[11 June 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“My father told me, this is a dark organization, don’t go there.” Gonen Ben Itzhak sets up the moment when he decided to join Shin Bet, the Israeli secret security service, with his reaction to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “I was shocked like everybody else,” he says, “I felt I needed to do something for my country.” His belief that joining Shin Bet appeared to be that something initiates the unresolved, perhaps irresolvable, conundrum at the center of The Green Prince, screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York on 14 and 16 June.
That conundrum begins with definitions and expectations—of self and nation, individual and community, morality, vengeance, and survival. As much as these terms might be applied to abstractions or ideals, they are also components of everyday life, of material choices and consequences, of lack of options and fears. The Palestinians were enemies, even the idea of Palestine was an existential threat to Israel, and so Itzhak embraced his responsibility. Still, Itzhak recalls his father’s caution as he simultaneously recalls his decision: they are inextricable, 20 years later, when the darkness seems exponentially more obvious, more painful, and more unavoidable.
Itzhak’s story is entwined with that of the Green Prince, notorious within Shin Bet and then beyond as well as the “Son of Hamas.” Mosab Hassan Yousef and Itzhak here sit for separate interviews, in stark rooms and dim light, their faces sharply shadowed, their expressions seemingly open and direct. Each recounts his path—or collision course—to meet the other, when Mosab was recruited to work for the Israelis in 1997. “The first day handling him,” says Itzhak, “was the first day of the end of my career.”
That first day was occasioned by Mosab’s arrest and imprisonment, while he was moving weapons in support of his father’s cause in 1996. His father, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas, seemed then to be a “god” to him, a “higher authority”, admirable for his devotion to Islam and also for his brilliance in rousing others to fight. “Hamas was not just a movement to us,” explains Mosab, “it was the family’s business, it was our identity, it was everything.”
This might sound a little like Itzhak’s own impetus, his resolve to “do something for his country”, and his rejection of his father’s counsel. Mosab would also reject his father, in a more complex and less typical way; as he introduces his father, or the idea of his father, you see surveillance footage, streets on the West Bank ever under watch. “My father dedicated his entire life to Islam,” Mosab remembers, determined to “solve the problem of humanity.” That problem extended in particular ways to the son, who was raped as a child and unable to tell his parents about it: “The more painful thing than being raped was to have the reputation of being raped.”
In this trauma, sitting for his interview now, for a film based in part on his autobiography, Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices, Mosab locates a profound sense of shame, around which all that follows seems to revolve (“To collaborate with Israel is the most shameful you can do in my country,” he asserts, as if these connections are rendered transparent). Whether his self-diagnosis is correct, the young Mosab’s vulnerability was visible to an expert like Itzhak, who exploited it repeatedly and effectively.
When Mosab was imprisoned the first time, he was interrogated and was witness to torture (and he knew, as well, that his father, in and out of prison for years, endured such abuses). When he was recruited, Mosab reports, he meant to work it to his own advantage, to establish himself as a kind of double agent in his own mind, until he learned that Shin Bet were several steps ahead of him—or at least they seemed to be.
As a handler, says Itzhak, “I would look at the psychological set and try to find their weak points.” His genius was emotional, his insight political. He might see in his recruits a need for revenge, and he would find ways reframe risk so it might appear opportunity, and treachery so it might look righteous. “For most Palestinians, Shin Bet handler is the devil himself,” he says, and he played his part perfectly, twisting situations and conversations so that Mosab was unable to tell who was lying and who might not be lying.
As much as Mosab—his father’s son, after all—thought he understood whom he was dealing with and which reality was his, he found himself confounded and turned around. When he agreed to work with the Israelis, it was on condition that no one would be killed based on the incredibly detailed and valuable information he provided. In order to get that information, he had to play a terrorist, be on the Israelis’ wanted list so that he could “hang out with the wanted.”
Before he was immersed in this deceit for a decade, Mosab believed his mission was to kill Israelis; his handler convinced him that their efforts were better spent trying t save people, from themselves as much as from each other. This even as Shin Bet, of course, was doing its best to kill Palestinians. As you gaze on a map, punctuated by lights and blinking on monitors, Itzhak reminds you, “We can create a new reality.”
Here you might pause to imagine the many ways this can be done, by false promises and shifting allegiances, and also by occupying neighborhoods, establishing settlements, convincing prisoners that their best interests are ours, that their culture and family are wrong, that aggression is courage and betrayal is necessary.
This making of this new reality, the process by which Shin Bet or US agencies or Hamas exploit and coerce, terrorize and rescue individuals, is The Green Prince‘s focus, the problem at its center. For it’s not just that Shin Bet exploited Mosab (and Itzhak) or that Itzhak now feels responsible for the unmaking of his informant’s life, but that such practices have only been refined and expanded since Mosab’s experience. As much as he was left in an impossible place following the second intifada, unable to return home, unable to tell the truth, unable not to be perceived as a terrorist, Mosab was also a product of his beliefs, changing over time, shaped by those around him, apparently confirmed in any number of moments.
This is the film’s most devastating observation, one that institutions and nations might still deny and rationalize. These two men’s stories, the lies and truths, together form a terrible sort of thriller, framed here with smart edits between reenactments, archival footage, and interviews, as well as Max Richter’s grimly riveting soundtrack (the documentary has been optioned to be remade as a fiction film). Can you find a truth here, fixed and coherent? Is the new reality ever in motion, never framed exactly? And how can you possibly assess, which reality is new, old, or real?