vibrating to the merciless beat of “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin!”
My muscles were cramped from the cold, uncomfortable position. I tasted the stench of the hood. This time, however, I was clearly not alone. Even over Leonard Cohen, I could hear other people crying out in great pain.
“Is someone there?” I yelled through the greasy cloth.
“Who are you?” a voice close by yelled over the music.
“I am Mosab.”
“How long have you been here?”
He said nothing for a couple of minutes.
“I have been sitting on this chair for three weeks,” he said finally. “They let me sleep for four hours every week.”
I was stunned. That was the last thing I wanted to hear. Another man told me he had been arrested about the same time I was. I guessed there were about twenty of us in the room.
Our talking was suddenly interrupted when someone struck me in the back of the head—hard. Pain shot through my skull, forcing me to blink back tears inside the hood.
“No talking!” a guard shouted.
Every minute felt like an hour, but I could no longer remember what an hour was anyway. My world had stopped. Outside, I knew that people were getting up, going to their jobs, and returning home to their families. My classmates were studying for their final exams. My mother was cooking and cleaning and hugging and kissing my little brothers and sisters.
But in that room, everyone sat. No one moved.
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin! First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin! First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin!
Some of the men around me wailed, but I was determined not to cry. I was sure my father had never cried. He was strong. He didn’t give in.
“Shoter! Shoter![Guard! Guard!]” one of the men yelled. Nobody answered him because the music was so loud. Finally, after a while, the shoter came.
“What do you want?”
“I want to go to the toilet. I have to go to the toilet!”
“No toilet now. It is not the time for the toilet.” And he left.
“Shoter! Shoter!” the man screamed.
Half an hour later, the shoter returned. The man was getting out of control. Cursing him, the shoter opened his chains and dragged him away. A few minutes later, he brought him back, chained him again to the small chair, and left.
“Shoter! Shoter!” screamed another.
I was exhausted and sick to my stomach. My neck ached. I never realized how heavy my head was. I tried to lean against the wall next to me, but just as I was about to drift off to sleep, a guard came and hit me in the head to wake me up. His only job, it seemed, was to keep us awake and quiet. I felt as if I had been buried alive and was being tortured by the angels Munkar and Nakir after giving the wrong answers.
It must have been morning when I heard a guard moving around. One by one, he opened handcuffs and shackles and led people away. After a few minutes, he brought them back, chained them up to the little chairs again, and went on to the next one. Finally, he came to me.
After he unlocked my chains, he grabbed my hood and pulled me through the corridors. He opened a cell door and told me to go in. When he removed the hood, I saw that it was the same hunchbacked, apelike guard with my breakfast. He shoved the blue tray with egg, bread, yogurt, and olives toward me with his foot. Nearly an inch of stinking water covered the floor and splashed into the tray. I would rather have starved than eaten it.
“You have two minutes to eat and use the toilet,” he told me.
All I wanted to do was to stretch, lie down, and sleep, just for two minutes. But I just stood there as the seconds slipped away.
“Come on! Come here!”
Before I could grab a bite, the guard pulled the bag over my head again, led me back through the halls, and chained me to the little chair.
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin!
All day long, doors opened and closed, as prisoners were pulled by their foul hoods from one interrogator to another. Uncuffed, cuffed, questioned, beaten. Sometimes an interrogator would shake a prisoner hard. It usually took only ten shakes before he passed out. Uncuffed, cuffed, questioned. Doors opened and doors closed.
Every morning we were taken for our two-minute blue breakfast tray, and then hours later, for our two-minute orange dinner tray. Hour after hour. Day after day. Blue breakfast tray. Orange dinner tray. I quickly learned to long for mealtimes—not because I wanted to eat, but just for the chance to stand erect.
At night after we were all fed, the opening and closing of doors stopped. The interrogators went home. The business day was over. And the endless night began. People cried and moaned and screamed. They no longer sounded like human beings. Some didn’t even know what they were saying. Muslims recited verses from the Qur’an, begging Allah for strength. I prayed, too, but I didn’t get any strength. I thought about stupid Ibrahim and the stupid guns and the stupid calls to my father’s cell phone.
I thought about my father. My heart ached when I realized all that he must have endured while imprisoned. But I knew my father’s personality well. Even while being tortured and humiliated, he would have accepted his fate quietly and willingly. He probably even made friends with the guards assigned to carry out the beatings. He would have taken a genuine interest in them as people, asking about their families, their backgrounds, their hobbies.
My father was such an example of humility, love, and devotion; even though he was only five foot seven, he stood head and shoulders above anyone else I had ever known. I very much wanted to be like him, but I knew I still had a long way to go.
One afternoon, my routine was unexpectedly interrupted. A guard came into the cell and unchained me from my chair. I knew it was much too early for dinner, but I didn’t ask questions. I was just happy to go anywhere, to hell even, if it meant getting off that chair. I was taken to a small office where I was chained again, but this time to a regular chair. An officer of the Shin Bet entered the room and looked me up and down. Though the pain wasn’t as sharp as it once had been, I knew my face still bore the marks from the soldiers’ rifle butts.
“How are you?” the officer asked. “What happened to your eye?”
“They beat me.”
“The soldiers who brought me here.”
“That’s not allowed. It’s against the law. I’ll look into it and find out why this happened.”
He seemed very confident and spoke kindly and respectfully to me. I wondered if it was a game to get me to talk.
“You have exams soon. Why are you here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course you know. You are not stupid, and we are not stupid. I am Loai, Shin Bet captain of your area. I know all about your family and your neighborhood. And I know everything about you.”
And he really did. Apparently, he was responsible for every person in my neighborhood. He knew who worked where, who was in school, what they studied, whose wife just had a baby, and no doubt what the baby weighed. Everything.
“You have a choice. I came all the way here today to sit down with you and talk. I know that the other interrogators have not been so nice.”
I looked closely into his face, trying to read between the lines. Fair skinned and blond, he spoke with a sense of calm I had not heard before. His expression was kind, even a little concerned for me. I wondered if this was part of the Israeli strategy: throwing off the prisoner by beating him one minute, then treating him kindly the next.
“What do you want to know?” I asked.
“Listen, you know why we brought you here. You’ve got to bring everything out, whatever you have.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Okay, I want to make this easy for you.”
On a whiteboard behind the desk he wrote three words:Hamas,weapons, andorganization.
“Go ahead and tell me about Hamas. What do you know about Hamas? What is your involvement in Hamas?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know anything about the weapons they have, where they come from, how they get them?”
“Do you know anything about the Islamic youth movement?”
“Okay. It’s up to you. I don’t know what to tell you, but you are really choosing the wrong path. . . . Can I bring you any food?”
“No. I don’t want anything.”
Loai left the room and returned minutes later with a steaming plate of chicken and rice and some soup. It smelled wonderful, causing my stomach to grumble involuntarily. No doubt the food had been prepared for the interrogators.
“Please, Mosab, eat. Don’t try to be a tough guy. Just eat and relax a little bit. You know, I have known your father for a long time. Your father is a nice guy. He is not a fanatic, and we don’t know why you got yourself into trouble. We don’t want to torture you, but you need to understand that you are against Israel. Israel is a small country, and we have to protect ourselves. We cannot allow anybody to hurt Israeli citizens. We suffered enough our whole lives, and we will not be easy on those who want to hurt our people.”
“I never hurt any Israeli. You hurt us. You arrested my father.”
“Yes. He is a good man, but he is also against Israel. He inspires people to fight against Israel. That’s why we have to put him in prison.”
I could tell that Loai really believed I was dangerous. I knew from talking to others who had been inside Israeli prisons that Palestinians weren’t always treated as harshly as I had been. Nor were they all interrogated at such lengths.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Hassan Salameh had been arrested about the same time I was.
Salameh had carried out numerous attacks in revenge for master bomb maker Yahya Ayyash’s assassination. And when the Shin Bet heard me talking to Ibrahim on my dad’s cell phone about getting weapons, they assumed I wasn’t working alone. In fact, they were sure I had been recruited by Al-Qassam.
Finally, Loai said, “This is the last time I will make this offer, then I will be gone. I have a lot to do. You and I can resolve this situation right now. We can work something out. You do not have to go through more interrogation. You’re just a kid, and you need help.”
Yes, I had wanted to be dangerous, and I had dangerous ideas. But clearly, I wasn’t very good at being a radical. I was tired of the little plastic chair and smelly hoods. The Israeli intelligence was giving me more credit than I deserved. So I told him the whole story, leaving out the part about my wanting the weapons so I could kill Israelis. I told him I had bought the weapons to help my friend, Ibrahim, protect his family.
“So there are weapons now, I see.”
“Yes, there are weapons.”
“And where are those weapons?”
I wished they had been at my house because I would gladly have surrendered them to the Israelis. But now I had to involve my cousin.
