Why had the U.S. intelligence services not been able to prevent the disaster? For one thing, they operated independently and competitively. For another, they relied mostly on technology and rarely collaborated with terrorists. Those tactics may have been fine in the Cold War, but it’s pretty tough to combat fanatical ideals with technology.
Israeli intelligence, on the other hand, relied mostly on human resources; had countless spies in mosques, Islamic organizations, and leadership roles; and had no problem recruiting even the most dangerous terrorists. They knew they had to have eyes and ears on the inside, along with minds that understood motives and emotions and that could connect the dots.
America understood neither Islamic culture nor its ideology. That, combined with open borders and lax security, made it a much softer target than Israel. Even so, although my role as a spy enabled Israel to take hundreds of terrorists off the streets, our work couldn’t begin to put an end to terrorism—even in a tiny country like Israel.
About a month later, on October 17, four PFLP gunmen walked into the Jerusalem Hyatt Hotel and assassinated Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi. They said it was revenge for the Mustafa assassination. Despite his seemingly apolitical portfolio, Ze’evi was an obvious target. He publicly advocated a policy of making life so miserable for the three million people in the West Bank and Gaza that they would voluntarily move to other Arab countries. Mixing his metaphors, Ze’evi reportedly once told an Associated Press reporter that some Palestinians were like “lice” who should be stopped like a “cancer spreading within us.”
Tit for tat, the reciprocal killing continued. An eye for an eye—and there was no shortage of eyes.
For several years now, I had worked hard to gather every scrap of information I could to help the Shin Bet stop the bloodbath. We continued to keep an eye on Muhammad Jamal al-Natsheh, Saleh Talahme, and the other three guys I had stashed away after their release from the PA prison compound. They changed locations several times, and only Saleh kept in touch with me. But we tracked the others through their families and by monitoring calls on public telephones.
Saleh trusted me, always told me where he was living, and frequently invited me to visit. As I got to know him, I found that I really liked Saleh. He was an amazing man—a brilliant scholar, graduating at the top of his electrical engineering class and one of the best students in the history of Birzeit University. To him, I was the son of Hassan Yousef, a good friend and a good listener.
I spent a lot of time with Saleh; his wife, Majeda; and their five children (two boys and three girls). Their older son was named Mosab, like me. Majeda and the kids had come to Ramallah from Hebron to spend a little time with Saleh in his apartment hideout. I was still working on my degree at the time, and one evening, Saleh asked me how school was going.
“Any problems with anything?”
“Yeah, Economical Statistics.”
“Okay, tomorrow you bring the book and we’ll sit down together and study. It will be our own little class.”
When I told Loai and others in the Shin Bet about it, they were pleased. They thought that these tutoring sessions would make a good cover for intelligence gathering.
But it wasn’t entirely a cover. Saleh and I were becoming friends. He taught me, and I actually did very well on the exam a couple of weeks later. I loved him, and I loved his children. I often ate with the family, and over time, a strong bond began to form among all of us. It was a strange relationship because I knew that by now Saleh had become a very dangerous guy. But then again, so had I.
* * *
One night in March 2002, I was sitting at home when two men came to the door.
Suspicious, I asked, “How can I help you?”
“We’re looking for Sheikh Hassan Yousef. It’s important.”
“Tell me why it’s important.”
They explained that they were two of the five suicide bombers who had just arrived from Jordan. Their contact had been arrested, and they needed a safe place to stay.
“Okay,” I said. “You came to the right place.”
I asked what they needed.
“We have a car full of explosives and bombs, and we need someplace safe to leave it.”
Great, I thought, what am I going to do with a car stuffed with explosives? I had to think quickly. I decided to keep their car in the garage beside our house. It was obviously not one of my brighter ideas, but I was forced to think on my feet.
“Okay, here’s some money,” I said, emptying my wallet. “Go find a place to stay, get back to me here tonight, and we’ll figure out what to do.”
After they left, I called Loai, and to my relief, the Shin Bet came and took the car away.
