PARK CITY, Utah: The latest film to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival throws the spotlight on the son of a founder of Hamas – who spent 10 years at the heart of the Palestinian Islamist movement as an Israeli “mole.”
From 1997 to 2007, Mossab Hassan Youssef, the oldest son of Sheikh Hasan Youssef, worked for Israel’s Shin Bet internal security services, before relocating to the United States and converting to Christianity.
In 2010 he published a book about his life, which has served as the source text for “The Green Prince,” a documentary now in competition at America’s most-loved independent film festival.
“I realized that we knew nothing of Hamas,” said director Nadav Schirman. Mossab “was giving such an insider description there. We, as Israelis, we’re living next door, we are neighbors and we know nothing.”
He contacted Mossab and arranged to meet him in New York. He also met Gonen Ben Yitzhak, the Palestinian mole’s Shin Bet handler, and decided to focus his movie on the astonishing relationship between the two men.
Shin Bet arrested Mossab in 1996 for arms possession when he was 17 years old and a devout follower of his father’s beliefs. Ben Yitzhak proposed that he became a spy for Israel. Mossab accepted, planning to become a double agent, to work against the Israelis.
In prison, however, he came into contact with other Hamas members and said he saw a side of the movement he did not recognize: torture, intimidation and summary executions. So he decided to work for Israel alone.
Over the course of a decade, he said he had prevented dozens of suicide attacks, helped secure the arrest of key Hamas figures and even stopped a planned attack on Shimon Peres, now Israel’s president.
According to Schirman, these results were only achieved because of the trust built up, little by little, between Mossab and Ben Yitzhak.
“They had to take a leap of faith to trust one another,” he said. “When I look at the political map today the Palestinian leaders don’t trust the Israeli leaders and the Israeli leaders don’t trust the Palestinian leaders. Without trust they will never get anywhere. But trust implies taking risks – that’s the only way to really create a valuable relationship.”
Rejected by his family, Mossab now lives under a new identity in California. He says he has no regrets.
“Unfortunately it’s very hard when you choose between bad and worse,” he told AFP.
“When I look back, I could have done better and I wish I could achieve some of the achievements today without having to sacrifice my family, for example.
“I knew my life would change forever and that unfortunately, I would lose my family and the people that I loved, but for the sake of telling a truth that I’m not ashamed of.”
At some points quite dry, the film mixes Mossab and Ben Yitzhak talking to the camera with archive footage and reconstructions of key scenes.
“There are only two characters in the film and yet [it] plays like a suspense thriller,” opined the director. “That was the biggest challenge.”
Ben Yitzhak also paid a heavy price for working with Mossab. He had to leave Shin Bet for protecting the Israeli “mole” – sometimes in violation of the intelligence service’s rules.
“I have regrets,” he said. “But if I look today at our story, I know that what I did was right. It was not easy. It put me in a very unpleasant position, even today, but I don’t regret it.
Coincidentally, Mossab’s father was released from prison Sunday after spending more than two years behind bars for belonging to an illegal organization.
Hasan Youssef, who is also a member of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Legislative Council, said after his release he would work with Hamas rivals “Fatah and other Palestinian factions to achieve reconciliation.”
The Sundance Film Festival runs at Park City, Utah, until Sunday.