Meanwhile, not a day passed when Operation Defensive Shield did not make international headlines. Few were flattering. Out of Jenin came rumors of a large-scale massacre, which no one could verify because the IDF had sealed the city. Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said 500 were dead. The figure was later revised to about 50.
In Bethlehem, more than 200 Palestinians were under siege in the Church of the Nativity for about five weeks. After the dust had settled and most of the civilians had been allowed to leave, 8 Palestinians had been killed, 26 were sent to Gaza, 85 were checked by the IDF and released, and the 13 most wanted were exiled to Europe.
All told during Defensive Shield, nearly 500 Palestinians were killed, 1,500 were wounded, and nearly 4,300 were detained by the IDF. On the other side, 29 Israelis were dead, and 127 were wounded. The World Bank estimated the damage at more than $360 million.
Wednesday, July 31, 2002, was a scorcher. One hundred and two degrees Fahrenheit. On the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University, no classes were in session, though some students were still taking exams. Others lined up to register for fall classes. At 1:30 p.m., the university’s Frank Sinatra Cafeteria was packed with people cooling off, enjoying iced drinks, and chatting. Nobody noticed the bag that had been left there by a contract painter.
The massive explosion gutted the cafeteria and left nine people dead, including five Americans. Eighty-five others were injured, fourteen seriously.
That same day, my good friend Saleh disappeared. When we checked the locations of the other four on our most-wanted list, we found that they, too, had disappeared without a trace, even severing all connection with their families. We were able to identify the Hamas cell that planted the bomb and found that its members were from inside Israel, not the occupied territories. They carried blue Israeli ID cards that allowed them to go anywhere they wanted. Five were from East Jerusalem: married, nice families, good jobs.
During the course of the investigation, one name came to the surface: Mohammed Arman, a man who lived in one of the Ramallah villages. Under torture, Arman was asked to identify the man behind the Hebrew University attack. He said he knew him only by the name “Sheikh.”
The interrogators brought in photographs of suspected terrorists, like a book of mug shots in an American police station, and told him to point to “Sheikh.” Arman identified a picture of Ibrahim Hamed, providing us with the first hard evidence of his involvement with suicide bombings.
We would learn later that, once identified, Hamed used his exposure to protect Saleh and the other members of his cell. All the cells under his command had been told that if they were captured, they were to blame everything on Hamed, since he no longer had anything to lose. So for the time being, the trail ended with Ibrahim Hamed. And he was nowhere to be found.
* * *
During the months following Operation Defensive Shield, Ramallah was under curfew. Arafat’s operations were pretty much shut down. USAID had suspended its projects and was not allowing its employees to enter the West Bank. Israeli checkpoints strangled the city, letting nothing but ambulances in or out. And I was officially a fugitive. All of this made it very difficult for me to get around. Nevertheless, I still had to meet with the Shin Bet every other week or so to discuss ongoing operations that could not be discussed on the telephone.
Equally important, I needed emotional support. The loneliness was terrible. I had become a stranger in my own city. I couldn’t share my life with anybody, not even my own family. And I couldn’t trust anyone else. Ordinarily, Loai and I met at one of the Shin Bet safe houses in Jerusalem. But I could no longer get out of Ramallah. It wasn’t even safe for me to be seen on the streets in the daytime. None of the usual options were possible.
If special forces came in Palestinian cars to pick me up, they risked being stopped by feda’iyeen and exposed by their accents. If security agents in IDF uniforms pretended to kidnap me, somebody might spot me jumping into the jeep. And even if it worked, how many times could we get away with that ruse?
Finally the Shin Bet came up with a more creative way for us to meet.
Ofer Military Base, a couple of miles south of Ramallah, was one of Israel’s highest-security facilities. The place was crammed with secrets and wrapped in security. The Shin Bet local offices were there.
“Okay,” Loai told me. “From now on, we’re going to meet at Ofer. All you have to do is break in.”
We both laughed. And then I realized he was serious.