All five suicide bombers returned a short time later. “Okay,” I told them, “from now on, I am your connection to Hamas. I will provide your targets, locations, transportation, everything you need. Do not talk to anyone else, or you might be dead before you have a chance to kill any Israelis.”
This situation constituted an extraordinary windfall in terms of intelligence. Up to now, no one ever knew about suicide bombers before they detonated their explosives. Suddenly, five of them had shown up at my door with a carload of bombs. Thirty minutes after I told the Shin Bet their location, Prime Minister Sharon authorized their assassinations.
“You can’t do that,” I told Loai.
“I know they are terrorists, and they are about to blow themselves up. But those five men are ignorant. They don’t know what they’re doing. You can’t kill them. If you kill them, this is my last operation.”
“Are you threatening us?”
“No, but you know how I work. I made an exception once with Halawa, and you remember how that ended. I will not be part of killing people.”
“What option is there?”
“Arrest them,” I said, though even as I spoke the words, I knew it was a crazy idea. We had the car and the bombs, but these guys still had their belts. If a soldier got within a hundred yards of their one-room flat, they would detonate the belts and take everybody with them.
Even if we managed to get them out alive without anybody else getting killed, they would be sure to mention my name to their interrogators, and I would be burned for sure. Self-preservation told me the safest thing for all concerned was just to let a helicopter fire a couple of missiles into their apartment and be done with it.
But my conscience was being rewired. Though not yet a Christian, I was really trying to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus. Allah had no problem with murder; in fact, he insisted on it. But Jesus held me to a much higher standard. Now I found I couldn’t kill even a terrorist.
At the same time, I had become far too valuable to the Shin Bet for them to risk losing me. They weren’t happy about it, but they finally agreed to call off the assassination.
“We have to know what is going on inside that room,” they told me. I headed over to the apartment under the pretext of taking the bombers a few pieces of simple furniture. What they didn’t know was that we had placed bugs inside the furniture that allowed us to hear every word they said. Together, we listened in as they discussed who would go first, second, third, etc. Everyone wanted to be first, so they didn’t have to watch their friends die. It was eerie. We were listening to dead men talking.
On March 16, security forces troops moved into position. The bombers were in the center of Ramallah, so the IDF couldn’t bring in tanks. Because the troops had to go in on foot, the operation was very dangerous. I followed the events from my place, as Loai talked to me on the phone and kept me informed of everything that was going on.
“They are going to sleep.”
We all waited until sounds of snoring came across the monitors.
The greatest risk was waking them too soon. The troops had to get through the door and reach the beds before any bomber could move a muscle.
A soldier fixed an explosive charge to the door as we listened to the monitors for the slightest noise, the slightest interruption in the snoring. Then they gave the signal.
The door exploded. Special forces troops rushed into the small apartment, catching all but one of the men. He grabbed a gun and jumped through the window—he was dead before he hit the ground.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone except me. As soon as they got the guys into the jeep, one of them mentioned my name, exposing me as a collaborator.
My worst fears had been realized. I was burned. Now what?
Loai had the solution. The Shin Bet simply deported the guy back to Jordan, sending his friends to prison. So while he was home free, having fun with his family, the other three would assume that he had been the traitor, not me. It was brilliant.
I had gotten away with it one more time, though just barely. But it was clear I was pushing my luck a little too hard.
* * *
One day, I received a message from Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, thanking me for the work I was doing for them. He said he had opened all the files in Israel’s war on terrorism and found the Green Prince in every one. While this was flattering, it was also a warning. I recognized it, and Loai recognized it. If I continued the way I was going, I would end up dead. The trail out there was too long. Somebody was sure to stumble across it. Somehow I needed to be sanitized.
My stubborn refusal to allow the five suicide bombers to be killed had compromised my situation in a big way. Even though everybody believed that the bomber who had been sent back to Jordan was responsible for the arrests, they also knew that Israel doesn’t hesitate to pick up anyone suspected of providing suicide bombers with help. And I had helped them a lot. So why hadn’t I been arrested?
