One day, my friend Jamal was cooking dinner for me.
“Mosab,” he said, “I have a surprise for you.”
He flipped the channel and said with a gleam in his eye, “Check out this TV program on Al-Hayat. It might interest you.”
I found myself looking into the eyes of an old Coptic priest named Zakaria Botros. He looked kind and gentle and had a warm, compelling voice. I liked him—until I realized what he was saying. He was systematically performing an autopsy on the Qur’an, opening it up and exposing every bone, muscle, sinew, and organ, and then putting them under the microscope of truth and showing the entire book to be cancerous.
Factual and historical inaccuracies, contradictions—he revealed them precisely and respectfully but firmly and with conviction. My first instinct was to lash out and turn the television off. But that lasted only seconds before I recognized that this was God’s answer to my prayers. Father Zakaria was cutting away all the dead pieces of Allah that still linked me to Islam and blinded me to the truth that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. Until that happened, I could not move ahead in following him. But it was not an easy transition. Just try to imagine the pain of waking up one day to discover that your dad is not really your father.
I cannot tell you the exact day and the hour that I “became a Christian” because it was a six-year process. But I knew that I was, and I knew I needed to be baptized, no matter what the Shin Bet said. About that time, a group of American Christians came to Israel to tour the Holy Land and to visit their sister church, the one I was attending.
Over time, I became good friends with one of the girls in the group. I enjoyed talking with her, and I trusted her immediately. When I shared a bit of my spiritual story with her, she was very encouraging, reminding me that God often uses the most surprising people to do his work. That was certainly true in my life.
One evening as we were having dinner at the American Colony Restaurant in East Jerusalem, my friend asked me why I had not yet been baptized. I couldn’t tell her that it was because I was an agent for the Shin Bet and involved up to my eyebrows with every political and security activity in the region. But it was a valid question, one I had asked myself many times.
“Can you baptize me?” I asked.
She said she could.
“Can you keep it a secret between us?”
She said she would, adding, “The beach is not too far away. Let’s go now.”
“Are you serious?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Okay, why not?”
I was a little giddy when we boarded the shuttle to Tel Aviv. Had I forgotten who I was? Was I really putting my trust in this girl from San Diego? Forty-five minutes later, we were walking along the crowded beach, drinking in the sweet, warm evening air. No one in the crowd could have known that the son of the leader of Hamas—the terrorist group responsible for slaughtering twenty-one kids at the Dolphinarium just up the road—was about to be baptized as a Christian.
I stripped off my shirt, and we walked into the sea.
* * *
On Friday, September 23, 2005, as I drove my father back from one of the refugee camps near Ramallah, he received a phone call.
“What is going on?” I heard him bark into the phone. “What?”
My dad sounded very agitated.
When he hung up, he told me it had been Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri in Gaza, who informed him that the Israelis had just killed a large number of Hamas members during a rally in the Jebaliya refugee camp. The caller insisted he had seen the Israeli aircraft launch missiles into the crowd. They broke the truce, he said.
My father had worked very hard to negotiate that truce just seven months before. Now it appeared that all his efforts were wasted. He hadn’t trusted Israel in the first place, and he was furious at their thirst for blood.
But I didn’t believe it. Though I didn’t say anything to my father, something about the story smelled wrong.
Al-Jazeera called. They wanted my father on the air as soon as we reached Ramallah. Twenty minutes later, we were in their studios.
While they fitted my father with a microphone, I called Loai. He assured me that Israel had not launched any attack. I was livid. I asked the producer to let me see the news footage of the incident. He took me to the control room, and we watched it over and over. Clearly, the explosion had come from the ground up, not out of the sky.
Sheikh Hassan Yousef was already on the air, ranting at treacherous Israel, threatening to end the truce, and demanding an international investigation.
“So do you feel better now?” I asked him as he walked off the set.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean after your statement.”
“Why shouldn’t I feel better? I can’t believe they did that.”