“Okay, here’s the thing. Somebody that has nothing to do with this has the weapons.”
“Who is he?”
“My cousin Yousef has them. He is married to an American, and they have a new baby.” I hoped they would take his family into account and just go get the weapons, but things are never that easy.
Two days later, I heard scuffling on the other side of the wall in my cell. I leaned down and toward the rusted-out pipe that connected my cell with the one next to it.
“Hello,” I called. “Is anybody there?”
And then . . .
What?! I couldn’t believe my ears. It was my cousin!
“Yousef? Is that you?”
I was so excited to hear his voice. My heart started beating wildly. It was Yousef! But then he started cursing me.
“Why did you do this? I have a family. . . .”
I started to cry. I had wanted so much for a human being to talk to while I was in prison. Now a member of my own family sat just on the other side of the wall, and he was yelling at me. And then it hit me: the Israelis were listening; they had put Yousef right next to me so they could listen to our conversation and find out whether I was telling the truth. That was fine by me. I had told Yousef I wanted the guns to protect my family, so I wasn’t worried.
Once the Shin Bet realized that my story was true, they moved me to another cell. Alone once again, I thought about how I had screwed up my cousin’s life, how I had hurt my family, and how I had thrown away twelve years of school—and all because I trusted a jerk like Ibrahim!
I stayed in that cell for weeks with no human contact. The guards slid food under the door but never said a word to me. I even began to miss Leonard Cohen. I had nothing to read, and my only sense of passing time was the daily rotation of colored food trays. Nothing to do but think and pray.
Finally one day I was again taken to an office, and again, Loai was waiting to talk to me.
“If you decide to cooperate with us, Mosab, I will do my best to see that you don’t have to spend more time in prison.”
A moment of hope. Maybe I could make him think I was going to cooperate and then he would let me out of here.
We talked a little about general things. Then he said, “What if I offer you a job with us? Israeli leaders are sitting down with Palestinian leaders. They have fought for a long time, and at the end of the day they are shaking hands and having dinner together.”
“Islam forbids me to work with you.”
“At some point, Mosab, even your father will come and sit down and talk to us and we will talk to him. Let’s work together and bring peace to people.”
“Is this how we bring peace? We bring peace by ending the occupation.”
“No, we bring peace through people with courage who want to make change.”
“I don’t think so. It’s not worth it.”
“Are you afraid of being killed as a collaborator?”
“It’s not that. After all our suffering, I could never just sit down and talk with you as a friend, much less work with you. I am not allowed to do this. It is against everything I believe.”
I still hated everything around me. The occupation. The PA. I had become a radical just because I wanted to destroy something. But it was that impulse that had gotten me into this whole mess. Here I was sitting in an Israeli prison, and now this man was asking me to work for them. If I said yes, I knew I would have to pay a terrible price—both in this life and in the next.
“Okay, I need to think about it,” I heard myself saying.
I went back to my cell and thought about Loai’s offer. I had heard stories about people who agreed to work for the Israelis but were double agents. They killed their handlers, stashed weapons, and used every opportunity to hurt the Israelis at an even deeper level. If I told him yes, I figured Loai would most likely release me. He would probably even give me the opportunity to have real weapons this time, and with those weapons I was going to kill him.
The fires of hatred burned inside me. I wanted revenge on the soldier who had beaten me so badly. I wanted revenge on Israel. I didn’t care about the cost, even if it cost me my life.
But working for the Shin Bet would be a lot riskier than buying weapons. I probably should just forget it, just finish my time in prison, go home and study, be close to my mother, and take care of my brothers and sisters.
The following day, the guard took me back to the office one last time, and a few minutes later Loai came in.
“How are you today? You seem to be feeling much better. Would you like something to drink?”
We sat there drinking coffee like two old friends.
“What if I get killed?” I asked, though I really didn’t care about getting killed. I only wanted to make him think I did so he would believe that I was for real.
“Let me tell you something, Mosab,” said Loai. “I’ve been working for the Shin Bet for eighteen years, and during all that time, I know of only one person who was discovered. All those people you have seen getting killed had no relationship with us. People became suspicious of them because they had no families and they did suspicious things, so people killed them. Nobody will know about you. We will cover you so you aren’t found out. We will protect you and take care of you.”
I stared at him a long time.
“All right,” I said. “I will do it. Will you release me now?”
“That’s great,” Loai said with a big smile. “Unfortunately, we cannot release you right now. Since you and your cousin were arrested right after Salameh was nabbed, the story was on the front page ofAl-Quds[the main Palestinian newspaper]. Everybody thinks you were arrested because you were involved with a bomb maker. If we release you so soon, people will be suspicious, and you might be exposed as a collaborator. The best way to protect you is to send you to prison—not for long, don’t worry. We’ll see if there’s a prisoner exchange or release agreement we can use to get you out. Once you are there, I’m sure that Hamas will take care of you, especially since you are the son of Hassan Yousef. We’ll see you after your release.”
They took me back to my cell, where I stayed for another couple of weeks. I couldn’t wait to get out of Maskobiyeh. Finally one morning, the guard told me it was time to go. He handcuffed me, but this time my hands were in front of me. No stinking hood. And for the first time in forty-five days, I saw the sun and felt the outside air. I took a deep breath, filling my lungs and relishing the breeze on my face. I climbed into the back of a Ford van and actually sat down on the seat. It was a hot summer day, and the metal bench I was cuffed to was blistering, but I didn’t care. I felt free!
Two hours later, we arrived at the prison in Megiddo, but then we had to sit in the van for another hour, waiting for permission to enter. Once we finally got inside, a prison doctor examined me and announced that I was fine. I took a shower with real soap and was provided with clean clothes and other toiletries. At lunchtime, I ate hot food for the first time in weeks.
I was asked what organization I was affiliated with.
“Hamas,” I answered.
In Israeli prisons, every organization was allowed to police its own people. The hope was that this would either cut down on some of the social problems or create more conflict among the factions. If prisoners focused their anger on one another, they’d have less energy to fight against the Israelis.
Upon entering a new prison, all prisoners were required to declare an affiliation. We had to choose something: Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), or whatever the case might be. We couldn’t simply say we were nothing. Prisoners who reallywerenothing would be given a few days to choose an organization. At Megiddo, Hamas was in total control inside the prison. Hamas was the largest and strongest organization there. Hamas made the rules, and everybody else played their game.
When I entered, the other prisoners welcomed me warmly, patting me on the back and congratulating me for joining the ranks. In the evening, we sat around and shared our stories. After a while, though, I started to feel a little uncomfortable. One of the guys seemed to be kind of a leader for the inmates, and he was asking a lot of questions—too many. Even though he was the emir—the Hamas leader within the prison—I just didn’t trust him. I had heard many stories about “birds,” another word for prison spies.
If he’s a Shin Bet spy,I thought,why doesn’t he trust me? I’m supposed to be one of them now.I decided to play it safe and say nothing more than I had told the interrogators at the detention center.
I stayed at Megiddo Prison for two weeks, praying and fasting and reading the Qur’an. When new prisoners came through, I warned them about the emir.
“You’ve got to be careful,” I said. “That guy and his friends sound to me like they might be birds.” The new arrivals immediately told the emir about my suspicions, and the next day I was sent back to Maskobiyeh. The following morning, I was brought to the office.
“How was your trip to Megiddo?” Loai asked.
“It was nice,” I said sarcastically.
“You know, not everybody can spot a bird the first time he meets one. Go and rest now. Soon we will send you back to spend a little more time there. And one day we will do something together.”
Yeah, and one day I will shoot you in the head,I thought as I watched him walk away. I was proud of myself for having such radical thoughts.
I spent twenty-five more days at the detention center, but this time I was in a cell with three other prisoners, including my cousin Yousef. We passed the time talking and telling stories. One guy told us how he had killed somebody. Another boasted about sending suicide bombers. Everybody had an interesting story to tell. We sat around, praying, singing, and trying to have fun. Anything to get our minds off our current surroundings. It was not a place for humans.
Finally, all of us except my cousin were sent to Megiddo. But this time we were not going to be on the side with the birds; we were headed to a real prison. And nothing would ever be the same again.
They could smell us coming.
Our hair and beards were long after three months without scissors or razor. Our clothes were filthy. It took about two weeks to get rid of the stink of the detention center. Scrubbing didn’t work. It just had to wear off.
Most of the prisoners started their sentence in themi’var, a unit where everyone was processed before being moved to the larger camp population. Some prisoners, however, were considered too dangerous to be in the general population and lived in the mi’var for years. These men, not surprisingly, were all affiliated with Hamas. Some of the guys recognized me and came over to welcome us.
As Sheikh Hassan’s son, I was used to being recognized wherever I went. If he was the king, I was the prince—the heir apparent. And I was treated as such.
