President Obama thinks Israel's policies are the biggest obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Hamas disagrees.
The problem for Hamas, writes Mosab Hassan Yousef, has never been "Israel's policies." The problem for Hamas is "Israel's very existence." Hamas, Yousef adds, is "animated by religious fervor and the theology of jihad," and it is "dedicated to the extinction of Israel."
He should know. He is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of Hamas's seven founders and perhaps its most popular leader.
Not that long ago, it seemed inevitable that the son would follow in his father's footsteps. As he recounts in Son of Hamas, a stunning and instructive memoir, at the age of 17 he "could think of nothing except joining the military wing of Hamas." But he came to see terrorism as immoral and repugnant, and, in reaction, he embarked on a remarkable journey.
That journey began in a West Bank village where his father, a religious and political leader before he helped create Hamas, believed that "Allah had given us the responsibility of eradicating the Jews . . . though he personally had nothing against them."
The Israelis repeatedly imprisoned the father, and, when the son procured weapons, they quickly threw him in jail as well. Both were dealt with harshly. But, in prison, Yousef was shocked to learn that Hamas leaders were even more brutal toward their own members. Those suspected of cooperating with Israelis were tortured — sometimes with needles inserted under their fingernails, sometimes with plastic food trays melted on their bare skin.
In 1996, Yousef was approached by the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency. He considered becoming a double agent, figuring he could mislead his handlers and perhaps get the chance to kill a few. Little by little, however, his views of Israelis changed: "They were human beings, and they treated me like a human being. Nearly every time we met, another stone in the foundation of my worldview crumbled."
Then came Camp David: In 2000, Pres. Bill Clinton put pressure on Israeli prime minister Ehud Barack, who offered Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of Fatah, "about 90 percent of the West Bank, the entire Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state." Additionally, Mosab writes, "a new international fund would be established to compensate Palestinians for property that had been taken from them. This 'land for peace' offer represented a historic opportunity for the long-suffering Palestinian people, something few Palestinians would have dared imagine possible. But even so, it was not enough for Arafat," who rejected the offer, refused to negotiate further, and launched a bloody intifada against Israel.
Why? Yousef explains: "Yasser Arafat had grown extraordinarily wealthy as the international symbol of victimhood. He wasn't about to surrender that status and take on the responsibility of actually building a functioning society. . . . For Arafat, there always seemed to be more to gain if Palestinians were bleeding. Another intifada would surely get the blood flowing and the Western news cameras rolling once again."
Yousef decided that something "had to be done to stop this rolling madness. I knew the time had come for me to begin working with Shin Bet. And I went at it with all my heart."
He was good at it, too. For example, he discovered that the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades were actually composed of Arafat's personal guards, members of Force 17, largely funded by American taxpayers. They carried out terrorist attacks while Arafat denounced terrorism, blamed most of it on Hamas, and insisted he was doing all he could to restrain the violent extremists.
Yousef knew that by working for the Israelis he would be seen as "a traitor in the eyes of my people." But it was the only way he could prevent suicide bombings, the only way he could save both Palestinian and Israeli lives, the only way he could contribute to "the ongoing war on terrorism in which Israel plays a leading role."
In 2007, Yousef retired from the spy business and left the Middle East. He now lives in California. He also has left Islam, which, he came to believe, has a "beautiful side" but also a "cruel side that requires its followers to conquer and enslave the earth." He is now a devout Christian.
He wrote Son of Hamas because, he writes, "When Middle Eastern nations — Jews and Arabs alike — start to understand some of what I understand, only then will there be peace."
And it would help if President Obama were to read his book and realize that Israel's policies — least of all its plans to build housing for growing families in a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem — are the least of the obstacles standing in the way of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.