“If you’re caught,” he explained, “it will look to everyone like you were trying to infiltrate a major military installation to plan an attack.”
“If I’m caught?”
The plan was troubling. And late one night when the time came to put it into action, I felt like an actor on opening night—about to step onto a set he had never seen before, dressed in a costume he had never worn before, with no script and no rehearsal.
I didn’t know that the Shin Bet had positioned their own agents in the two guard towers flanking the spot in the outer perimeter that I was supposed to breach. Nor did I know that more armed security agents equipped with night-vision gear were stationed along my route to protect me in the unlikely event that somebody might be following.
I just kept thinking, What if I make a mistake?
I parked my car out of sight. Loai had instructed me to wear dark clothes, not to carry a flashlight, and to bring a pair of bolt cutters. I took a deep breath.
Heading into the hills, I could see the twinkle of the base lights in the distance. For a while, a pack of stray dogs barked at my heels as I followed the rise and fall of the rugged terrain. That was okay, as long as they didn’t draw any unwelcome attention.
Finally I came to the outer fence and called Loai.
“From the corner, count seven stanchions,” he said. “Then wait for my sign and start cutting.”
I cut through what had become the old fence after a new one had been built about twenty feet inside at the start of the Second Intifada.
I had been warned about the guard pigs (yes, I said guard pigs), but I didn’t encounter them, so it didn’t matter. The area between the outer and inner perimeters formed a run that, at any other military base in the world, would be patrolled by German shepherds or other highly trained attack dogs. Ironically, the kosher-conscious Israelis used pigs. It’s true.
It was thought that the presence of pigs and the threat of possible contact with them would serve as a psychological deterrent to any prospective terrorist who was a devout Muslim. Islam forbids contact with pigs as vehemently as does Orthodox Judaism. Perhaps even more so.
I never saw pigs guarding a settlement, but Loai told me later that they did sentry duty at Ofer Military Base.
I found a small door in the inner fence that had been left unlocked. I went through, and there I was, with guard towers rising up on either side like the devil’s horns, inside one of the most secure military installations in Israel.
“Keep your head down,” Loai said into my ear, “and wait for a sign.”
There were bushes all around me. After a few moments, several of them started moving. Turns out, some of them were actually the agents who were usually present in our meetings, but now they were carrying heavy machine guns and wearing IDF camouflage uniforms with branches sticking out all over. I could tell they were having fun playing commando—just one more dress-up role in a repertoire that ranged from terrorists and feda’iyeen to old men and the occasional woman.
“How are you doing?” they asked me, as if we had just sat down together in a coffeehouse. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything is okay.”
“Have you got anything?”
Sometimes I brought them recording devices or other evidence or intelligence, but I was empty-handed this time.
It started to rain, and we ran up and over a hill to an area where two jeeps waited. Three of the men jumped into the first jeep, and I jumped in the back. The others stayed with the second jeep to secure my return. I felt sorry for the guys we left behind because it was raining pretty hard. But they still seemed to be enjoying themselves.
After meeting with Loai, his boss, and the guards for a few hours, I left the same way I had come—pleased with myself, even though the trek back was long, wet, and cold.
This became our standard way of meeting. It was perfectly choreographed and executed flawlessly every time. I didn’t have to cut the fence again, but I always carried the cutters, just in case.
* * *
After my “escape” from the highly visible IDF raid, I continued to keep tabs on my father to make sure he was okay and see if there was anything he needed. Every once in a while, I stopped by the USAID office, but since we had suspended most of our work, what little I needed to do I was able to finish from my computer at home. At night, I hung out with wanted people and gathered intelligence. And late at night, once or twice a month, I infiltrated a top secret military installation to attend a meeting.
In my spare time, I continued to hang out with my Christian friends to talk about the love of Jesus. Actually, it was a lot more than talk. Even though I was still just a follower of the Teacher, I felt as if I was experiencing God’s love and protection every day, and it seemed to be extending to the members of my family as well.