“Good, because they didn’t. Hamas did. Zuhri is a liar. Please come to the control room; I have something to show you.” My father followed me back to the small room where we watched the video several more times.
“Look at the explosion. Look. The blast goes from bottom to top. It didn’t come from the sky.”
We learned later that the Hamas military guys in Gaza had been showing off, flaunting their hardware during the demonstration, when a Qassam missile in the back of a pickup truck exploded, killing fifteen people and wounding many more.
My father was shocked. But Hamas was not alone in its cover-up and self-serving deceptions. Despite what it displayed on its own news footage, Al-Jazeera continued to broadcast the lies. Then everything got worse. Much worse.
In retaliation for the phony attack on Gaza, Hamas fired nearly forty missiles at towns in southern Israel, the first major attack since Israel had completed its withdrawal from Gaza a week earlier. At home, my father and I watched the news along with the rest of the world. The next day, Loai warned me that the cabinet decided that Hamas had broken the truce.
A news report quoted Major General Yisrael Ziv, the head of operations for Israel’s army: “It was decided to launch a prolonged and constant attack on Hamas,” hinting, added the reporter, “that Israel was preparing to resume targeted attacks against top Hamas leaders,” a practice suspended after the cease-fire.
“Your father has to go in,” Loai said.
“Are you asking my approval?”
“No. They’re asking for him personally, and we can’t do anything about it.”
I was furious.
“But my father didn’t launch any missiles last night. He didn’t order it. He had nothing at all to do with it. It was all those idiots in Gaza.”
Eventually, I ran out of steam. I was crushed. Loai broke the silence.
“Are you there?”
“Yes.” I sat down. “This is not fair … but I understand.”
“You, too,” he said, quietly.
“Me, too, what? Prison? Forget it! I’m not going back. I don’t care about cover. It’s over for me. I’m through.”
“My brother,” he whispered, “do you think I want you to be arrested? It is up to you. If you want to stay out, you stay out. But this time is more dangerous than any other time. You have been at your father’s side over the past year more than ever before. Everyone knows you are completely involved with Hamas. Many believe you are even part of its leadership…. If we don’t arrest you, you will be dead within a few weeks.”
“What’s going on?” my father asked when he found me crying.
When I didn’t say anything, he suggested we cook dinner together for my mother and sisters. My father and I had grown so close over the years, and he understood that sometimes I simply needed to work through things on my own.
But as I prepared the meal with him, knowing that these were the last hours we would have together for a long time, my heart broke. I decided not to let him go through the arrest alone.
After dinner, I called Loai.
“All right,” I told him. “I will go back to prison.”
It was September 25, 2005. I hiked to my favorite spot in the hills outside Ramallah where I often went to spend time praying and reading my Bible. I prayed more, wept more, and asked the Lord for his mercy on me and my family. When I got home, I sat down and waited. My father, blissfully unaware of what was about to happen, had already gone to bed. A little after midnight, the security forces arrived.
They took us to Ofer Prison, where we were herded into a big hall with hundreds of others who had been picked up in a citywide sweep. This time, they also arrested my brothers Oways and Mohammad. Loai told me secretly that they were suspects in a murder case. One of their schoolmates had kidnapped, tortured, and killed an Israeli settler, and the Shin Bet had intercepted a call the killer made to Oways the day before. Mohammad would be released a few days later. Oways would serve four months in prison before being cleared of any involvement in the crime.
We sat on our knees in that hall for ten hours with our hands cuffed behind us. I thanked God silently when someone gave my father a chair, and I saw that he was being treated with respect.
I was sentenced to three months in administrative detention. My Christian friends sent me a Bible, and I served my sentence, studying Scripture and going through the motions. I was released on Christmas Day 2005. My father was not. As I write this, he is still in prison.