A week after the bomber arrests, the Israeli security team came up with two ideas that could save me from being burned. First, they could arrest me and put me back into prison. But I was afraid that would be the same thing as a death sentence for my father, who would no longer have me to protect him from Israeli assassination attempts.
“The other option is for us to play the game.”
“Game? What game?”
Loai explained that we needed to trigger a high-profile event, something big enough to convince all of Palestine that Israel wanted me arrested or dead. In order to be persuasive, it couldn’t be staged. It had to be real. The Israeli Defense Forces had to really attempt to capture me. And this meant the Shin Bet had to manipulate and deceive the IDF—their own people.
The Shin Bet gave the IDF only a few hours to prepare for this major operation. As the son of Hassan Yousef, I was a very dangerous young man, they warned, because I had a tight relationship to suicide bombers and might be armed with explosives. They said they had good intelligence that I would come to my father’s house that night to visit my mother. I would stay only a short time, and I would be armed with an M16.
What a buildup they gave me. It was indeed an elaborate game .
The IDF was made to believe that I was a very high-profile terrorist who might disappear for good if they screwed up. So they did everything they could to make sure that didn’t happen. Undercover special forces dressed as Arabs, along with highly trained snipers, entered the area in Palestinian vehicles, stopped two minutes from the house, and waited for a signal. Heavy tanks were stationed fifteen minutes away on the territorial border. Helicopter gunships were ready to provide air cover, in case there was trouble with Palestinian street fighters.
Outside my father’s house, I sat in my car waiting for a call from the Shin Bet. When it came, I would have exactly sixty seconds to get away before the special forces surrounded the house. There was no margin for error on my end either.
I felt a stab of regret when I imagined how terrified my mother and little brothers and sisters would be within moments. As usual, they would have to pay the price for everything my father and I did.
I looked at my mother’s beautiful garden. She had gathered flowers from all over, taking cuttings from friends and family whenever she could. She cared for her flowers like they were her children.
“How many flowers do we need?” I sometimes teased her.
“Just a few more” was always the reply.
I recalled the time she pointed to one and said, “This plant is older than you. When you were a child, you broke its pot, but I saved it and it’s still alive.”
Would it still be alive a few minutes from now after arriving troops crushed it under their feet?
My cell phone rang.
Blood rushed to my head. My heart pounded. I started my engine and sped toward the center of town where I had established a new secret location. I was no longer pretending to be a fugitive. Soldiers who would rather kill me than arrest me were searching for me at that very moment. One minute after my departure, ten civilian cars with Palestinian plates slammed on their brakes. Israeli special forces surrounded the house, automatic weapons covering every door and window. The neighborhood was full of children, including my brother Naser. They stopped their soccer game and scattered, terrified.
As soon as the troops were in position, more than twenty tanks thundered in. Now the whole city knew something was going on. I could hear the massive diesel engines from my hideout. Hundreds of armed Palestinian militants rushed to my father’s house and surrounded the IDF. But they couldn’t shoot because children were still running for cover and because my family was inside.
With the arrival of the feda’iyeen, the helicopters were called in.
I suddenly wondered if I had been wrong to spare the suicide bombers. If I had just let the IDF drop a bomb on them, my family and our neighborhood would not be at risk now. If one of my siblings died in this chaos, I would never forgive myself.
To make certain our elaborate production became a global news event, I had tipped off Al-Jazeera that there was going to be an attack on the home of Sheikh Hassan Yousef. They all thought the Israelis had finally gotten my father, and they wanted to broadcast his arrest live. I imagined what their reaction would be when the loudspeakers started to crackle and the soldiers demanded that his oldest son, Mosab, come out with his hands up. As soon as I got to my apartment, I flipped on the TV and watched the drama along with the rest of the Arab world.
The army evacuated my family and questioned them. My mother told them that I had left one minute before they arrived. Of course, they didn’t believe her. They believed the Shin Bet, the ones who had staged the entire production and the only people besides myself who knew that the game had begun. When I didn’t surrender, they threatened to start shooting.