One afternoon, special forces troops were searching the City Inn for fugitives and came up empty, so they decided to take a break at a nearby house. This was common practice. The IDF didn’t need orders or authorization. When things were relatively quiet, their special forces soldiers simply commandeered somebody’s house in order to grab a few hours of rest and maybe get something to eat. Sometimes during heavy fighting, they even broke into local homes and used the occupants as human shields—much like the feda’iyeen often did.
On this particular day, they chose the house in which my father was hiding. The Shin Bet didn’t know this was happening. None of us did. The fact that soldiers picked that particular house on that particular day was something no one could have predicted or prevented. And when they arrived, my father “happened” to be in the basement.
“Could you please not bring the dogs in here?” the woman who lived there asked the soldiers. “I have little children.”
Her husband was terrified that the troops would find Hassan Yousef and arrest them for harboring a fugitive. So he tried to act normal and unafraid. He told his seven-year-old daughter to go and shake hands with the commander. The commander was charmed by the little girl and figured she and her parents were just a regular family who had nothing to do with terrorists. He asked the woman politely if his men could rest for a little while upstairs, and she said that would be fine. About twenty-five Israeli soldiers stayed in that house for more than eight hours, unaware that my father was literally right beneath them.
I could not explain away the sense of supernatural protection and intervention. It was real to me. When Ahmad al-Faransi (who had once asked me for explosives to give to his suicide bombers) called me from the middle of Ramallah and asked if I could pick him up and drive him home, I told him I was in the area and would be there in a few minutes. When I arrived, he climbed into the car, and we started driving.
We had not gone far when al-Faransi’s cell phone rang. Al-Faransi was on Jerusalem’s assassination list, and Arafat’s headquarters was calling to warn him that Israeli helicopters had been following him. I opened the window and heard two Apaches closing in. Though it may seem strange to those who have not sensed God speaking to them in an internal voice, on this day I heard God speak to my heart, instructing me to turn left between two buildings. I later learned that had I continued to go straight, the Israelis would have had a clean shot at my car. I turned the car and instantly heard that divine voice say, Get out of the car and leave it. We jumped out and ran. By the time the helicopter reacquired its target, the only thing its pilot could see was a parked car and two open doors. It hovered for about sixty seconds and then turned and flew away.
I learned later that intelligence had received a message that al-Faransi had been spotted getting into a dark blue Audi A4. There were many just like it in town. Loai wasn’t in the operations room at the time to check my location, and no one knew to ask whether this Audi might belong to the Green Prince. Few members of the Shin Bet even knew of my existence.
Somehow, I seemed to always benefit from divine protection. I wasn’t even a Christian yet, and al-Faransi certainly didn’t know the Lord. My Christian friends were praying for me every day, however. And God, Jesus said in Matthew 5:45, “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This was certainly a far cry from the cruel and vengeful god of the Qur’an.
Fall 2002—Spring 2003
I was exhausted. I was tired of playing so many dangerous roles at once, tired of having to change my personality and appearance to fit the current company I was keeping. When I was with my father and other Hamas leaders, I had to play the part of a dedicated member of Hamas. When I was with the Shin Bet, I had to play the part of an Israeli collaborator. When I was at home, I often played the part of father and protector of my siblings, and when I was at work, I had to play the part of a regular working guy. I was in my last semester of college, and I had exams to study for. But I couldn’t concentrate.
It was the end of September 2002, and I decided that it was time for act 2 of the play that had opened with the Shin Bet’s phony attempt to arrest me.
“I can’t keep up like this,” I told Loai. “What will it take? A few months in prison? We go through the motions of interrogation. You release me. Then I can go back and finish school. I can go back to my job at USAID and live a normal life.”
“What about your father?”
“I’m not going to leave him behind to be assassinated. Go ahead and arrest him too.”
“If that’s what you want. The government will certainly be happy that we finally caught Hassan Yousef.”