* * *
Parliamentary elections were coming up, and every Hamas leader wanted to run for office. They still disgusted me. They all walked around free, while the only man who was actually qualified to lead his people languished behind razor wire. After all that had led up to our arrests, it didn’t take much to convince my father not to participate in the elections. He got word to me, asking me to release his decision to Mohammad Daraghmeh, a political analyst with the Associated Press and a good friend.
The news report broke a couple of hours later, and my phone started ringing. The Hamas leaders had tried to contact my father in prison, but he refused to talk to them.
“What’s going on?” they asked me. “This is a disaster! We will lose because if your father doesn’t run it will appear that he has withdrawn his blessing from the whole election!”
“If he doesn’t want to participate,” I told them, “you have to respect that.”
Then came a call from Ismail Haniyeh, who headed the Hamas ticket and would soon become the new PA prime minister.
“Mosab, as a leader of the movement, I am asking you to schedule a press conference and announce that your father is still on the Hamas ticket. Tell them that the AP story was a mistake.”
On top of everything else, now they wanted me to lie for them. Did they forget that Islam forbids lying, or did they think it was okay because politics has no religion?
“I can’t do that,” I told him. “I respect you, but I respect my father and my own integrity more.” And I hung up.
Thirty minutes later, I received a death threat. “Call the news conference immediately,” the caller said, “or we will kill you.”
“Come and kill me then.”
I hung up and called Loai. Within hours, the guy who made the threat was arrested.
I really didn’t care about death threats. But when my father found out, he called Daraghmeh personally and told him he would participate in the election. Then he told me to calm down and wait for his release. He would deal with Hamas, he assured me.
Naturally, my father could not campaign from prison. But he didn’t need to. Hamas put his picture everywhere, tacitly encouraging everyone to vote the organization ticket. And on the eve of the election, Sheikh Hassan Yousef was swept into parliament, carrying everyone else along like so many burrs in a lion’s mane.
* * *
I sold my share of Electric Computer Systems to my partner because I had a feeling that a lot of things in my life would soon be coming to a close.
Who was I? What kind of future could I hope for if things kept on this way?
I was twenty-seven years old, and I couldn’t even date. A Christian girl would be afraid of my reputation as the son of a top Hamas leader. A Muslim girl would have no use for an Arab Christian. And what Jewish girl would want to date the son of Hassan Yousef? Even if someone would go out with me, what would we talk about? What was I free to share about my life? And what kind of life was it anyway? What had I sacrificed everything for? For Palestine? For Israel? For peace?
What did I have to show for being the Shin Bet’s superspook? Were my people better off? Had the bloodshed stopped? Was my father home with his family? Was Israel safer? Had I modeled a higher path for my brothers and sisters? I felt that I had sacrificed nearly a third of my life for nothing, a “chasing after the wind,” as King Solomon describes it in Ecclesiastes 4:16.
I couldn’t even share all I had learned while wearing my different hats—and hoods. Who would believe me?
I called Loai at his office. “I cannot work for you anymore.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Nothing. I love you all. And I love intelligence work. I think I may even be addicted to the job. But we are not accomplishing anything. We’re fighting a war that can’t be won with arrests, interrogations, and assassinations. Our enemies are ideas, and ideas don’t care about incursions and curfews. We can’t blow up an idea with a Merkava. You are not our problem, and we are not yours. We’re all like rats trapped in a maze. I can’t do it anymore. My time is over.”
I knew this was a hard blow to the Shin Bet. We were in the middle of a war.
“Okay,” Loai said, “I will inform the agency leadership and see what they say.”
When we met again, he said, “Here is the offer from the leadership. Israel has a big communications company. We will give you all the money you need to start one just like it in the Palestinian territories. It’s a great opportunity and will make you secure for the rest of your life.”
“You don’t understand. My problem is not money. My problem is that I’m going nowhere.”
“People here need you, Mosab.”
“I’ll find a different way to help them, but I’m not helping them like this. Even the agency can’t see where it’s going.”
“So what do you want?”
“I want to leave the country.”
