I started my car and waited for a couple of cars to pass between us before I pulled out. I followed the green Chevy for a short distance down the main street toward Betunia, where my parents lived, and then I lost them.
I was angry at myself and at the Shin Bet. This was not like the movies. This was real life, and in real life, spying could get you killed. If they wanted me to follow armed men like that, especially at night, they needed to send me some help. This was a job for several people, not just one. I had always assumed that an operation like this would also involve air and satellite surveillance—cool high-tech stuff. But there was just me. I might have gotten lucky, or I might have gotten shot. In this case, I got nothing. I drove home feeling like a man who had just lost a million-dollar business deal.
The next morning I got up, determined to find that car. But after driving around for hours, I came up empty. Frustrated once again, I gave up and decided to wash my car. And there it was—just sitting inside the car wash. Same green Chevy. Same guys. Same guns.
Was this luck or God’s intervention or what?
I got a much better look at them now that it was daylight, and I was much closer to them than I had been the night before. With their classy suits, AK-47s, and M16s, I recognized them immediately as Force 17, an elite commando unit that had been around since the early 1970s. These were the guys who watched Arafat’s back and protected him from a growing list of wannabes and usurpers.
Something didn’t seem right. They couldn’t have been the same men I saw at Maher Odeh’s place, could they? What would Maher Odeh be doing with gunmen? He didn’t have anything to do with Arafat, did he? None of it made any sense.
After they left, I asked the owner of the car wash who they were. He knew I was the son of Hassan Yousef, so he wasn’t at all surprised by my questions. He confirmed that they were Force 17 and told me they lived in Betunia. Now I was even more confused. Why did these guys live a couple of minutes from my parents’ house instead of in Arafat’s compound?
I drove to the address I had gotten from the car-wash owner and found the Chevy parked outside. I hurried back to Shin Bet headquarters and told Loai everything I had discovered. He listened carefully, but his boss kept arguing with me.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Why would Arafat’s guards be living outside the compound? You got something wrong.”
“I got nothing wrong!” I snapped. I knew this wasn’t adding up, and I was frustrated by the fact that although I knew what I had seen, I couldn’t explain it. Now this guy was telling me that I hadn’t seen it.
“The whole situation is wrong,” I told him. “I don’t care if this makes sense to you or not. I saw what I saw.”
He was indignant that I talked to him like that and stormed out of the meeting. Loai encouraged me to calm down and to go back over all the details one more time. Apparently, the Chevy didn’t fit the information they had about the Brigades. It was a stolen Israeli car, which was what PA guys tended to drive, but we couldn’t figure out how it connected them with the new faction.
“Are you sure it was a green Chevy?” he asked. “You didn’t see a BMW?”
I was sure it was a green Chevy, but I went back to the apartment anyway. There was the Chevy, parked in the same spot. Beside the apartment, however, I saw another car covered by a white sheet. I carefully crept to the side of the building and lifted the back corner of the sheet. Underneath was a 1982 silver BMW.
“Okay, we got ’em!” Loai yelled back into my cell phone when I called to tell him what I had found.
“What are you talking about?”
“What do you mean? I thought my information was all wrong,” I said with some sarcasm.
“No, you were absolutely right. That BMW has been used in every shooting in the West Bank for the past couple of months.”
He went on to explain that this information was a real breakthrough because it was the first proof that the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades was none other than Yasser Arafat’s own guards—funded directly by him with taxpayer money from America and international donors. Discovering this link was a huge step toward being able to put a stop to the horrific string of bombings that was killing innocent civilians. The evidence I gave to the Shin Bet would later be used against Arafat before the UN Security Council.Now, all we had to do was catch the members of this new cell—cut off the head of the snake, as the Israelis liked to say.
We learned that the most dangerous members were Ahmad Ghandour, a leader of the Brigades, and Muhaned Abu Halawa, one of his lieutenants. They had already killed a dozen people. Putting these guys out of business didn’t appear to be too difficult a task. We knew who they were and where they lived. And, crucially, they didn’t know that we knew.