For a tense ten minutes, everyone waited to see whether I would come out and, if I did, whether I would emerge shooting or with my hands in the air. Then time was up. They opened fire, and more than two hundred bullets riddled my second-floor bedroom (and are still in the walls today). There was no more talking. They had obviously decided to kill me.
Suddenly, the shooting stopped. Moments later, a missile whistled through the air and blew up half our house. Soldiers rushed inside. I knew they were searching every room. No corpse and no hiding fugitive.
The IDF was embarrassed and enraged that I had slipped from their grasp. If they caught me now, Loai warned over the phone, they would shoot me on sight. For us, however, the operation was a success. No one had been hurt, and I had advanced to the most-wanted list. The whole city was talking about me. Overnight, I had become a dangerous terrorist.
For the next few months, I had three priorities: stay out of the army’s way, protect my dad, and continue to gather intelligence. In that order.
The escalation in violence was dizzying.
Israelis were shot and stabbed and blown up. Palestinians were assassinated. Round and round it went, faster and faster. The international community tried in vain to pressure Israel.
“End the illegal occupation…. Stop the bombing of civilian areas, the assassinations, the unnecessary use of lethal force, the demolitions and the daily humiliation of ordinary Palestinians,” demanded UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in March 2002.
On the same day that we had arrested the four suicide bombers I had protected from assassination, European Union leaders called on both Israel and the Palestinians to rein in the violence. “There is no military solution to this conflict,” they said.
In 2002, Passover fell on March 27. In a dining room on the ground floor of the Park Hotel in Netanya, 250 guests had gathered for the traditional Seder meal.
A twenty-five-year-old Hamas operative named Abdel-Basset Odeh walked past the front security guard, past the registration desk in the lobby, and into the packed hall. Then he reached into his jacket.
The explosion killed 30 people and wounded about 140 others. Some were Holocaust survivors. Hamas claimed responsibility, saying that the purpose of the attack was to derail the Arab Summit being held in Beirut. Nevertheless, the next day, the Saudi-led Arab League announced that it had voted unanimously to recognize the State of Israel and normalize relations, as long as Israel agreed to withdraw to the 1967 boundaries, resolve the refugee problem, and establish an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Receiving these concessions from Israel would have been a huge victory for our people if Hamas wasn’t still committed to its all-or-nothing idealism.
Recognizing this, Israel was planning its own extreme solution.
Two weeks earlier, officials had decided to test the waters for a major incursion into the Palestinian territories by invading the twin cities of Ramallah and Al-Bireh. Military analysts warned of high Israeli casualties. They needn’t have worried.
The IDF killed five Palestinians, imposed curfews, and occupied a few buildings. Huge D9 armored bulldozers also demolished several homes in Al-Amari refugee camp, including that of Wafa Idris, the first female suicide bomber, who had killed an eighty-one-year-old Israeli man and injured a hundred others outside a shoe store in Jerusalem back on January 27.
After the Park Hotel outrage, however, the test incursion became irrelevant. The Israeli cabinet gave the green light to launch an unprecedented operation, code-named Defensive Shield.
My phone rang. It was Loai.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“The whole IDF is gathering,” Loai said. “Tonight, we will have Saleh and every other fugitive in custody.”
“What do you mean?”
“We are going to reoccupy the entire West Bank and search every house and office building, however long it takes. Stay put. I’ll keep in touch.”
Wow, I thought. This is great! Maybe it will finally put an end to this mindless war.
Rumors flew throughout the West Bank. The Palestinian leadership knew something was up but had no idea what. People left work, clinics, and classrooms and went home to sit by their television sets, waiting for news. I had moved my father to a house owned by a couple of American citizens, and the Shin Bet assured me he would be safe there.
On March 29, I checked into the City Inn Hotel on Nablus Road in Al-Bireh, where the BBC, CNN, and the rest of the international media were housed. My father and I kept in touch with two-way radios.