He shared our conversation with his superiors. Back and forth we went, the leadership insisting that I stay as I insisted that I had to leave.
“Okay,” they said. “We’ll let you go to Europe for several months, maybe a year, as long as you promise to come back.”
“I am not going to Europe. I want to go to the United States. I have friends there. Maybe I’ll come back in a year or two or five. I don’t know. Right now, I only know that I need a break.”
“The United States will be difficult. Here, you have money, position, and protection from everybody. You’ve developed a solid reputation, built a nice business, and live very comfortably. Do you know what your life will look like in the United States? You will be very small and have no influence.”
I told them I didn’t care if I had to wash dishes. And when I continued to insist, they planted their feet.
“No,” they said. “No United States. Only Europe and only for a short time. Go and enjoy yourself. We’ll keep paying your salary. Just go and have fun. Take your break. Then come back.”
“Okay,” I said finally, “I’m going home. I’m not doing anything for you anymore. I’m not going to leave the house because I don’t want to accidentally discover a suicide bomber and have to report it. Don’t bother calling me. I don’t work for you anymore.”
I went to my parents’ house and turned off my cell phone. My beard grew long and thick. My mother was very worried about me, often coming into the room to check on me and ask if I was okay. Day after day, I read my Bible, listened to music, watched television, thought about the past ten years, and wrestled with depression.
At the end of three months, my mother told me that someone was asking for me on the phone. I told her I didn’t want to talk to anyone. But she said the caller told her that it was urgent, that he was an old friend and knew my father.
I went downstairs and picked up the receiver. It was someone from the Shin Bet.
“We want to see you,” the caller said. “It is very important. We have good news for you.”
I went to the meeting. My not working had created a no-win situation for them. They could see I was determined to quit.
“Okay, we’ll let you go to the United States, but only for a few months, and you have to promise to come back.”
“I don’t know why you keep insisting on something you know you’re not going to get,” I told them calmly but firmly.
Finally, they said, “Okay, we’ll let you go with two conditions. First, you have to hire a lawyer and petition us through the court to allow you to leave the country for medical reasons. Otherwise, you will get burned. Second, you come back.”
The Shin Bet never allowed Hamas members to cross the borders unless they needed medical treatment that was unavailable in the Palestinian territories. I actually did have a problem with my jaw that didn’t allow me to close my teeth together, and I couldn’t get the surgery I needed in the West Bank. It had never really bothered me much, but I figured it was as good an excuse as any, so I hired a lawyer to send a medical report to the court, requesting a permit for me to travel to the United States for the operation.
The whole purpose of this exercise was to provide a clear paper trail in the courts and show I was wrestling with a hostile bureaucracy in an attempt to leave Israel. If the Shin Bet let me go without a struggle, it would imply favoritism and people might start to wonder what I had given them in exchange. So we had to make it appear that they were making it tough on me and fighting me every step of the way.
But the lawyer I selected proved to be an obstacle. He apparently didn’t think I had much of a chance, so he demanded his money in advance—which I paid him—and then he sat back and did nothing. The Shin Bet had no paperwork to generate because they received nothing from my attorney. Week after week, I called him and asked how my case was progressing. The only thing he had to do was process the paperwork, but he kept stalling and lying. There was a problem, he said. There were complications. Again and again, he said he needed more money, and again and again I paid him.
This went on for six months. Finally on New Year’s Day 2007, I got the phone call.
“You’re approved to leave,” the lawyer declared, as though he had just solved world hunger.
* * *
“Can you meet just one more time with one of the Hamas leaders in Jalazone refugee camp?” Loai asked. “You’re the only person—”
“I’m leaving the country in five hours.”
“Okay,” he said in surrender. “Be safe and keep in touch with us. Call once you cross the border to make sure that everything is all right.”
I called some people I knew in California and told them I was coming. Of course, they had no idea I was the son of a top Hamas leader and a spy for the Shin Bet. But they were very excited. I packed a few clothes in a small suitcase and went downstairs to tell my mother. She was already in bed.
