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 By 1957, its weathered tents had been replaced by wall-to-wall, back-to-back concrete houses.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.
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 masked feda’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:
[Make haste toward worship]
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.