The Shin Bet expected me to be at my hotel, eating chips and watching TV. But I didn’t want to miss anything so important. I wanted to be on top of everything, so I slung my M16 over my shoulder and headed out. Looking every bit the fugitive, I went to the top of the hill next to the Ramallah Library, from which I could see the southeast side of town where my father was. I figured I would be safe there, and I could run to the hotel as soon as I heard the tanks.
Around midnight, hundreds of Merkavas roared into the city. I hadn’t expected them to invade from every direction at once—or to be moving so quickly. Some of the streets were so narrow that the tank drivers had no choice but to climb over the tops of the cars. Other streets were wide enough, but the soldiers seemed to enjoy the screech of grating metal under their treads. Streets in the refugee camps were little more than paths between cinder-block houses that the tanks ground into gravel.
“Turn off your radio!” I told my father. “Stay down! Keep your head down!”
I had parked my father’s Audi at the curb. And I watched in horror as a tank tread crushed it to pulp. It wasn’t supposed to be there. I didn’t know what to do. I certainly couldn’t call Loai and ask him to stop the operation just because I had decided to play Rambo.
I ran toward the center of the city and ducked into an underground parking garage, just a few yards from an oncoming tank. No troops were on the ground yet; they were waiting for the Merkavas to secure the area. Suddenly, I had a terrifying realization. A number of Palestinian resistance factions had offices in the building directly above my head. I had taken refuge in a key target.
Tanks have no discernment. They can’t tell the difference between Shin Bet collaborators and terrorists, Christians and Muslims, armed fighters and unarmed civilians. And the kids inside those machines were just as scared as I was. All around me, guys who looked just like me fired AK-47s at the tanks. Ping. Ping. Ping. The bullets ricocheted like toys. BOOM! The tank shouted back, nearly bursting my eardrums.
Huge pieces of the buildings around us began to collapse into smoking heaps. Every cannon thump was a punch in the gut. Automatic weapons chattered and echoed off every wall. Another explosion. Blinding dust clouds. Flying chips and chunks of stone and metal.
I had to get out of there. But how?
Suddenly, a group of Fatah fighters ran into the garage and crouched around me. This wasn’t good. What if the soldiers came now? The feda’iyeen would open up on them. Would I shoot too? If so, at whom? If I didn’t shoot, they would kill me anyway. But I couldn’t kill anyone. At one time I might have been able to, but not anymore.
More fighters came, calling to others as they ran. Suddenly, everything seemed to stop. Nobody breathed.
IDF soldiers made their way cautiously into the garage. Closer. Whatever was going to happen would cut loose in seconds. Their torches searched for the whites of eyes or a reflection from a weapon. They listened. And we watched. Sweaty index fingers on both sides were poised on triggers.
Then the Red Sea parted.
Maybe they were afraid to go any deeper into the black, humid parking garage, or maybe they simply yearned for the familiar companionship of a tank. For whatever reason, the soldiers stopped, turned, and just walked out.
Once they were clear, I made my way upstairs and found a room where I could call Loai.
“Could you ask the IDF to back off a couple of blocks so I can get back to my hotel?”
“What! Where are you? Why aren’t you in the hotel?”
“I’m doing my job.”
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Okay, we’ll see what we can do.”
It took a couple of hours to move the tanks and troops, who must have wondered why they had been pulled back. Once they moved, I nearly broke my leg jumping from one rooftop to another to return to my room. I shut the door, stripped, and stuffed my terrorist outfit and weapon into the air-conditioning duct.
Meanwhile, the house where my father was hiding was right in the center of the storm. The IDF searched inside every house around him, behind every building, and under every rock. But they had orders not to enter that particular house.
Inside, my father read his Qur’an and prayed. The owner of the house read the Qur’an and prayed. His wife read the Qur’an and prayed. Then, for no apparent reason, the troops left and began searching another area.
“You will not believe the miracle, Mosab!” my father said into my handset later. “It was unbelievable! They came. They searched every house around us, the entire neighborhood—except where we were. Allah be praised!”
You’re welcome, I thought.