The IDF launched an unmanned drone to circle the apartment complex and gather intelligence. Two days later, the Brigades made another attack inside Israel, and the Israelis wanted to hit back. The 120 mm cannon of a sixty-five-ton Israeli Merkava battle tank fired twenty shells into the Brigades’ building. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to check the surveillance drone to see if the guys were there. They weren’t.
Even worse, now they knew that we were on to them. Not surprisingly, they took refuge in Yasser Arafat’s compound. We knew they were there, but at that time it was politically impossible to go in and get them. Now their attacks became more frequent and aggressive.
Because he was a leader, Ahmad Ghandour was at the top of the wanted list. After he moved inside the compound, we figured we would never get him. And as it turned out, we didn’t. He got himself.
Walking down the street one day, close to the old cemetery in Al-Bireh, I encountered a military funeral.
“Who died?” I asked out of curiosity.
“Somebody from the north,” a man said. “I doubt you know him.”
“What’s his name?”
“His name is Ahmad Ghandour.”
I tried to control my excitement and asked casually, “What happened to him? I think I’ve heard that name before.”
“He didn’t know his gun was loaded, and he shot himself in the head. They say his brain stuck to the ceiling.”
I called Loai.
“Say good-bye to Ahmad Ghandour, because Ahmad Ghandour is dead.”
“Did you kill him?”
“Did you give me a gun? No, I didn’t kill him. He shot himself. The guy is gone.”
Loai couldn’t believe it.
“The man is dead. I’m at his funeral.”
* * *
Throughout the first years of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, I accompanied my father everywhere he went. As his eldest son, I was his protégé, his bodyguard, his confidant, his student, and his friend. And he was my everything—my example of what it meant to be a man. Though our ideologies were clearly no longer the same, I knew that his heart was right and his motives were pure. His love for Muslim people and his devotion to Allah never waned. He ached for peace among his people, and he had spent his entire life working toward that goal.
This second uprising was mostly a West Bank event. Gaza had a few demonstrations, and the death of the young Mohammed al-Dura had touched the flame to the tinder. But it was Hamas that fanned that fire into an inferno in the West Bank.
In every village, town, and city, angry crowds clashed with Israeli soldiers. Every checkpoint became a bloody battlefield. You could scarcely find an individual who had not buried dear friends or family members in recent days.
Meanwhile, the leaders of all the Palestinian factions—top-level, high-profile men—met daily with Yasser Arafat to coordinate their strategies. My father represented Hamas, which had again become the largest and most important organization. He, Marwan Barghouti, and Arafat also met weekly, apart from the others. On several occasions, I was able to accompany my father to those private meetings.
I despised Arafat and what he was doing to the people I loved. But given my role as a mole for the Shin Bet, it clearly wasn’t prudent for me to show my feelings. Still, on one occasion, after Arafat kissed me, I instinctively wiped my cheek. He noticed and was clearly humiliated. My father was embarrassed. And that was the last time my father took me along.
The intifada leaders invariably arrived for those daily meetings in their seventy-thousand-dollar foreign cars, accompanied by other cars filled with bodyguards. But my father always drove in his dark blue 1987 Audi. No bodyguard, just me.
These meetings were the engine that made the intifada run. Although I now had to sit outside the meeting room, I still knew every detail that went on inside because my father took notes. I had access to those notes and made copies. There was never any supersensitive information in the notes—like the who, where, and when of a military operation. Rather, the leaders always spoke in general terms that revealed patterns and direction, such as focusing an attack inside Israel or targeting settlers or checkpoints.
The meeting notes did, however, include dates for demonstrations. If my father said Hamas would have a demonstration tomorrow at one o’clock in the center of Ramallah, runners would quickly be sent to the mosques, refugee camps, and schools to inform all the Hamas members to be there at one o’clock. Israeli soldiers showed up too. As a result, Muslims, refugees, and, all too often, schoolchildren were killed.