“We heard you were here a month ago. Your uncle is here. He will come to visit you soon.”
Lunch was hot and filling, although not quite as tasty as what I had eaten when I was with the birds. Still, I was happy. Even though I was in prison, I actually felt free. When I had time alone, I wondered about the Shin Bet. I had promised to work with them, but they hadn’t told me anything. They never explained how we would communicate or what it would mean to actually work together. They just left me on my own with no tips on how to behave. I was totally lost. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I wondered if maybe I had been scammed.
The mi’var was divided into two big dorms—Room Eight and Room Nine—lined with bunks. The dorms formed an L and housed twenty prisoners each. In the angle of the L, there was an exercise yard with a painted concrete floor and a broken-down Ping-Pong table that had been donated by the Red Cross. We were let out for exercise twice a day.
My bed was at the far end of Room Nine, right by the bathroom. We shared two toilets and two showers. Each toilet was just a hole in the floor over which we stood or squatted, and then we doused ourselves with water from a bucket when we were finished. It was hot and humid, and it smelled horrible.
In fact, the entire dorm was that way. Guys were sick and coughing; some never bothered to shower. Everybody had foul breath. Cigarette smoke overwhelmed the weak fan. And there were no windows for ventilation.
We were awakened every morning at four so we could get ready for predawn prayer. We waited in line with our towels, looking the way men look first thing in the morning and smelling the way men smell when there are no fans or ventilation. Then it was time forwudu. To begin the Islamic ritual of purification, we washed our hands up to the wrist, rinsed our mouths, and sniffed water into our nostrils. We scrubbed our faces with both hands from forehead to chin and ear to ear, washed our arms up to our elbows, and wiped our heads from the forehead to the back of the neck once with a wet hand. Finally, we wet our fingers and wiped our ears inside and out, wiped around our necks, and washed both feet up to the ankles. Then we repeated the whole process two more times.
At 4:30, when everybody was finished, the imam—a big, tough guy with a huge beard—chanted the adhan. Then he readAl-Fatihah(the opening sura, or passage, from the Qur’an), and we went through fourrakats(repetitions of prayers and standing, kneeling, and bowing postures).
Most of us prisoners were Muslims affiliated with Hamas or Islamic Jihad, so this was our regular routine anyway. But even those who were members of the secular and communist organizations had to get up at the same time, even though they didn’t pray. And they were not happy about it.
One guy was about halfway through a fifteen-year sentence. He was sick of the whole Islamic routine, and it took forever to get him up in the morning. Some of the prisoners poked him, punched him, and yelled, “Wake up!” Finally, they had to pour water on his head. I felt sorry for him. All the purifying, praying, and reading took about an hour. Then everybody went back to bed. No talking. Quiet time.
I always had difficulty falling back to sleep, and usually I didn’t doze off until it was close to seven. By the time I was finally asleep again, somebody would shout, “Adad! Adad![Number! Number!]” a warning that it was time to prepare for head count.
We sat on our bunks with our backs turned to the Israeli soldier who counted us, because he was unarmed. It took him only five minutes, and then we were allowed to go back to sleep.
“Jalsa! Jalsa!”the emir yelled at 8:30. It was time for the twice-daily organizational meetings held by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Heaven forbid they should let anybody sleep for a couple of hours straight. It got really annoying. Again, the line formed for the toilets so that everybody would be ready for the nine o’clock jalsa.
During the first Hamas jalsa of the day, we studied the rules for reading the Qur’an. I had learned all of this from my father, but most prisoners did not know any of it. The second daily jalsa was more about Hamas, our own discipline inside the prison, announcements of new arrivals, and news about what was going on outside. No secrets, no plans, just general news.
After each jalsa, we often passed the time by watching television on the set at the far end of the room, opposite the toilets. One morning, I was watching a cartoon when a commercial came on.
A big wooden board swung down in front of the screen.
I jumped and looked around.
“What just happened?!”
I realized that the board was attached to a heavy rope that hung from the ceiling. At the side of the room, a prisoner held tightly to the end of the rope. His job, apparently, was to watch for anything impure and drop the screen in front of the TV to protect us.
“Why did you drop the board?” I asked.
“Your own protection,” the man said gruffly.
“Protection? From what?”
“The girl in the commercial,” explained the board banger. “She was not wearing a head scarf.”
I turned to the emir. “Is he serious about this?”
“Yes, of course he is,” the emir said.
“But we all have TVs in our homes, and we don’t do this there. Why do it here?”
“Being in prison presents unusual challenges,” he explained. “We don’t have women. And things they show on television can cause problems for prisoners and lead to relationships between them that we don’t want. So this is the rule, and this is how we see it.”
Of course, not everybody saw it the same way. What we were allowed to watch depended a lot on who held the rope. If the guy was from Hebron, he would drop the board to cover even a female cartoon character without a scarf; if he was from liberal Ramallah, we got to see a lot more. We were supposed to take turns holding the rope, but I refused to touch the stupid thing.
After lunch was noontime prayer, followed by another quiet time. Most of the prisoners took a nap during this time. I usually read a book. And in the evening, we were allowed into the exercise area for a little walk or to hang out and talk.
Life in prison was pretty boring for Hamas guys. We were not allowed to play cards. We were supposed to limit our reading to the Qur’an or Islamic books. The other factions were allowed a lot more freedom than we were.
My cousin, Yousef, finally showed up one afternoon, and I was so happy to see him. The Israelis let us have some clippers, and we shaved his head to help get rid of the detention center smell.
Yousef was not Hamas; he was a socialist. He didn’t believe in Allah, but he didn’t disbelieve in God. That made him a close enough fit to be assigned to the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The DFLP fought for a Palestinian state, as opposed to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which fought for an Islamic state.
A few days after Yousef’s arrival, my uncle, Ibrahim Abu Salem, came to visit. He had been under administrative detention for two years, though no official charges had ever been brought against him. And because he was a danger to the security of Israel, he would be there a long time. As a Hamas VIP, my uncle Ibrahim was allowed to travel freely between the mi’var and the actual prison camp and from one camp section to another. So he came to the mi’var to check on his nephew, make sure I was okay, and bring me some clothes—a gesture of concern that seemed out of character for the man who had beaten me and abandoned our family when my father was in prison.
At nearly six feet tall, Ibrahim Abu Salem was larger than life. His ponderous belly—evidence of his passion for food—made him appear to be some sort of jolly gourmet. But I knew better. My uncle Ibrahim was a mean, selfish man, a liar and a hypocrite—the exact opposite of my father.
Yet inside the walls of Megiddo, my uncle Ibrahim was treated like a king. All the prisoners respected him, no matter what faction they were with—for his age, his teaching ability, his work in the universities, and his political and academic accomplishments. Usually, the leaders would take advantage of his visit and ask him to give a lecture.
Everyone liked to listen to Ibrahim when he taught. Rather than lecturing, he was more like an entertainer. He liked to make people laugh, and when he taught about Islam, he presented it using simple language that everyone could understand.
On this day, however, no one was laughing. Instead, all of the prisoners sat in wide-eyed silence as Ibrahim spoke fiercely about collaborators and how they deceived and embarrassed their families and were the enemy of the Palestinian people. From the way he was speaking, I got the feeling he was saying to me, “If you have something that you haven’t told me, Mosab, you had better tell me now.”
Of course, I didn’t. Even if Ibrahim was suspicious about my connection with the Shin Bet, he wouldn’t have dared to say so directly to the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef.
“If you need anything,” he said before he left, “just let me know. I will try to get you placed close to me.”
It was the summer of 1996. Though I was only eighteen, I felt as if I had lived several lifetimes in just a few months. A couple of weeks after my uncle’s visit, a prisoner representative, orshaweesh, came into Room Nine and called out, “Eight twenty-three!” I looked up, surprised to hear my number. Then he called out three or four other numbers and told us to gather our belongings.
As we stepped out of the mi’var into the desert, the heat hit me like dragon’s breath and made me light-headed for a moment. Stretched ahead of us for as far as I could see was nothing but the tops of big brown tents. We marched past the first section, second section, third section. Hundreds of prisoners ran to the high chain-link fence to see the new arrivals. We arrived at Section Five, and the gates swung open. More than fifty people crowded around us, hugged us, and shook our hands.
We were taken to an administration tent and again asked our organizational affiliations. Then I was led to the Hamas tent, where the emir received me and shook my hand.
“Welcome,” he said. “Good to see you. We are very proud of you. We’ll prepare a bed for you soon and give you some towels and other things you need.” Then he added with typical prison humor, “Just make yourself comfortable and enjoy your stay.”
Every section of the prison had twelve tents. Each tent housed twenty beds and footlockers. Maximum section capacity: 240 prisoners. Picture a rectangular picture frame, bordered with razor wire. Section Five was divided into quarters. A wall, topped with razor wire, bisected the section from north to south, and a low fence bisected it from east to west.
