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.