I told my mother where my father was hiding, and I let her visit him. Five minutes after she arrived at the safe house, special forces poured into the area. Soldiers ran through the neighborhood, shouting at all the civilians to get inside.
One of those “civilians,” smoking a narghile (Turkish water pipe) in front of his house, was none other than master bomb maker Abdullah Barghouti, who had no idea that he had been living across the street from Hassan Yousef. And the poor IDF soldier who told him to get inside had no idea that he had been shouting at Israel’s most wanted mass murderer.
Everybody was clueless. My father had no idea that his son had given him up in order to protect him from being assassinated. And the IDF had no idea that the Shin Bet had known the whereabouts of Hassan Yousef all along and that some of their soldiers had even eaten lunch and enjoyed a nap in the house where he was hiding.
As usual, my father surrendered peacefully. And he and the other Hamas leaders assumed the Shin Bet had followed my mother to his hideout. Naturally, my mother was sad, but she was also relieved that her husband was somewhere safe and no longer on Israel’s assassination list.
“We’ll see you tonight,” Loai told me after the dust settled.
As the sun began to set on the horizon, I sat inside my house, looking out the window, watching as about twenty special forces troops moved in fast and took their positions. I knew I needed to get my head down now and prepare for a little rough treatment. A couple of minutes later, jeeps drove in. Then a tank. The IDF sealed the area. Somebody jumped onto my balcony. Somebody else banged on my door.
“Who is it?” I called out, pretending I didn’t know.
“IDF! Open the door!”
I opened the door, and they pushed me down onto the floor, quickly searching me for weapons.
“Is anybody else here?”
I don’t know why they bothered to ask. They started kicking in doors anyway and searching the house, room by room. Once outside, I found myself face-to-face with my friend.
“Where have you been?” Loai asked, talking harshly to me, as if I truly were what I pretended to be. “We’ve been looking for you. Are you trying to get yourself killed? You must have been crazy to run from your father’s house last year.”
A bunch of angry soldiers looked on and listened.
“We got your father,” he said, “and we finally got you! Let’s see what you have to say under interrogation!”
A couple of soldiers threw me into a jeep. Loai came over, leaned in so no one could hear him, and asked, “How are you doing, my friend? Is everything okay? Handcuffs too tight?”
“Everything’s fine,” I said. “Just get me out of here, and don’t let the soldiers beat me during the ride.”
“Don’t worry. One of my guys will be with you.”
They brought me to Ofer Military Base, where we sat in the same room in which we used to meet for a couple of hours of “interrogation,” drinking coffee and talking about the situation.
“We’re going to take you to Maskobiyeh,” Loai said, “just for a short time. We’ll pretend that you went through a tough interrogation. Your father is already there, and you’ll get to see him. He is not being questioned or tortured. Then we’ll take you to administrative detention. You’ll spend several months there, and after that, we’ll ask to extend your sentence for three more months because anybody with your status would be expected to spend a respectable time in prison.”
When I saw the interrogators, even those who had tortured me during my previous stay, I was surprised to discover that I felt no bitterness whatsoever toward these men. The only way I could explain it was using a verse I had read: Hebrews 4:12 says that “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” I had read and pondered these words many times, as well as Jesus’ commands to forgive your enemies and love those who mistreat you. Somehow, even though I was still unable to accept Jesus Christ as God, his words seemed to be alive and active and working inside me. I don’t know how else I would have been able to see people as people, not Jew or Arab, prisoner or torturer. Even the old hatred that had driven me to buy guns and to plot the deaths of Israelis was being displaced by a love I didn’t understand.
I was put into a cell by myself for a couple of weeks. And once or twice a day, when they weren’t busy interrogating other prisoners, my Shin Bet friends came to check on me and chat. I ate well and remained the prison’s best-kept secret. This time, there were no stinking hoods or crazy hunchbacks or Leonard Cohen songs (although he would one day become my favorite recording artist—weird, huh?). In the West Bank, word circulated that I was a really tough guy who gave no information to the Israelis, even under torture.
