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.
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, normal is 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 by fatwas , 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 a jalsa , 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.