Quadrants One and Two (upper right and left) housed three Hamas tents each. Quadrant Three (lower right) had four tents—one each for Hamas, Fatah, the combined DFLP/PFLP, and Islamic Jihad. And Quadrant Four (lower left) had two tents, one for Fatah and one for the DFLP/PFLP.
Quadrant Four also had the kitchen, toilets, showers, an area for the shaweesh and kitchen workers, and basins for wudu. We lined up in rows for prayer in an open area in Quadrant Two. And, of course, there were guard towers at every corner. The main gate to Section Five was in the fence between Quadrants Three and Four.
One more detail: The fence running east and west had gates between Quadrants One and Three and between Two and Four. They were left open during most of the day, except during head counts. Then they were closed so officials could isolate half a section at a time.
I was assigned to the Hamas tent in the upper corner of Quadrant One, third bunk on the right. After the first head count, we were all sitting around talking when a distant voice shouted, “Bareed ya mujahideen! Bareed![Mail from the freedom fighters! Mail!].”
It was thesawa’edin the next section, giving everyone a heads up. The sawa’ed were agents for the Hamas security wing inside the prison, who distributed messages from one section to another. The name came from the Arabic words meaning “throwing arms.”
At the call, a couple of guys ran out of their tents, held out their hands, and looked toward the sky. As if on cue, a ball seemed to fall out of nowhere into their waiting hands. This was how Hamas leaders in our section received encoded orders or information from leaders in other sections. Every Palestinian organization in the prison used this method of communication. Each had its own code name, so that when the warning was shouted, the appropriate “catchers” knew to run into the drop zone.
The balls were made of bread that had been softened with water. The message was inserted and then the dough was rolled into a ball about the size of a softball, dried, and hardened. Naturally, only the best pitchers and catchers were selected as “postmen.”
As quickly as the excitement started, it was over. Then it was time for lunch.
Trust No One
After being held underground for so long, it was wonderful to see the sky. It seemed as though I hadn’t seen the stars for years. They were beautiful, despite the huge camp lights that dimmed their brightness. But stars meant it was time to head to our tents to prepare for head count and bed. And that was when things got really confusing for me.
My number was 823, and prisoners were billeted in numerical order. That meant I should have been placed in the Hamas tent in Quadrant Three. But that tent was full, so I had been assigned to the corner tent in Quadrant One.
When it came time for head count, however, I still had to stand in the appropriate place in Quadrant Three. That way, when the guard went down his list, he wouldn’t have to remember all the housekeeping adjustments that had been made to keep things tidy.
Every movement of the head count was choreographed.
Twenty-five soldiers, M16s at the ready, entered Quadrant One and then moved from tent to tent. We all stood facing the canvas, our backs to the troops. Nobody dared move for fear of being shot.
When they had finished there, the soldiers moved into Quadrant Two. After that, they closed both gates in the fence, so that no one from One or Two could slip into Three or Four to cover for a missing prisoner.
On my first night in Section Five, I noticed that a mysterious kind of shell game was taking place. When I first took my place in Three, a very sickly looking prisoner stood next to me. He looked horrible, almost as if he was about to die. His head was shaved; he was clearly exhausted. He never made eye contact.Who is this guy, and what happened to him?I wondered.
When the soldiers finished the head count in One and moved on to Two, somebody grabbed the guy, dragged him out of the tent, and another prisoner took his place next to me. I learned later that a small opening had been cut in the fence between One and Three so they could swap the prisoner with someone else.
Obviously, nobody wanted the soldiers to see the bald guy. But why?
That night, lying in my bed, I heard somebody moaning in the distance, somebody who was clearly in a lot of pain. It didn’t last long, however, and I quickly drifted off to sleep.
Morning always came too quickly, and before I knew it, we were being awakened for predawn prayer. Of the 240 prisoners in Section Five, 140 guys got up and stood in line to use the six toilets—actually six holes with privacy barriers over a common pit. Eight basins for wudu. Thirty minutes.
Then we lined up in rows for prayer. The daily routine was pretty much the same as it had been in the mi’var. But now there were twelve times as many prisoners. And yet I was struck by how smoothly everything went, even with that many people. No one ever seemed to make a mistake. It was almost eerie.
Everybody seemed to be terrified. No one dared break a rule. No one dared stay a little too long at the toilet. No one dared make eye contact with a prisoner under investigation or with an Israeli soldier. No one ever stood too close to the fence.
It didn’t take long, though, before I began to understand. Flying under the radar of the prison authorities, Hamas was running its own show, and they were keeping score. Break a rule, and you got a red point. Collect enough red points, and you answered to themaj’d, the Hamas security wing—tough guys who didn’t smile and didn’t make jokes.
Most of the time, we didn’t even see the maj’d because they were busy collecting intelligence. The message balls thrown from one section to another were from them and for them.
One day, I was sitting on my bed when the maj’d came in and shouted, “Everybody evacuate this tent!” Nobody said a word. The tent was empty in seconds. They took a man inside the now-empty tent, closed the flap, and posted two guards. Somebody turned on the TV. Loud. Other guys started to sing and make noises.
I didn’t know what was going on inside the tent, but I had never heard a human being scream like that guy did.What could he have done to deserve that?I wondered. The torture went on for about thirty minutes. Then two maj’d brought him out and took him to another tent, where the interrogation began again.
I had been talking to a friend named Akel Sorour, who was from a village close to Ramallah, when we were evacuated.
“What’s going on in that tent?” I asked.
“Oh, he is a bad guy,” he said simply.
“I know he is a bad guy, but what are they doing to him? And what has he done?”
“He didn’t do anything in prison,” Akel explained. “But they say when he was in Hebron he gave the Israelis information about a Hamas member, and it sounded like he was talking a lot. So they torture him from time to time.”
“They usually put needles under his fingernails and melt plastic food trays onto his bare skin. Or they burn off his body hair. Sometimes they put a big stick behind his knees, force him to sit on his ankles for hours, and don’t let him sleep.”
Now I understood why everyone was so careful to toe the line and what had happened to the bald man I saw when I first arrived. The maj’d hated collaborators, and until we could prove otherwise, we were all suspected of being collaborators, spies for the Israelis.
Because Israel had been so successful in identifying Hamas cells and imprisoning its members, the maj’d assumed that the organization must be riddled with spies, and they were determined to expose them. They watched every move we made. They watched our manners and listened to everything we said. And they tallied up the points. We knew who they were, but we didn’t know who their spies were. Somebody I thought was a friend could work with the maj’d, and I could find myself being investigated tomorrow.
I decided my best bet was to keep to myself as much as I could and be very careful whom I trusted. Once I understood the atmosphere of suspicion and treachery in the camp, my life changed dramatically. I felt as though I was in an entirely different prison—one in which I could not move freely, talk freely, trust or relate or befriend. I was afraid to make a mistake, be late, sleep through wake-up calls, or nod off during jalsa.
If someone was “convicted” by the maj’d of being a collaborator, his life was over. His family’s life was over. His kids, his wife, everyone abandoned him. Being known as a collaborator was the worst reputation anyone could have. Between 1993 and 1996, more than 150 suspected collaborators were investigated by Hamas inside Israeli prisons. About sixteen were murdered.
Because I could write very fast and neatly, the maj’d asked if I would be their clerk. The information I would handle was top secret, they said. And they warned me to keep it to myself.
I spent my days copying dossiers on prisoners. We were very careful to keep this information out of reach of the prison officials. We never used names, just code numbers. Written on the thinnest paper available, the files read like the worst kind of pornography. Guys confessed to having had sex with their mothers. One said he had had sex with a cow. Another had had sex with his daughter. Yet another had had sex with his neighbor, filmed it with a spy camera, and given the photographs to the Israelis. The Israelis, the report said, showed the pictures to the neighbor and threatened to send them to her family if she refused to work with their spy. So they kept having sex together and collecting information and having sex with others and filming it, until the entire village seemed to be working for the Israelis. And this was just the first file I was asked to copy.
It seemed crazy to me. As I continued to copy the files, I realized that suspects under torture were being asked things they couldn’t possibly know about and giving answers they thought their torturers wanted to hear. It seemed obvious that they would say anything just to make the torture stop. I also suspected that some of these bizarre interrogations served no purpose other than to feed the sexual fantasies of the imprisoned maj’d.
Then one day, my friend Akel Sorour became one of their victims. He was a member of a Hamas cell and had been arrested many times, but for some reason he was never accepted by the urban Hamas prisoners. Akel was a simple farmer. The way he spoke and ate seemed funny to the others, and they took advantage of him. He tried his best to gain their trust and respect by cooking and cleaning for them, but they treated him like trash because they knew he served them out of fear.