A few days before my transfer, I was moved into my father’s cell. A look of relief swept over my father’s face as he held out his arms for an embrace. He held me away from him and smiled.
“I followed you,” I said, laughing. “I couldn’t live without you.”
Two others were in the cell, and we joked around and had a good time together. To be honest, I was very happy to see my dad safely behind bars. No mistakes would be made. No missiles would come from the sky.
Sometimes while he read the Qur’an to us, I just enjoyed looking at him and listening to his beautiful voice. I thought about how gentle he was when we were growing up. He never forced us to get out of bed for early morning prayers, but we all did it because we wanted to make him proud. He had given his life to Allah at a very early age and passed along that devotion to the rest of us by example.
Now I thought: My beloved father, I am so glad to be sitting here with you. I know prison is the last place you want to be right now, but if you weren’t here, your shattered remains would probably be in a little vinyl bag somewhere. Sometimes he looked up and saw me smiling at him with love and appreciation. He didn’t understand why, and I couldn’t tell him.
When the guards came to transfer me out, my father and I hugged tightly. He seemed so frail in my embrace, and yet I knew how strong he was. We had been so close over the past few days that I felt as if I was being torn apart. I even found it difficult to leave the Shin Bet officers. We had developed an incredibly close relationship over the years. I looked at their faces and hoped they knew how much I admired them. They looked back at me apologetically. They knew the next stop on my journey wouldn’t be so easy.
The faces of the soldiers who handcuffed me for transfer had a completely different look. To them, I was a terrorist who had escaped the IDF, made them look stupid, and evaded capture. This time, I was taken to Ofer Prison, part of the military base where I had met regularly with the Shin Bet.
My beard grew long and thick like everyone else’s. And I joined the other prisoners in the daily routine. When prayer times came, I bowed and knelt and prayed, but no longer to Allah. I prayed now to the Creator of the universe. I was getting closer. One day, I even found an Arabic-language Bible stashed in the world religion section of the library. It was the whole thing, not just the New Testament. No one had ever touched it. I’ll bet no one even knew it was there. What a gift from God! I read it again and again.
Every now and then, somebody would come over to me and gently try to find out what I was doing. I explained that I studied history and that since the Bible was an ancient book, it contained some of the earliest information available. Not only that, but the values it teaches are also great, I said, and I believed that every Muslim ought to read it. People were usually okay with that. The only time they got a little sore was during Ramadan, when it seemed I was studying the Bible more than the Qur’an.
The Bible study I had attended in West Jerusalem was open to everybody—Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, whatever. Through this group, I had had opportunities to sit down with Jewish people who came with the same purpose as I did: to study Christianity and learn about Jesus. It was a unique experience for me as a Palestinian Muslim to study Jesus with an Israeli Jew.
Through this group, I had gotten to know a Jewish man named Amnon pretty well. He was married and had two beautiful children. He was very smart and spoke several languages. His wife was a Christian and had encouraged him for a long time to be baptized. Finally, Amnon decided to do it, so the group gathered one evening to witness his baptism in the pastor’s bathtub. By the time I arrived, Amnon had finished reading some Bible verses and had begun to cry very hard.
He knew that when he allowed himself to be lowered under the water, he was not only declaring his allegiance to Jesus Christ through the identification with his death and resurrection, he was also divorcing his culture. He was turning his back on the faith of his father, a professor at Hebrew University. He was abandoning Israeli society and religious traditions, destroying his reputation, and jeopardizing his future.
Not long after, Amnon received notice to begin serving his tour with the IDF. In Israel, every non-Arab citizen, male or female, over the age of eighteen is required to serve in the military—men for three years, women for two. But Amnon had seen enough checkpoint massacres to feel that, as a Christian, he could not allow himself to be placed in a position where he might be required to shoot unarmed civilians. And he refused to put on a uniform and go to the West Bank.