I knelt by her side and explained that I would be leaving in a few hours, crossing the border into Jordan and flying to the United States. Even then, I could not explain why.
Her eyes said it all. Your father is in prison. You are like a father to your brothers and sisters. What will you do in America? I knew she didn’t want to see me go, but at the same time, she wanted me to be at peace. She said she hoped I would be able to make a life for myself there after being in so much danger at home. She had no idea just how much danger I had seen.
“Let me kiss you good-bye,” she said. “Wake me in the morning before you go.”
She blessed me, and I told her I would be leaving very early and she didn’t need to get up to see me off. But she was my mother. She waited up with me all night in our living room, along with my brothers and sisters and my friend Jamal.
While I was putting all my belongings together before my flight, I was about to pack my Bible—the one with all my notes, the one I had studied for years, even in prison—but then I sensed a prompting to give it to Jamal.
“I don’t have a more expensive gift to give you before I leave,” I told him. “Here is my Bible. Read it and follow it.” I was sure he would honor my wishes and probably would read it whenever he thought of me. I made sure I had enough cash to last me for a while, left the house, and went to the Allenby Bridge that connects Israel with Jordan.
Getting through the Israeli checkpoint was no problem. I paid the thirty-five-dollar exit tax and entered the huge immigration terminal with its metal detectors, X-ray machines, and the infamous Room 13 where suspects were interrogated. But these devices, along with strip searches, were mostly for those coming into Israel from the Jordanian side—not for those leaving.
The terminal was a beehive of people in shorts and fanny packs, yarmulkes and Arab headdresses, veils and ball caps, some wearing backpacks and others pushing hand trolleys stacked with luggage. Finally, I boarded one of the big JETT buses—the only public transportation permitted on the concrete truss bridge.
Okay, I thought, it’s almost over.
But I was still a little paranoid. The Shin Bet simply did not let people like me leave the country. It was unheard of. Even Loai had been amazed that I’d gotten permission.
When I reached the Jordanian side, I presented my passport. I was concerned because while three years remained on my US visa, my passport was due to expire in fewer than thirty days.
Please, I prayed, just let me into Jordan for one day. That’s all I need.
But all my worrying was for nothing. There was no problem at all. I grabbed a taxi into Amman and bought a ticket on Air France. I checked into a hotel for a few hours, then went to Queen Alia International Airport and boarded my flight to California via Paris.
As I sat on the plane, I thought about what I had just left behind, both good and bad—my family and friends as well as the endless bloodshed, waste, and futility.
It took a while to get used to the idea of being really free—free to be myself, free of clandestine meetings and Israeli prisons, free from always looking over my shoulder.
It was weird. And wonderful.
* * *
Walking down the sidewalk one day in California, I spotted a familiar face coming toward me. It was the face of Maher Odeh, the mastermind behind so many suicide bombings—the guy I had seen back in 2000 being visited by Arafat’s armed thugs. I later exposed them as the founding cell of the ghostly Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
I wasn’t completely sure it was Odeh at first. People look different out of context. I hoped I was wrong. Hamas has never dared reach into the United States to conduct a martyrdom operation. It would be bad for the United States if he was here. It would be bad for me too.
Our eyes met and held for a fraction of a second. I was pretty sure I saw a spark of recognition there before he continued down the street.
In July 2008, I sat in a restaurant having dinner with my good friend Avi Issacharoff, a journalist with Haaretz newspaper in Israel. I told him my story of becoming a Christian because I wanted the news to come from Israel, not from the West. It appeared in his newspaper under the headline “Prodigal Son.”
As is the case with many followers of Jesus, my public declaration of faith broke the hearts of my mother and father, brothers, sisters, and friends.
My friend Jamal was one of the few people who stood by my family in their shame and cried with them. Terribly lonely after I left, Jamal met a beautiful young woman, got engaged, and was married two weeks after the Haaretz article appeared.