And Akel had reason to be afraid. His parents were dead. His sister was the only family he had left. This made him extremely vulnerable because there was no one to take revenge for his torture. In addition, a friend from his cell had been interrogated by the maj’d and mentioned Akel’s name under torture. I felt very sorry for him. But how could I help him? I was just a confused kid with no authority. I knew that the only reason I was immune from the same treatment was because of my father.
Once a month, our families were permitted to visit us. The Israeli prison cuisine left a lot to be desired, so they usually brought us homemade food and personal items. Because Akel and I were from the same area, our families came on the same day.
After a long application process, the Red Cross gathered family members from a particular area and loaded them onto buses. It was only a two-hour drive to Megiddo. But because the buses had to stop at every checkpoint and all the passengers had to be searched at every stop, our families had to leave the house at four in the morning in order to reach the prison by noon.
One day, after a pleasant visit with his sister, Akel returned to Section Five with the bags of food she had brought him. He was happy and had no idea what awaited him. My uncle Ibrahim had come to lecture, which was always a bad sign. I had learned that Ibrahim often gathered everyone together and preached to provide cover for the maj’d when they took someone to interrogation. This time, the “someone” was Akel. The maj’d took away his gifts and led him into a tent. He disappeared behind a curtain, where his worst nightmare began.
I looked at my uncle. Why didn’t he stop them? He had been in prison with Akel many times. They had suffered together. Akel had cooked for him and taken care of him. My uncle knew this man. Was it because Akel was a poor, quiet farmer from the village and my uncle was from the city?
Whatever the reasons, Ibrahim Abu Salem sat with the maj’d, laughing and eating the food Akel’s sister had brought for her imprisoned brother. Nearby, fellow Hamas members—fellow Arabs, fellow Palestinians, fellow Muslims—shoved needles under Akel’s fingernails.
I saw Akel only a few times over the next few weeks. His head and beard had been shaved, his eyes were glued to the ground. He was skinny and looked like an old man at death’s door.
Later, I was given his file to copy. He had confessed to having sex with every woman in his village as well as with donkeys and other animals. I knew that every word was a lie, but I copied the file, and the maj’d sent it to his village. His sister disowned him. His neighbors shunned him.
To me, the maj’d were far worse than any collaborator. But they were also powerful and influential within the inner workings of the prison system. I thought I might be able to use them to reach my own objectives.
Anas Rasras was a maj’d leader. His father was a college professor in the West Bank and a close friend of my uncle Ibrahim. After I arrived at Megiddo, my uncle had asked Anas to help me get adjusted and learn the ropes. Anas was from Hebron, about forty years old, very secretive, very intelligent, and very dangerous. He was under the eyes of the Shin Bet every moment he was out of prison. He had few friends, but he never participated in torture. Because of this, I grew to respect and even trust him.
I told him about how I had agreed to collaborate with the Israelis so that I could become a double agent, obtain high-level weaponry, and kill them from the inside. I asked if he could help me.
“I have to check this out,” he said. “I won’t tell anybody, but I will see.”
“What do you mean you will see? Can you help me or not?”
I should have known better than to trust this man. Instead of trying to help me, he immediately told my uncle Ibrahim and some of the other members of the maj’d about my plan.
The next morning, my uncle came to see me.
“What do you think you are doing?”
“Don’t freak out. Nothing happened. I have a plan. You don’t have to be part of it.”
“This is very dangerous, Mosab, for your reputation and your father’s, for your entire family’s. Other people do things like this, not you.”
He began to question me. Did the Shin Bet give me a contact inside the prison? Did I meet this particular Israeli guy or that security guy? What was I told? What did I tell others? The more he interrogated me, the angrier I became. Finally, I just blew up in his face.
“Why don’t you stick to your religious stuff and leave security alone! All these guys are torturing people for nothing. They have no idea what they’re doing. Look, I have nothing else to say. I am going to do what I want, and you do what you want.”
I knew that things didn’t look good for me. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t torture or interrogate me because of my father, but I could tell that my uncle Ibrahim didn’t know if I was telling the truth or not.
At that point, I wasn’t sure either.
I recognized that I had been foolish to trust the maj’d. Had I been just as foolish to trust the Israelis? They still hadn’t told me anything. They had given me no contacts. Were they playing a game with me?
I went to my tent and felt myself beginning to shut down mentally and emotionally. I no longer trusted anyone. Other prisoners saw that something was wrong with me, but they didn’t know what it was. Though the maj’d kept what I told them to themselves, they never took their eyes off of me. Everyone was suspicious of me. Likewise, I suspected everyone. And we all lived together in an open-air cage with no place else to go. No place to get away or hide.
Time dragged on. Suspicion grew. Every day, there was screaming; every night, torture. Hamas was torturing its own people! As much as I wanted to, I simply could not find a way to justify that.
Soon it got even worse. Instead of one person, three would be under investigation at the same time. One morning at four o’clock, a guy ran through the section, scrambled up and over the perimeter fence, and in twenty seconds was outside the camp, his clothes and his flesh shredded by the razor wire. An Israeli tower guard swung his machine gun around and took aim.
“Don’t shoot!” the guy screamed. “Don’t shoot! I’m not trying to escape. I’m trying to get away from them!” And he pointed to the panting maj’d who glared out at him through the fence. Soldiers ran out the gate, threw the inmate to the ground, searched him, and took him away.
Was this Hamas? Was this Islam?
My father was Islam to me.
If I were to put him on the scale of Allah, he would weigh more than any other Muslim I had ever met. He never missed a prayer time. Even when he came home late and tired, I often heard him praying and crying out to the god of the Qur’an in the middle of the night. He was humble, loving, and forgiving—to my mother, to his children, even to people he didn’t know.
More than an apologist for Islam, my father lived his life as an example of what a Muslim should be. He reflected the beautiful side of Islam, not the cruel side that required its followers to conquer and enslave the earth.
However, over the ten-year period that followed my imprisonment, I would watch him struggle with an inner, irrational conflict. On the one hand, he didn’t see those Muslims who killed settlers and soldiers and innocent women and children as wrong. He believed that Allah gave them the authority to do that. On the other hand, he personally could not do what they did. Something in his soul rejected it. What he could not justify as right for himself he rationalized as right for others.
But as a child, I saw only his virtues and assumed they were the fruit of his beliefs. Because I wanted to be just like him, I believed what he believed without question. What I didn’t know at the time was that no matter how much we weighed on Allah’s scale, all of our righteousness and good works were like filthy rags to God.
Even so, the Muslims I saw in Megiddo bore no resemblance to my father. They judged people as if they thought they were greater than Allah himself. They were mean and petty, blocking a television screen to prevent us from seeing a bareheaded actress. They were bigots and hypocrites, torturing those who got too many red points—though only the weakest, most vulnerable people seemed to accumulate these points. Prisoners who were well connected walked with immunity—even a confessed Israeli collaborator, if he was the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef.
For the first time, I began to question things I had always believed in.
It was time for my trial. I had been in prison for six months. The IDF drove me to Jerusalem, where the prosecutors asked the judge to sentence me to sixteen months.
Sixteen months! The Shin Bet captain had promised me I would have to stay in prison for only a short time! What did I do to deserve such a harsh sentence? Sure, I had a crazy idea and bought a few guns. But they were worthless guns that didn’t even work!
The courts gave me credit for the time I already had served, and I was sent back to Megiddo for my final ten months.
“Okay,” I told Allah. “I could serve another ten months, but please not there! Not in hell!” But there was no one I could complain to—certainly not the Israeli security guys who had recruited and then abandoned me.
At least I was able to see my family once a month. My mother made the grueling trip to Megiddo every four weeks. She was permitted to bring only three of my brothers and sisters, so they took turns. And every time, she brought me a fresh batch of delicious spinach patties and baklava. My family never missed a visit.
Seeing them was a great relief for me, even though I couldn’t share what was happening inside the fence and behind the curtains. And seeing me seemed to ease their suffering a little as well. I had been like a father to my little brothers and sisters—cooking for them, cleaning up after them, bathing and dressing them, taking them to and from school—and in prison I had also become a hero of the resistance. They were very proud of me.
During one visit, my mother told me that the Palestinian Authority had released my dad. I knew that he had always wanted to make hajj—a pilgrimage to Mecca—and my mother said he had set out for Saudi Arabia shortly after returning home. Hajj is the fifth pillar of the Islamic religion, and every Muslim who is physically and financially able is required to make the trip at least once during his or her lifetime. More than two million go every year.
But my father never made it. Crossing the Allenby Bridge between Israel and Jordan, he was arrested again, this time by the Israelis.
* * *
One afternoon, the Hamas faction at Megiddo presented prison officials with a list of petty demands, gave them twenty-four hours to meet them, and threatened to riot if they didn’t.