The fact is, Hamas had been all but dead before the Second Intifada. My father should have left it alone. Every day, the people of the Arab nations saw his face and heard his voice on Al-Jazeera TV. He was now the visible leader of the intifada. That made him amazingly popular and important throughout the Muslim world, but it also made him the consummate bad guy as far as Israel was concerned.
At the end of the day, however, Hassan Yousef was not puffed up. He just felt humbly content that he had done the will of Allah.
Reading my father’s meeting notes one morning, I saw that a demonstration had been scheduled. The next day, I walked behind him at the head of the deafening mob to an Israeli checkpoint. Two hundred yards before we reached the checkpoint, the leaders peeled off and moved to the safety of a hilltop. Everybody else—the young men and children from the schools—surged forward and began throwing stones at the heavily armed soldiers, who responded by firing into the crowd.
In these situations, even rubber-coated bullets could be deadly. Children were particularly vulnerable. This ammunition was easily lethal when fired at a range closer than the minimum forty meters prescribed by IDF regulations.
As we watched from our perch on the hill, we saw dead and wounded lying everywhere. Soldiers even fired at the arriving ambulances, shooting at drivers and killing those emergency workers trying to get to the wounded. It was brutal.
Soon everybody was shooting. Stones hailed down on the checkpoint. Thousands lunged against the barriers, trying to force their way past the soldiers, straining with one obsession, one thought—to reach the settlement at Beit El and destroy everything and everyone in their path. They were insane with rage triggered by the sight of fallen loved ones and the smell of blood.
Just when it seemed things could not possibly become more chaotic, the 1200 hp diesel engine of a Merkava thundered into the fray. Suddenly, its cannon shattered the air like a sonic boom.
The tank was responding to the PA forces, who had begun shooting toward the IDF soldiers. As the tank advanced, bodyguards grabbed their charges and whisked them to safety. Chunks of bodies littered the hill under our feet as I tried to get my father to the car. When we finally reached it, we quickly raced toward Ramallah, headed for the hospital that was gorged with wounded, dying, and dead. There were not enough rooms. The Red Crescent set up outside in a desperate attempt to stop people from bleeding to death before they could get in. But it was simply not enough.
The hospital walls and floors were smeared with blood. People slipped on it as they made their way down the halls. Husbands and fathers, wives and mothers and children sobbed with grief and shrieked with rage.
Amazingly, in the midst of their sorrow and anger, the people seemed extremely grateful for the Palestinian leaders like my father who had come to share it with them. Yet these were the very Palestinian leaders who had led them and their children like goats to a slaughter and then ducked out of range to watch the carnage from a comfortable distance. That sickened me more than the gore.
And that was only one demonstration. Night after night, we sat in front of the television and listened to the open-ended litany of the dead. Ten in this city. Five there. Twenty more here.
I saw one report of a guy named Shada who was at work drilling a hole in the wall of a building across from a demonstration. An Israeli tank gunner saw him and thought the drill was a gun. He launched a cannon shell that hit Shada’s head.
My father and I went to the slain man’s house. He had a beautiful new bride. But that was not the worst of it. The Palestinian leaders who had come to comfort the widow began to fight with one another over who would preach at Shada’s funeral. Who would be in charge of receiving mourners for three days? Who would be in charge of food for the family? They were all calling Shada “our son,” trying to claim that he had been a member of their faction, and trying to prove that their faction was participating in the intifada more than the others.
The competing factions had been reduced to ridiculous bickering over the dead. And most of the time, the dead were people who had nothing at all to do with the movement. They were just people who had been swept up in the tide of emotion. Many others, like Shada, were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
All the while, Arabs throughout the world burned American and Israeli flags, demonstrated, and poured billions of dollars into the Palestinian territories to crush the occupation. In the first two and a half years of the Second Intifada, Saddam Hussein paid thirty-five million dollars to the families of Palestinian martyrs—ten thousand dollars to the family of anyone killed fighting Israel and twenty-five thousand to the family of every suicide bomber. You could say a lot of things about this mindless battle over real estate. But you could never say that life was cheap.