Attending his wedding, my family couldn’t hold back their tears because Jamal’s wedding reminded them of me, how I had destroyed my future, and how I would never marry and have a Muslim family. Seeing their sadness, even the new bridegroom started to cry. Most of the other people in the wedding cried, too, but I’m sure it was for a different reason.
“Couldn’t you wait to make your announcement until two weeks after I got married?” Jamal asked me in a phone conversation later. “You made the best thing in my life a disaster.”
I felt awful. Thankfully, Jamal remains my best friend.
My father received the news in his prison cell. He woke up to learn that his oldest son had converted to Christianity. From his perspective, I had destroyed my own future and his family’s future. He believes that one day I will be taken to hell before his eyes, and then we will be estranged forever.
He cried like a baby and would not leave his cell.
Prisoners from every faction came to him. “We are all your sons, Abu Mosab,” they told him. “Please calm down.”
He could not confirm the news reports. But a week later, my seventeen-year-old sister, Anhar, who was the only family member allowed to visit him, came to the prison. Immediately, he could see in her eyes that it was all true. And he couldn’t control himself. Other prisoners left their visiting families to come and kiss his head and weep with him. He tried to catch his breath to apologize to them, but he only wept harder. Even the Israeli guards, who respected my father, cried.
I sent him a six-page letter. I told him how important it was for him to discover the real nature of the God he has always loved but never known.
My uncles waited anxiously for my father to disown me. When he refused, they turned their backs on his wife and children. But my father knew that if he disowned me, Hamas terrorists would kill me. And he kept his covering over me, no matter how deeply I had wounded him.
Eight weeks later, the men at Ktzi’ot Prison in the Negev threatened to riot. So Shabas, the Israel Prison Service, asked my father to do what he could to defuse the situation.
One day my mother, who had been in weekly contact since my arrival in America, called me.
“Your father is in the Negev. Some of the prisoners have smuggled in cell phones. Would you like to talk to him?”
I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think I would get a chance to talk to my dad until he was released from prison.
I called the number. No one answered. I called again.
His voice. I could barely speak.
“I miss your voice.”
“How are you?”
“I am good. It doesn’t matter how I am. How are you?”
“I am okay. We came here to talk to prisoners and try to calm the situation down.”
He was the same. His chief concern was always for the people. And he always would be the same.
“How is your life in the USA now?”
“My life is great. I am writing a book…”
Every prisoner was given only ten minutes, and my father would never use his position to get special treatment. I wanted to discuss my new life with him, but he didn’t want to talk about it.
“No matter what happened,” he told me, “you are still my son. You are part of me, and nothing will change. You have a different opinion, but you still are my little child.”
I was shocked. This man was unbelievable.
I called again the next day. He was sick at heart, but he was listening.
“I have a secret I need to tell you,” I said. “I want to tell you now, so you don’t hear it from the media.”
I explained that I had worked for the Shin Bet for ten years. That he was still alive today because I had agreed to have him put into prison for his protection. That his name was at the top of Jerusalem’s assassination list—and that he was still in prison because I was no longer there to ensure his safety.
Silence. My dad said nothing.
“I love you,” I said finally. “You will always be my father.”
It is my greatest hope that, in telling my own story, I will show my own people—Palestinian followers of Islam who have been used by corrupt regimes for hundreds of years—that the truth can set them free.
I tell my story as well to let the Israeli people know that there is hope. If I, the son of a terrorist organization dedicated to the extinction of Israel, can reach a point where I not only learned to love the Jewish people but risked my life for them, there is a light of hope.
My story holds a message for Christians too. We must learn from the sorrows of my people, who carry a heavy burden trying to work their way into God’s favor. We have to get beyond the religious rules we make for ourselves. Instead, we must love people—on all sides of the world—unconditionally. If we are going to represent Jesus to the world, we have to live his message of love. If we want to follow Jesus, we must also expect to be persecuted. We should be happy to be persecuted for his sake.