Obviously, prison officials didn’t want an uprising. A riot might end up with prisoners being shot, and the government bureaucrats in Jerusalem didn’t want to have to deal with the big fuss that would be made by the Red Cross and the human rights organizations if that happened. Riots were a lose-lose scenario for everybody concerned. So the Israelis met with the main shaweesh, who was billeted in our section.
“We cannot work like this,” the prison officials told him. “Give us more time, and we’ll work something out.”
“No,” he insisted. “You have twenty-four hours.”
Of course, the Israelis could not show weakness by giving in. And, frankly, I didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Even though I was miserable here, compared to other facilities I had heard about, Megiddo was a five-star prison. The demands seemed silly and pointless to me—more phone time, longer visiting hours, that sort of thing.
Throughout the day, we waited as the sun moved across the sky. And as the deadline passed, Hamas told us to prepare to riot.
“What are we supposed to do?” we asked.
“Just be destructive and violent! Break up the blacktop and throw the pieces at the soldiers. Throw soap. Throw hot water. Throw anything you can lift!”
Some guys filled containers with water so that if the soldiers threw gas canisters, we could grab them and drop them into the buckets. We started chopping up the exercise area. All at once, the sirens went off and things became very dangerous. Hundreds of soldiers in riot gear deployed throughout the camp and aimed their weapons at us through the perimeter fence.
The only thing that kept running through my mind was how insane this all seemed to be.Why are we doing this?I wondered.This is crazy! Just because of that lunatic shaweesh?I wasn’t a coward, but this was pointless. The Israelis were heavily armed and protected, and we were going to throw chunks of tar.
Hamas gave the signal, and prisoners in every section started throwing wood, blacktop, and soap. Within seconds, a hundred black gas canisters flew into the sections and exploded, filling the camp with thick white fog. I couldn’t see anything. The stink was indescribable. Guys all around me dropped to the ground and gasped for fresh air.
All of this occurred in only three minutes. And the Israelis had just started.
Soldiers aimed big pipes at us that spewed billows of yellow gas. But that stuff didn’t blow around in the air like the tear gas; being heavier than air, it hugged the ground and pushed all the oxygen away. Prisoners began to pass out.
I was trying to catch my breath when I saw the fire.
The Islamic Jihad tent in Quadrant Three was burning. Within seconds, the flames shot twenty feet into the air. The tents were treated with some kind of petroleum-based waterproofing and burned as if they were soaked with petrol. The wooden poles and frames, mattresses, footlockers—all went up in flames. The wind spread the fire to the DFLP/PFLP and Fatah tents, and ten seconds later, they, too, were swallowed by the inferno.
The raging fire was moving our way very quickly. A huge piece of crackling tent flew into the air and over the razor wire. Soldiers surrounded us. There was no way to escape except through the flames.
So we ran.
I covered my face with a towel and raced for the kitchen area. There was only ten feet between the burning tents and the wall. More than two hundred of us tried to pass through at once as the soldiers continued to saturate the section with the yellow gas.
Within minutes, half of Section Five was gone—everything we owned, what little there had been. Nothing left but ashes.
Many prisoners were hurt. Miraculously, no one had been killed. Ambulances came to collect the injured, and after the riots, those of us whose tents had burned were relocated. I was moved to the middle Hamas tent in Quadrant Two.
The only good that came out of the Megiddo riots was that the torture by Hamas leaders stopped. Surveillance continued, but we felt a little more at ease and allowed ourselves to become a little more careless. I made a couple of friends whom I thought I might be able to trust. But mostly, I walked around for hours by myself doing nothing, day after day.
* * *
On September 1, 1997, a prison guard returned my belongings and the little bit of money I had when I was arrested, handcuffed me, and put me in a van. The soldiers drove to the first checkpoint they came to in Palestinian territory, which was Jenin in the West Bank. They opened the door of the van and removed the handcuffs.
“You’re free to go,” one of the men said. And then they drove off in the direction we had come from, leaving me standing alone on the side of the road.
I couldn’t believe it. It was wonderful just to walk outside. I was eager to see my mother and my brothers and sisters. I was still a two-hour drive away from home, but I didn’t want to walk quickly. I wanted to savor my freedom.
I strolled a couple of miles, filling my lungs with free air and my ears with sweet silence. Beginning to feel human again, I found a taxi that took me to the center of a town. Another taxi took me to Nablus, then to Ramallah and home.
Driving down the streets of Ramallah, seeing familiar shops and people, I longed to jump out of the taxi and lose myself in it all. Before I stepped out of the taxi in front of my house, I caught a glimpse of my mother standing in the doorway. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she called out to me. She ran toward the car and threw her arms around me. As she clung to me and patted my back, my shoulders, my face, and my head, all the pain she had held in for nearly a year and a half poured out of her.
“We’ve been counting the days until your return,” she said. “We were so worried we might never see you again. We are so very proud of you, Mosab. You are a true hero.”
Like my father, I knew I could not tell her or my brothers and sisters what I had gone through. It would have been too painful for them. To them I was a hero who had been in an Israeli prison with all the other heroes, and now I was home. They even saw it as a good experience for me, almost a rite of passage. Did my mother find out about the guns? Yes. Did she think it was stupid? Probably, but it all came under the heading of the resistance and was rationalized away.
We celebrated the entire day of my return and ate wonderful food and joked and had fun, as we always did when we were together. It was almost as though I had never been away. And over the next few days, many of my friends and my father’s friends came to rejoice with us.
I stayed around the house for a few weeks, soaking up the love and stuffing myself with my mother’s cooking. Then I went out and enjoyed all the other sights, sounds, and smells I had missed so much. In the evenings I spent time hanging out downtown with my friends—eating falafel at Mays Al Reem and drinking coffee at the Kit Kat with Basam Huri, the shop’s owner. As I walked the busy streets and talked with my friends, I inhaled the peace and simplicity of freedom.
Between my father’s release from the PA prison and his rearrest by the Israelis, my mother had become pregnant again. That was a big surprise for my parents, because they had planned to stop having children after my sister Anhar was born seven years earlier. By the time I got home, my mother was about six months along and the baby was getting big. Then she broke her ankle, and the healing process was very slow because our developing baby brother was consuming all her calcium. We didn’t have a wheelchair, so I had to carry her wherever she needed to go. She was in a lot of pain, and it broke my heart to see her that way. I got a driver’s license so we could do errands and buy groceries. And when Naser was born, I took on the duties of feeding and bathing him and changing his diapers. He began his life thinking I was his dad.
Needless to say, I had missed my exams and did not graduate from high school. They had offered the exam to all of us in prison, but I was the only one who failed. I could never understand why, because representatives from the Education Ministry came to the prison and gave everybody an answer sheet before the test. It was crazy. One guy who was sixty years old and illiterate had to have someone write down the answers for him. And even he passed! I had the answers, too, plus I had gone to school for twelve years and was familiar with the material. But when the results came, everybody passed except me. The only thing I could figure was that Allah didn’t want me to pass by cheating.
So when I got home, I began taking night classes at Al-Ahlia, a Catholic school in Ramallah. Most of the students were traditional Muslims who went because it was the best school in town. And going to school at night enabled me to work during the day at the local Checkers hamburger shop to help take care of my family.
I only got a 64 percent on my exams, but it was enough to pass. I hadn’t tried hard because I wasn’t very interested in the subject matter. I didn’t care. I was just grateful to have that behind me.
Two months after my release, my cell phone rang.
“Congratulations,” said a voice in Arabic.
I recognized the accent. It was my “faithful” Shin Bet captain, Loai.
“We would love to see you,” Loai said, “but we cannot talk long on the phone. Can we meet?”
He gave me a phone number, a password, and some directions. I felt like a real spy. He told me to go to a specific location, and then to another, and then to call him from there.
I followed his instructions, and when I made the call, I was given more directions. I walked for about twenty minutes until a car pulled up beside me and stopped. A man inside the car told me to get in, which I did. I was searched, told to lie down on the floor, and covered with a blanket.
We drove for about an hour, during which time no one spoke. When we finally stopped, we were inside a garage at somebody’s house. I was glad it wasn’t another military base or a detention center. Actually, I learned later that it was a government-owned house in an Israeli settlement. As soon as I arrived, I was searched again, this time much more thoroughly, and led into a nicely furnished living room. I sat there for a while, and then Loai came in. He shook my hand—and then he hugged me.
“How are you doing? How was your experience in prison?”
I told him I was doing fine and that my prison experience had not been very good, especially since he had told me that I would spend only a short time there.
“I am sorry; we had to do that to protect you.”
I thought about my comments to the maj’d about being a double agent and wondered whether Loai knew about them. I figured I had better try to protect myself.