There had been nothing like Operation Defensive Shield since the Six-Day War. And this was only the beginning. Ramallah was the spearhead of the operation. Bethlehem, Jenin, and Nablus followed. While I had been running around dodging Israeli troops, the IDF had surrounded Yasser Arafat’s compound. Everything was locked down. Strict curfews were imposed.
On April 2, tanks and armored personnel carriers surrounded the Preventive Security Compound near our house in Betunia. Helicopter gunships chugged overhead. We knew the PA was hiding at least fifty wanted men at the compound, and the Shin Bet was frustrated because it was coming up empty-handed everywhere else.
The compound included four buildings, in addition to the four-story office building that housed Colonel Jibril Rajouband other security officials. The entire facility had been designed, built, and equipped by the CIA. The police were trained and armed by the CIA. The CIA even had offices there. Hundreds of heavily armed police were inside, along with a large number of prisoners, including Bilal Barghouti and others on Israel’s hit list. The Shin Bet and IDF were in a no-nonsense mood. Loudspeakers announced that the army would blow up Building One in five minutes and ordered everybody out.
Exactly five minutes later, boom! Building Two. “Everybody out!” Boom! Building Three. Boom! Building Four. Boom!
“Take off your clothes!” came the demand over the loudspeakers. The Israelis took no chances that someone might still be armed or packed with explosives. Hundreds of men stripped naked. They were given jumpsuits, loaded onto buses, and taken to nearby Ofer Military Base—where the Shin Bet discovered its mistake.
Of course there were too many people to lock up, but the Israelis wanted only the fugitives anyway. They had planned to sift through the detainees and release all but those on its list of suspects. The problem was that everybody had left their clothes—with their ID cards—back at the compound. How would the security forces distinguish between wanted men and police?
Ofer Dekel, Loai’s boss’s boss, was in charge. He called Jibril Rajoub, who had been away from the compound at the time of the attack. Dekel gave Rajoub a special permit so he could pass safely through hundreds of tanks and thousands of soldiers. When he arrived, Dekel asked Rajoub if he would mind pointing out which men worked for him and which were fugitives. Rajoub said he would be happy to. Quickly, Rajoub identified police as fugitives and fugitives as police, and the Shin Bet released all the wanted men.
“Why did you do that to me?” Dekel asked, after he figured out what had happened.
“You just blew up my offices and my compound,” Rajoub calmly explained in what amounted to a Palestinian version of “Duh.” Dekel also seemed to have forgotten that his PA pal had been wounded a year earlier when IDF tanks and helicopters leveled his home, making him even less inclined to do favors for the Israelis.
The Shin Bet was deeply embarrassed. The only thing they could do in retaliation was release an official account that branded Rajoub as a traitor for turning over the wanted men to Israel in a deal brokered by the CIA. As a result, Rajoub lost his power and ended up as head of the Palestinian Soccer Association.
This was clearly a debacle.
Over the next three weeks, the Israelis did lift the curfew from time to time, and during a break on April 15, I was able to bring some food and other necessities to my father. He told me he didn’t feel safe in that house and wanted to move. I called one of the Hamas leaders and asked if he knew of any place where Hassan Yousef could be protected. He told me to take my father to the location where Sheikh Jamal al-Taweel, another high-profile Hamas fugitive, was hiding.
Wow, I thought. The arrest of Jamal al-Taweel would certainly make the Shin Bet feel much better about Operation Defensive Shield. I thanked him but said, “Let’s not put my father in the same place. It might be too dangerous for both of them to be there together.” We agreed on another spot, and I quickly got my father settled in his new safe house. Then I called Loai.
“I know where Jamal al-Taweel is hiding.”
Loai couldn’t believe the news; al-Taweel was arrested that very night.
That same day, we also nabbed another of the IDF’s most wanted men—Marwan Barghouti.
Though Marwan was one of Hamas’s most elusive leaders, his capture actually turned out to be quite simple. I called one of his guards and talked with him briefly on his cell phone while the Shin Bet traced the call. Barghouti was later tried in a civilian court and sentenced to five consecutive life sentences.