Palestinians no longer blamed Yasser Arafat or Hamas for their troubles. Now they blamed Israel for killing their children. But I still couldn’t escape a fundamental question: Why were those children out there in the first place? Where were the parents? Why didn’t their mothers and fathers keep them inside? Those children should have been sitting at their desks in school, not running in the streets, throwing stones at armed soldiers.
“Why do you have to send children to die?” I asked my father after one particularly horrific day.
“We don’t send children,” he said. “They want to go. Look at your brothers.”
A chill went down my spine.
“If I hear that one of my brothers goes out there and throws stones, I’m going to break his arm,” I said. “I would rather that he suffer a broken arm than get killed.”
“Really? You might be interested to know that they were throwing stones yesterday.” He said it so casually; I couldn’t believe this was simply a way of life for us now.
Four of my brothers were no longer little children. Sohayb was twenty-one and Seif was eighteen, both old enough to go to prison. At sixteen and fourteen, Oways and Mohammad were old enough to get themselves shot. And all of them should have known better. But when I questioned them, they denied throwing rocks.
“Listen, I am very serious about this,” I told them. “I haven’t spanked you for a long time, because you’re grown-up now. But that will change if I hear you’re going out there.”
“You and Dad were there at the demonstrations too,” Mohammad protested.
“Yes, we were there. But we didn’t throw stones.”
In the midst of all this—especially with the big checks flowing from Iraq’s ruthless dictator, Saddam Hussein—Hamas found it had lost its monopoly on suicide bombing. Now the bombers also came from Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the secularists, the communists, and the atheists. And they all competed with one another to see who could kill the most Israeli civilians.
There was too much blood. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t see it just through the eyes of a Muslim or a Palestinian or even as the son of Hassan Yousef anymore. Now I saw it through Israeli eyes too. And even more importantly, I watched the mindless killing through the eyes of Jesus, who agonized for those who were lost. The more I read the Bible, the more clearly I saw this single truth: Loving and forgiving one’s enemies is the only real way to stop the bloodshed.
But as much as I admired Jesus, I didn’t believe my Christian friends when they tried to convince me that he was God. Allah was my god. But whether I realized it fully or not, I was gradually adopting the standards of Jesus and rejecting those of Allah. Accelerating my departure from Islam was the hypocrisy I saw all around me. Islam taught that a devoted servant of Allah who became a martyr went straight to heaven. No questioning by weird angels or torture in the grave. But suddenly it seemed that anyone killed by the Israelis—whether a nominal Muslim, a communist, even an atheist—was being treated as a holy martyr. The imams and the sheikhs told the families of the dead, “Your loved one is in heaven.”
Of course, the Qur’an didn’t support their rhetoric. The Qur’an is clear about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. But these leaders didn’t seem to care. This wasn’t even about truth or theology; it was about lying to people for strategic advantage and political expediency. It was about Islamic leaders drugging their people with lies to make them forget the pain those leaders were causing them.
As the Shin Bet passed on more and more information to me, I was consistently amazed at what they knew about the people in my life—often old friends who had become very dangerous individuals. Some had even become part of the hard core of the Hamas military wing. One of those people was Daya Muhammad Hussein Al-Tawil. He was a handsome young man whose uncle was a Hamas leader.
In all the years I knew him, Daya had never been religiously motivated. In fact, his dad was a communist, so he really had had nothing to do with Islam. His mom was a Muslim in the cultural sense, but she was definitely not a radical. And his sister was an American-educated journalist, a U.S. citizen, and a modern woman who did not wear a head scarf. They lived in a nice home and were all well educated. Daya had studied engineering at Birzeit University, where he was first in his class. To my knowledge, he had never even participated in a Hamas demonstration.
Given all of that, I was shocked when on March 27, 2001, we heard that Daya had blown himself up at the French Hill junction in Jerusalem. Though no one else was killed, twenty-nine Israelis were injured.