“Even if I could do my job by shooting a stone-throwing child in the leg instead of in the head,” he argued, “I don’t want to do it. I am called to love my enemy.”
A second notice came. Then a third.
When he still refused to serve, Amnon was arrested and imprisoned. What I didn’t realize was that Amnon was living in the Jewish section of the prison the entire time I was at Ofer. He was there because he refused to work with the Israelis; I was there because I had agreed to work with them. I was trying to protect Jews; he was trying to protect Palestinians.
I didn’t believe that everybody in Israel and the occupied territories needed to become a Christian in order to end the bloodshed. But I thought that if we just had a thousand Amnons on one side and a thousand Mosabs on the other, it could make a big difference. And if we had more … who knows?
A couple of months after arriving at Ofer, I was taken to court, where no one knew who I was—not the judge or the prosecutors, not even my own lawyer.
At my trial, the Shin Bet testified that I was dangerous and requested that I be kept longer. The judge agreed and sentenced me to six months in administrative detention. Again, I was transferred.
Five hours drive from anywhere, in the sand dunes of the Negev Desert and very near the Dimona nuclear plant, stood the tent prison of Ktzi’ot, where you melted in the summer and froze in the winter.
“What’s your organization?”
Yes, I still identified myself as part of my family, as part of my history. But I was no longer like the other prisoners.
Hamas was still the majority. But since the start of the Second Intifada, Fatah had grown significantly, and each group had about the same number of tents. I was tired of pretending, and my newfound ethical code kept me from lying. So I decided to keep mostly to myself while I was there.
Ktzi’ot was serious wilderness. The night air echoed with the sounds of wolves and hyenas and leopards. I had heard stories of prisoners who had escaped Ktzi’ot, but no stories of anyone having survived the desert. Winter was worse than summer—freezing air and drifting snow and nothing but canvas to keep out the wind. Each tent had a moisture barrier across the roof. But some of the prisoners tore down pieces of it to make privacy curtains around their cots. The moisture from our breath was supposed to be trapped in that liner. But it just floated up and stuck to the naked canvas until it got too heavy. Then all that spit rained down on us throughout the night as we slept.
The Israelis virtually papered the camp with glue boards to try to keep the mouse population under control. Early one frosty morning while everyone else was still asleep, I was reading my Bible when I heard a squeaking sound, like a rusty bedspring. I looked under my cot and saw a mouse stuck to a glue board. What surprised me, though, was that another mouse was trying to save him without getting stuck himself. Was it his mate or a friend? I don’t know. I watched for about half an hour as one animal risked its life to save another. It moved me so much that I freed them both.
At the prison, reading materials were pretty much limited to the Qur’an and Qur’anic studies. I had only two English-language books that a friend had smuggled to me through my lawyer. I was deeply grateful to have something to read and to strengthen my English skills, but it didn’t take long for me to wear out the covers from reading the books so much. One day, I was walking around by myself when I saw two prisoners making tea. Beside them was a huge wooden box filled with novels sent by the Red Cross. And these guys were tearing up the books for fuel! I couldn’t control myself. I shoved the box away from them and started scooping up the books. They thought I wanted them so I could make my own tea.
“Are you insane?” I told them. “It took me forever to smuggle in two English-language books so I could read them, and you’re making tea with these!”
“Those are Christian books,” they argued.
“They are not Christian books,” I told them. “They’re New York Times best sellers. I’m sure they don’t say anything against Islam. They’re just stories about human experiences.”
They probably wondered what was wrong with the son of Hassan Yousef. He had been so quiet, mostly keeping to himself and reading. Suddenly, he was raving about a box of books. If it had been anybody else, they probably would have fought to keep their priceless fuel. But they let me have the novels, and I returned to my bed with a whole box of new treasures. I piled them around me and wallowed in them. I didn’t care what anybody thought. My heart was singing and praising God for providing me with something to read while I tried to pass the time in this place.