Take a Palestinian with Hamas in his bloodline, turn him into an Israeli spy, pack him off to a Bible study that leads to a conversion to Christianity, and exile him to America where he tells all-daring both Islamic militants and an Israeli hit squad to come after him! No Hollywood director is crazy enough to option that script.
But that's the story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, author of Son of Hamas. And since his book debuted March 2, he's been spreading it everywhere-cable news, satellite Arabic channels, Israeli, Arab, and U.S. press, including Christian outlets beginning with his appearance last month at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville.
Yousef grew up an insider in Ramallah, current capital of the Palestinian areas: His father, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, was an early member of the Muslim Brotherhood and helped launch the resistance movement that became the terrorist group known as Hamas. Imprisonment for hiding weapons hardened teenaged Yousef's hatred toward Israel, but he discovered something else: Hamas leaders inside the prison treated potential collaborators worse than Israeli prison guards did, torturing them and forcing false confessions when the guards weren't looking. "Was this Hamas? Was this Islam?" he wondered. He consented to provide information to Israel's domestic spy bureau, Shin Bet, and he says by age 22 he was its only insider to infiltrate Hamas' military and political wings.
But disillusionment reined: "My life has been partitioned like the crazy little piece of real estate on the Mediterranean known as Israel by some, Palestine by others." When a Brit outside Jerusalem's Old City walls-Damascus Gate, of all places-invited him to attend a meeting to discuss the Bible, Yousef was interested: "I couldn't put the book down. Every verse seemed to touch a deep wound in my life."
Son of Hamas' chronicle of Yousef's conversion is moving, but many of the accounts of his continuing involvement with both Hamas and Shin Bet read like fantasy-providing intel to Shin Bet to foil a Hamas assassination plot against Shimon Peres, then using Shin Bet to save his father from an Israeli army plan to kill him. And just when it seems that his inside view of all sides might bring some transformation, he decides he is weary of the battle and heads to Southern California.
From there he has been telling his story since about 2008, but the book-which debuted at No. 11 on the New York Times bestseller list-made him a sensation. Reaction in Israel has been odd and perhaps not surprisingly divided, according to Avi Issacharoff, a reporter for Ha'aretz and longtime confidant of Yousef. "It's interesting to see that the Israeli government ignored the whole story," he said, while on the Palestinian side "there have been so many responses. Hamas, Fatah, and Palestinian media." Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, who lives in Damascus, sent a letter of condolence and support to Sheikh Hassan Yousef in response to his son's denouncement of Islam and Hamas, according to Issacharoff. But Son of Hamas has not hit bookstores here; a Hebrew translation is due out this month, and Tyndale will offer an online Arabic translation for free downloading.
A book tour in the Middle East is unthinkable, yet not returning to Ramallah to be with his family, Yousef told me, is a price he knew he had to pay. "I believe it is the sacrifice I should make for the movement I am creating," he said. What movement? "I am talking about a movement of people who believe what I am saying. We have to be willing to cross red lines, to encourage the young generation. I am counting on courageous, strong, brave young men who want to make the change. I am not expecting everybody to change but perhaps some will." Already, Yousef added, "Many people are leaving Islam and open to other beliefs, especially Christianity and its principles."
Yousef said he also has a message for the Israelis: "The Israeli government needs to end the occupation because they are the biggest losers from it. They need to work with other countries in the region. Their security wall is not more effective than ideological warfare. We need an ideological solution. You can assassinate enemies but it won't solve the problem. Someone will come and replace those you assassinate."
Some Christians I spoke to in the West Bank, including some who have converted from Islam, say they worry about Yousef's public manifesto. His story, they said, will suggest to militants that other Christians in the Palestinian areas are perhaps collaborating with Israel, too. Issacharoff is more worried about Yousef's fate: "Hamas won't try to attack him on American soil, but there may be some [Muslim] fundamentalist in the United States who will say he needs to be killed. Because he has declared war on Islam."