“Look,” I said, “they were torturing people in there, and I had no choice but to tell them that I had agreed to work for you. I was afraid. You never warned me about what was going on in there. You never told me I would have to watch out for my own people. You didn’t train me, and I was freaking out. So I told them that I promised to be a collaborator so I could become a double agent and kill you guys.”
Loai looked surprised, but he wasn’t angry. Though the Shin Bet could not condone torture within the prison, they certainly knew about it—and understood why I might have felt afraid.
He called his supervisor and told him everything I had said. And maybe because it was so hard for Israel to recruit members of Hamas or maybe because, as the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, I was a particularly valuable prize, they let it go at that.
These Israelis were nothing like I had expected them to be.
Loai gave me a few hundred dollars and told me to go buy myself some clothes, take care of myself, and enjoy my life.
“We’ll be in touch later,” he said.
What? No secret assignment? No codebook? No gun? Just a wad of cash and a hug? This made no sense at all.
We met again a couple of weeks later, this time at a Shin Bet house in the heart of Jerusalem. Every house was completely furnished, loaded with alarms and guards, and so secret that not even the next-door neighbors had a clue what was going on inside. Most of the rooms were set up for meetings. And I was never allowed to move from one room to another without an escort, not because they didn’t trust me, but because they didn’t want me to be seen by other Shin Bet guys. Just another layer of security.
During this second meeting, the members of Shin Bet were extremely friendly. They spoke Arabic well, and it was clear they understood me, my family, and my culture. I had no information, and they asked for none. We simply talked about life in general.
This was not at all what I had expected. I really wanted to know what they wanted me to do, though because of the files I had read in prison, I was also a bit afraid they might tell me to do something like have sex with my sister or my neighbor and bring them the video. But there was never anything like that.
After the second meeting, Loai gave me twice as much money as the first time. In a month’s time, I had gotten about eight hundred dollars from him, an awful lot of money for a twenty-year-old to earn at the time. And still I had given the Shin Bet nothing in return. In fact, during my first few months as a Shin Bet agent, I learned much more than I shared.
My training started with some basic rules. I was not to commit adultery because this could expose—or burn—me. In fact, I was told not to have any out-of-wedlock relationship with a woman at all—Palestinian or Israeli—while I was working for them. If I did, I would be gone. And I wasn’t to tell anyone my double-agent story anymore.
Every time we met, I learned more about life and justice and security. The Shin Bet was not trying to break me down to make me do bad things. They actually seemed to be doing their best to build me up, to make me stronger and wiser.
As time went on, I began to question my plan to kill the Israelis. These people were being so kind. They clearly cared about me.Why would I want to kill them?I was surprised to realize that I no longer did.
The occupation had not gone away. The cemetery in Al-Bireh was still being filled with the bodies of Palestinian men, women, and children killed by Israeli soldiers. And I had not forgotten the beating I suffered on the way to prison or the days I was chained to that little chair.
But I also remembered the screams from the torture tents at Megiddo and the man who nearly impaled himself on the razor-wire fence trying to escape his Hamas tormentors. Now I was gaining understanding and wisdom. And who were my mentors? My enemies! But were they really? Or were they only nice to me so they could use me? I was even more confused than before.
During one meeting, Loai said, “Since you are working with us, we are thinking about releasing your father so you can be close to him and see what is going on in the territories.” I didn’t know that had even been a possibility, but I was happy to be getting my dad back.
In later years, my father and I would compare notes about our experiences. He did not like to go into detail about the things he suffered, but he wanted me to know that he had set some things right during his time at Megiddo. He told me about a time when he had been watching television in the mi’var when somebody dropped a board over the screen.
“I am not going to watch TV if you keep covering the screen with that board,” he told the emir. They hauled up the board, and that was the end of that. And when he was moved to the prison camp, he was even able to put an end to the torture. He ordered the maj’d to give him all their files, studied them, and found that at least 60 percent of the suspected collaborators were innocent. So he made sure their families and their communities were told about the false accusations. One of the innocent men was Akel Sorour. The certificate of innocence my father sent to Akel’s village could not erase what he had suffered, but at least he was able to live in peace and honor.
After my father was released from prison, my uncle Ibrahim came to visit. My dad also wanted him to know that he had ended the torture at Megiddo and found that most of the men whose lives and families had been ruined by the maj’d were innocent. Ibrahim pretended to be shocked. And when my father mentioned Akel, my uncle said he had tried to defend him and told the maj’d there was no way Akel was a collaborator.
“Allah be praised,” Ibrahim said, “that you helped him out!”
I couldn’t stand his hypocrisy, and I left the room.
My father also let me know that during his time at Megiddo, he had heard about the double-agent story I had told the maj’d. But he wasn’t angry with me. He simply told me that I had been foolish to even talk with them in the first place.
“I know, Father,” I said. “I promise you don’t have to worry about me. I can take care of myself.”
“That’s good to hear,” he said. “Please just be more careful from now on. There is no one I trust more than you.”
When we met later that month, Loai told me, “It’s time you get started. Here is what we want you to do.”
Finally, I thought.
“Your assignment is to go to college and get your bachelor’s degree.”
He handed me an envelope filled with money.
“That should cover your schooling and your expenses,” he said. “If you need more, please let me know.”
I couldn’t believe it. But for the Israelis, it made perfect sense. My education, inside and outside the classroom, was a good investment for them. It wouldn’t be very prudent for national security to work with someone who was uneducated and had no prospects. It was also dangerous for me to be perceived as a loser because the wisdom on the streets of the territories was that only losers worked with the Israelis. Obviously, this wisdom had not been very well thought out because losers had nothing to offer the Shin Bet.
So I applied to Birzeit University, but they would not accept me because my high school grades were too low. I explained that there had been exceptional circumstances and that I had been in prison. I was an intelligent young man, I argued, and would be a good student. But they didn’t make exceptions. My only option was to enroll at Al-Quds Open University and study at home.
This time, I did well in school. I was a little bit wiser and a lot more motivated. And who did I have to thank? My enemy.
Whenever I met with my Shin Bet handlers, they told me, “If you need anything, just let us know. You can go purify yourself. You can pray. You don’t need to be afraid.” The food and drink they offered me did not violate Islamic law. My handlers were very careful to avoid doing anything they knew to be offensive to me: They didn’t wear shorts. They didn’t sit with their legs on the desk and their feet in my face. They were always very respectful. And because of this, I wanted to learn more from them. They didn’t behave like military machines. They were human beings, and they treated me like a human being. Nearly every time we met, another stone in the foundation of my worldview crumbled.
My culture—not my father—had taught me that the IDF and the Israeli people were my enemies. My father didn’t see soldiers; he saw individual men doing what they believed to be their duty as soldiers. His problem was not with people but with the ideas that motivated and drove the people.
Loai was more like my father than any Palestinian I had ever met. He did not believe in Allah, but he respected me anyway.
So who was my enemy now?
I talked with the Shin Bet about the torture at Megiddo. They told me they knew all about it. Every move of the prisoners, everything anyone said, was recorded. They knew about the secret messages in dough balls and the torture tents and the hole cut in the fence.
“Why didn’t you stop it?”
“First of all, we cannot change that kind of mentality. It is not our job to teach Hamas to love one another. We cannot come in and say, ‘Hey, don’t torture one another; don’t kill each other,’ and make everything okay. Second, Hamas destroys itself more from the inside than anything Israel can do to it from the outside.”
The world I knew was relentlessly eroding, revealing another world that I was just beginning to understand. Every time I met with the Shin Bet, I learned something new, something about my life, about others. It wasn’t brainwashing through mind-numbing repetition, starvation, and sleep deprivation. What the Israelis were teaching me was more logical and more real than anything I had ever heard from my own people.
My father had never taught me any of this because he had always been in prison. And honestly, I suspected he could not have taught me these things anyway because my father did not know much of it himself.
* * *
Among the seven ancient gates that offer access through the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, one is more ornate than all the others. The Damascus Gate, constructed by Suleiman the Magnificent nearly five hundred years ago, is situated near the middle of the northern wall. Significantly, it brings people into the Old City at the border where the historic Muslim Quarter meets the Christian Quarter.
In the first century, a man named Saul of Tarsus passed through an earlier version of this gate on his way to Damascus, where he planned to lead a brutal suppression of a new Jewish sect he considered heretical. The targets of this persecution would come to be called Christians. A surprising encounter not only kept Saul from reaching his destination, it also forever changed his life.
With all the history that permeates the atmosphere in this ancient spot, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to have a life-changing encounter there myself. Indeed, one day my best friend Jamal and I were walking past the Damascus Gate. Suddenly I heard a voice directed toward me.
“What’s your name?” a guy who looked to be about thirty asked in Arabic, though clearly he was not an Arab.
“My name is Mosab.”
“Where are you going, Mosab?”
“We’re going home. We’re from Ramallah.”