Daya wasn’t a stupid kid who could easily be talked into doing something like this. He wasn’t a dirt-poor refugee who had nothing to lose. He didn’t need money. So what made him do it? Nobody understood. His parents were stunned, and so was I. Even Israeli intelligence couldn’t figure it out.
The Shin Bet called me in for an emergency meeting. They handed me a photograph of a decapitated head and asked me to identify it. I assured them that it was Daya. And I went home asking myself over and over, Why? I don’t think anyone will ever know. No one saw it coming. Not even his Hamas uncle.
Daya was the first suicide bomber of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. His attack suggested the existence of a military cell that seemed to be operating independently somewhere. And the Shin Bet was determined to find that cell before it launched another attack.
Loai showed me a list of suspects. At the top were five familiar names. They were Hamas guys whom the PA had released from prison before the beginning of the intifada. Arafat knew they were dangerous, but with Hamas all but in its grave, he couldn’t see any reason to hold them any longer.
He was wrong.
The main suspect was Muhammad Jamal al-Natsheh, who had helped found Hamas with my dad and ultimately became the head of its military wing in the West Bank. Al-Natsheh was from the largest family in the territories, so he feared nothing. About six feet tall, he was every inch a warrior—tough, strong, and intelligent. Paradoxically, though he was filled with hatred for the Jews, I knew him to be a very caring man.
Saleh Talahme—another name on the list—was an electrical engineer, very smart and well educated. I didn’t know it at the time, but the two of us would eventually become very close friends.
Another, Ibrahim Hamed, led the security wing in the West Bank. These three men were assisted by Sayyed al-Sheikh Qassem and Hasaneen Rummanah.
Sayyed was a good follower—athletic, uneducated, and obedient. Hasaneen, on the other hand, was a handsome young artist who had been very active in the Islamic student movement, especially during the First Intifada when Hamas was trying to prove itself on the streets as a force to be reckoned with. As a Hamas leader, my father had worked hard to obtain their release and return them to their families. And on the day Arafat let them go, my dad and I picked them up from prison, stuffed everybody into our car, and got them settled in an apartment at the Al Hajal in Ramallah.
When Loai showed me the list, I said, “Guess what? I know all those guys. And I know where they live. I was the one who drove them to their safe house.”
“Are you serious?” he said with a big grin. “Let’s go to work.”
When my father and I had picked them up from prison, I had no idea how dangerous they had become or how many Israelis they had killed. And now I was one of only a few people in Hamas who knew where they were.
I paid them a visit, carrying with me the Shin Bet’s most sophisticated spy toys so we could monitor every move they made, every word they said. But once I started talking with them, it was clear they weren’t going to give us any solid information.
I wondered if maybe they weren’t the guys we were looking for.
“Something is wrong,” I said to Loai. “These guys didn’t give me anything. Could it be another cell?”
“It could,” he admitted. “But those guys have the history. We need to keep watching them until we get what we need.”
They indeed had the history, but history wasn’t enough to arrest them. We needed hard evidence. So we patiently continued to collect information. We didn’t want to make a costly mistake and grab the wrong guys, leaving the real terrorists free to launch the next bomb.
* * *
Maybe my life wasn’t complicated enough, or maybe it just seemed like a good idea at the time, but that same month I started a job in the Capacity-Building Office of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Village Water and Sanitation Program, headquartered in Al-Bireh. Long title, I know, but then again, it was a very important project. Because I didn’t have a college degree, I began as a receptionist.
Some of the Christians I attended Bible study with had introduced me to one of the American managers, who immediately took a liking to me and offered me a job. Loai thought it would make a great cover since my new ID card, stamped by the U.S. Embassy, would allow me to travel freely between Israel and the Palestinian territories. It would also keep people from getting too suspicious about why I always had plenty of spending money.
My father saw it as a great opportunity and was grateful to the United States for providing safe drinking water and sanitation to his people. At the same time, however, he could not forget that the Americans also provided Israel with the weapons used to kill Palestinians. This typifies the ambivalence most Arabs feel about the United States.
I jumped at the chance to be part of the biggest U.S.-funded project in the region. The media always seemed focused on the sexy bargaining chips—land, independence, and reparations. But water really was a much bigger issue than land in the Middle East. People have battled over it since Abram’s herdsmen fought with those of his nephew, Lot. The chief water source for Israel and the occupied territories is the Sea of Galilee, also known as Gennesaret or Tiberias. It is the lowest freshwater lake on earth.
Water has always been a complicated issue in the land of the Bible. For modern Israel, the dynamic has changed with the nation’s boundaries. For example, one of the outcomes of the Six-Day War in 1967 was that Israel took control of the Golan Heights from Syria. This gave Israel control of the entire Sea of Galilee, and with that came control of the Jordan River and every other spring and rivulet that flowed into and out of it. Violating international law, Israel diverted water from the Jordan away from the West Bank and Gaza Strip by means of its National Water Carrier, providing Israeli citizens and settlers with well over three-quarters of the water from West Bank aquifers. The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars digging wells and establishing independent sources of water for my people.
USAID was actually more than just a cover for me. The men and women who worked there became my friends. I knew that God had given me this job. It was USAID’s policy not to employ anyone who was politically active, much less someone whose father led a major terrorist organization. But for some reason my boss decided to keep me. His kindness would soon pay off in ways he would never know.
Because of the intifada, the U.S. government allowed its employees to enter the West Bank only for the day and only to work. But that meant they had to pass through dangerous checkpoints. They actually would have been safer living in the West Bank than running the gauntlet of checkpoints every day and driving the streets in 4 x 4 American jeeps with yellow Israeli tags on them. The average Palestinian didn’t distinguish between those who had come to help and those who had come to kill.
The IDF always warned USAID to evacuate if it was planning an operation that would put them in danger, but the Shin Bet didn’t issue such warnings. After all, we were all about secrecy. If we heard that a fugitive was headed to Ramallah from Jenin, for example, we launched an operation without forewarning.
Ramallah was a small city. During these operations, security troops rushed in from every direction. People barricaded the streets with cars and trucks and set fire to tires. Black smoke choked the air. Crouched gunmen ran from cover to cover, shooting whatever was in their paths. Young men threw rocks. Children cried in the streets. Ambulance sirens mingled with screams of women and the crack of small-arms fire.
Not long after I started working for USAID, Loai told me the security forces would be coming into Ramallah the following day. I called my American manager and warned him not to come to town and to tell everyone else to stay home. I said I couldn’t tell him how I had gotten this information, but I encouraged him to trust me. He did. He probably figured I had inside information because I was the son of Hassan Yousef.
The next day, Ramallah was ablaze. People were running through the streets, shooting everything in sight. Cars burned along the side of the road and shop windows were broken, leaving the stores vulnerable to bandits and looters. After my boss saw the news, he told me, “Please, Mosab, whenever something like that is going to happen again, let me know.”
“Okay,” I said, “on one condition: You don’t ask any questions. If I say don’t come, just don’t come.”
The Second Intifada seemed to roll on and on without even pausing to catch its breath. On March 28, 2001, a suicide bomber killed two teenagers at a gas station. On April 22, a bomber killed one person and himself and wounded about fifty at a bus stop. On May 18, five civilians were killed and more than one hundred wounded by a suicide bomber outside a shopping mall in Netanya.
And then on June 1, at 11:26 p.m., a group of teenagers were standing in line, talking and laughing and horsing around, eager to enter a popular Tel Aviv disco known as the Dolphi. Most of the kids were from the former Soviet Union, their parents recent émigrés. Saeed Hotari stood in line, too, but he was Palestinian and a little older. He was wrapped in explosives and metal fragments.
The newspapers didn’t call the Dolphinarium attack a suicide bombing. They called it a massacre. Scores of kids were ripped apart by ball bearings and the sheer force of the blast. Casualties were high: 21 died; 132 were wounded.