“I’m from the United Kingdom,” he said, switching to English. Though he continued speaking, his accent was so thick that I had trouble understanding him. After a little back-and-forth, I figured out he was talking about something to do with Christianity and a study group that met at the YMCA by the King David Hotel in West Jerusalem.
I knew where it was. I was a little bored at the time and thought it might actually be interesting to learn about Christianity. If I could learn so much from the Israelis, maybe other “infidels” might have something valuable to teach me as well. Besides, after hanging out with nominal Muslims, zealots, and atheists, the educated and the ignorant, right-wingers and left-wingers, Jews and Gentiles, I wasn’t picky anymore. And this guy seemed like a simple man who was inviting me just to come and talk, not to vote for Jesus in the next election.
“What do you think?” I asked Jamal. “Should we go?”
Jamal and I had known each other since we were very young. We went to school together, threw stones together, and attended mosque together. Six foot three and handsome, Jamal never spoke much. He rarely started a conversation, but he was an outstanding listener. And we never argued, not even once.
In addition to growing up together, we had been together in Megiddo Prison. After Section Five burned during the riots, Jamal was transferred with my cousin Yousef to Section Six and released from there.
Prison, however, had changed him. He stopped praying and going to mosque, and he started smoking. He was depressed and spent most of his time just sitting at home watching TV. At least I had beliefs to hold on to while I was in prison. But Jamal was from a secular family that didn’t practice Islam, so his faith was too thin to hold him together.
Now Jamal looked at me, and I could tell he wanted to go to the Bible study. He was clearly just as curious—and bored—as I was. But something inside him resisted.
“You go on without me,” he said. “Call me when you get home.”
There were about fifty of us who met inside an old storefront that night, mostly students about my age of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. A couple of people translated the English presentation into Arabic and Hebrew.
I called Jamal when I got home.
“How was it?” he asked.
“It was great,” I said. “They gave me a New Testament written in both Arabic and English. New people, new culture; it was fun.”
“I don’t know about this, Mosab,” Jamal said. “It could be dangerous for you if people discovered you were hanging out with a bunch of Christians.”
I knew Jamal meant well, but I wasn’t really very worried. My father had always taught us to be open-minded and loving toward everyone, even those who didn’t believe as we did. I looked down at the Bible in my lap. My father had a huge library of five thousand books, including a Bible. When I was a kid, I had read the sexual passages in the Song of Solomon, but never went any further. This New Testament, however, was a gift. Because gifts are honored and respected in Arab culture, I decided the least I could do was to read it.
I began at the beginning, and when I got to the Sermon on the Mount, I thought,Wow, this guy Jesus is really impressive! Everything he says is beautiful.I couldn’t put the book down. Every verse seemed to touch a deep wound in my life. It was a very simple message, but somehow it had the power to heal my soul and give me hope.
Then I read this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).
That’s it! I was thunderstruck by these words. Never before had I heard anything like this, but I knew that this was the message I had been searching for all my life.
For years I had struggled to know who my enemy was, and I had looked for enemies outside of Islam and Palestine. But I suddenly realized that the Israelis were not my enemies. Neither was Hamas nor my uncle Ibrahim nor the kid who beat me with the butt of his M16 nor the apelike guard in the detention center. I saw that enemies were not defined by nationality, religion, or color. I understood that we all share the same common enemies: greed, pride, and all the bad ideas and the darkness of the devil that live inside us.
That meant I could love anyone. The only real enemy was the enemy inside me.
Five years earlier, I would have read the words of Jesus and thought,What an idiot!and thrown away the Bible. But my experiences with my crazy butcher neighbor, the family members and religious leaders who beat me when my father was in prison, and my own time at Megiddo had all combined to prepare me for the power and beauty of this truth. All I could think in response was,Wow! What wisdom this man had!
Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1). What a difference between him and Allah! Islam’s god was very judgmental, and Arab society followed Allah’s lead.
Jesus rebuked the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, and I thought of my uncle. I remembered a time when he received an invitation to attend a special event and how angry he had been that he was not given the best seat. It was as though Jesus was talking to Ibrahim and every sheikh and imam in Islam.
Everything Jesus said on the pages of this book made perfect sense to me. Overwhelmed, I started to cry.
God used the Shin Bet to show me that Israel was not my enemy, and now he put the answers to the rest of my questions right in my hands in that little New Testament. But I had a long way to go in my understanding of the Bible. Muslims are taught to believe in all of God’s books, both the Torah and the Bible. But we are also taught that men have changed the Bible, making it unreliable. The Qur’an, Mohammad said, was God’s final and inerrant word to man. So I would first have to abandon my belief that the Bible had been altered. Then I would have to figure out how to make both books work in my life, to somehow put Islam and Christianity together. No small challenge—reconciling the irreconcilable.
At the same time, while I believed in the teachings of Jesus, I still did not connect him with being God. Even so, my standards had changed suddenly and dramatically, because they were being influenced by the Bible instead of the Qur’an.
I continued to read my New Testament and go to the Bible study. I attended church services and thought,This is not the religious Christianity I see in Ramallah. This is real.The Christians I had known before had been no different from traditional Muslims. They claimed a religion, but they didn’t live it.
I began spending more time with people from the Bible study and found myself really enjoying their fellowship. We had such a good time talking about our lives, our backgrounds, our beliefs. They were always very respectful of my culture and my Muslim heritage. And I found that I could really be myself when I was with them.
I ached to bring what I was learning into my own culture, because I realized that the occupation was not to blame for our suffering. Our problem was much bigger than armies and politics.
I asked myself what Palestinians would do if Israel disappeared—if everything not only went back to the way it was before 1948 but if all the Jewish people abandoned the Holy Land and were scattered again. And for the first time, I knew the answer.
We would still fight. Over nothing. Over a girl without a head scarf. Over who was toughest and most important. Over who would make the rules and who would get the best seat.
It was the end of 1999. I was twenty-one years old. My life had begun to change, and the more I learned, the more confused I became.
“God, the Creator, show me the truth,” I prayed day after day. “I’m confused. I’m lost. And I don’t know which way to go.”
Hamas—once the ascendant power among Palestinians—was in shambles. The shattered organization’s bitter rival for hearts and minds was now in complete control.
Through intrigue and deal making, the Palestinian Authority had accomplished what Israel had been unable to do through sheer might. It had destroyed the military wing of Hamas and thrown its leadership and fighters into prison. Even after they were released, the Hamas members went home and did nothing more against the PA or the occupation. The young feda’iyeen were exhausted. Their leaders were divided and deeply suspicious of one another.
My father was on his own again, so he went back to working in the mosque and the refugee camps. Now when he spoke, he did so in the name of Allah, not as the leader of Hamas. After years of separation through our respective imprisonments, I relished the opportunity to travel and spend time with him once again. I had missed our long talks about life and Islam.
As I continued to read my Bible and spend time learning about Christianity, I found that I was really drawn to the grace, love, and humility that Jesus talked about. Surprisingly, it was those same character traits that drew people to my father—one of the most devoted Muslims I had ever known.
As for my relationship with the Shin Bet, now that Hamas was virtually out of the picture and the PA was keeping things calm, there seemed to be nothing for me to do. We were just friends now. They could let me go whenever they wanted to, or I could say good-bye to them at any time.
The Camp David Summit between Yasser Arafat, American president Bill Clinton, and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak ended on July 25, 2000. Barak had offered Arafat about 90 percent of the West Bank, the entire Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state. In addition, a new international fund would be established to compensate Palestinians for the property that had been taken from them. This “land for peace” offer represented a historic opportunity for the long-suffering Palestinian people, something few Palestinians would have dared imagine possible. But even so, it was not enough for Arafat.
Yasser Arafat had grown extraordinarily wealthy 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. So he insisted that all the refugees be permitted to return to the lands they had owned prior to 1967—a condition he was confident Israel would not accept.
Though Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s offer constituted a historic catastrophe for his people, the Palestinian leader returned to his hard-line supporters as a hero who had thumbed his nose at the president of the United States, as someone who had not backed down and settled for less, and as a leader who stood tough against the entire world.
Arafat went on television, and the world watched as he talked about his love for the Palestinian people and his grief over millions of families living in the squalor of the refugee camps. Now that I was traveling with my father and attending meetings with Arafat, I began to see for myself how much the man loved the media attention. He seemed to relish being portrayed as some kind of Palestinian Che Guevara and a peer of kings, presidents, and prime ministers.
Yasser Arafat made it clear that he wanted to be a hero who was written about in the history books. But as I watched him, I often thought,Yes, let him be remembered in our history books, not as a hero, but as a traitor who sold out his people for a ride on their shoulders. As a reverse Robin Hood, who plundered the poor and made himself rich. As a cheap ham, who bought his place in the limelight with Palestinian blood.