CALIFORNIA - A moment before beginning his dinner, Masab, son of West Bank Hamas leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef, glances at the friend who has accompanied him to the restaurant where we met. They whisper a few words and then say grace, thanking God and Jesus for putting food on their plates.
It takes a few seconds to digest this sight: The son of a Hamas MP who is also the most popular figure in that extremist Islamic organization in the West Bank, a young man who assisted his father for years in his political activities, has become a rank-and-file Christian. A few seconds later, he is savoring his meal, explaining that he hasn't been eating much recently because of financial problems. During the past week he has been living with the friend, a Christian, of course, whom he met at church. "Without him," he says, "I would have become homeless."
The younger Yousef is well aware of the implications of this interview, and how it will likely offend his family, as well as of the slim chance that he will be able to return to Ramallah one day. But apparently he is on a crusade of his own. "I know that I'm endangering my life and am even liable to lose my father, but I hope that he'll understand this and that God will give him and my family the patience and willingness to open their eyes to Jesus and to Christianity. Maybe one day I'll be able to return to Palestine and to Ramallah together with Jesus, in the Kingdom of God."
"I'm now called Joseph," he says at the outset. A few seconds earlier he had received me with greetings in Arabic: "Ahalan wasahalan. I'm very excited that you're here," he said, switching to a few words in Hebrew: "Shalom, ma nishma [What's up]?" he laughed.
We met for the first time about four years ago, outside the military prison at the Ofer Camp, only about half a kilometer from the family home in the town of Bitunia, near Ramallah. His father, not a member of parliament at the time, was one of the founders of Hamas in the West Bank and one of the prisoners' leaders; he was supposed to be released after several years' imprisonment for membership in the organization. In order to arrange an interview with Sheikh Hassan Yousef (Abu Masab), I had to speak to his eldest son, Masab, who was expected to take an active part in running his father's political affairs in the future. When I saw him in the prison parking lot I was surprised by his unusual appearance, which deviated from the dress code expected of relatives of senior Hamas leaders. Without a beard or even a goatee, he sported a Western haircut, jeans and a motorcyclist's leather jacket. But the media uproar that accompanied his father's appearance made me forget his "improper" appearance.
Since then, the young man has hardly changed. He is 30 years old and has lost several kilos ("because I don't eat much"), his hair is short, he is suntanned and looks like just another young Israeli in California. Most of the interview is conducted in English, mostly so that his friend Ryan will understand.
"As a child I grew up in a very religious family, on the principle of hatred of Israelis. The first time I encountered them was at about the age of 10, when soldiers entered our home and arrested my father. Until then I had never been separated from him. We didn't know anything about the circumstances of his arrest. His membership in Hamas was a secret matter, and we certainly didn't think he was one of its founders. I didn't understand anything about politics or religion. I only knew that the Israeli army had arrested my father repeatedly, and for me he was everything: a good, loving man who would do anything for me. He took care of us, bought us gifts, gave of himself, whereas the soldiers entered our house and took him away from me. In high school I studied sharia, Islamic law. In 1996, when I was only 18, I was arrested by the Israel Defense Forces because I was the head of the Islamic Society in my high school. It's a kind of youth movement of the organization. And my process of awakening began."
Masab-Joseph: "Until then I knew Hamas through my father, who lived a very modest and loving life. At first I really admired the organization, mainly because I admired my father so much. But during the 16 months I spent in prison I was exposed to the true face of Hamas. It's a negative organization. As simple as that. A fundamentally bad organization. I sat in Megiddo Prison and suddenly I understood who the real Hamas was. Their leaders in prison received better conditions, such as the best food, as well as more family visits and towels for the shower. These people have no morals, they have no integrity. But they aren't as stupid as Fatah, which steals in broad daylight in front of everyone and is immediately suspected of corruption. [Hamas people] receive money in dishonest ways, invest it in secret places, and outwardly maintain a simple lifestyle. Sooner or later they will use this money and screw the people.
"Nobody knows them and how they operate as well as I do. For example, I remember how the family of Saleh Talahmeh, a member of the military arm of Hamas, who was assassinated by Israel, was forced to beg for financial assistance because they were left with nothing after his death. The Hamas leadership abandoned them as well as the families of other shaheeds [martyrs], while the senior members of the organization abroad wasted tens of thousand of dollars a month only on security for themselves."
"Even some of the current leaders of Hamas were involved in the past in the 'security arm' in the prisons, so that he is among those responsible for these acts. They were suspicious of prisoners who spent too much time in the bathroom, even if it was only an upset stomach. They suspected that the prisoner was transferring information or alternatively having sexual relations with other men. A homosexual. The gays were immediately suspected of collaboration. Then I understood that not everyone in Hamas is like my father. He's a nice, friendly man. But I discovered how evil his colleagues are. After my release I lost the faith I had in those who ostensibly represented Islam."
Were you tortured?
"No. I enjoyed immunity because of my father's status."
'Jesus loves me'
Masab-Joseph has five brothers and two sisters. He is in regular contact with them and keeps them informed of his situation. However, until recently he refrained from telling his family that he had converted to Christianity, and at the time of this interview his father the sheikh still did not know that his son had converted. And in spite of the secrecy surrounding his conversion, sometimes he seems like a veteran missionary who is trying to get entire communities to change.
"You'll see, this interview will open many people's eyes, it will shake Islam from the roots, and I'm not exaggerating. What other case do you know where a son of a Hamas leader, who was raised on the tenets of extremist Islam, comes out against it? Although I was never a terrorist, I was a part of them, surrounded by them all the time."
How were you exposed to Christianity?
"It began about eight years ago. I was in Jerusalem and I received an invitation to come and hear about Christianity. Out of curiosity I went. I was very enthusiastic about what I heard. I began to read the Bible every day and I continued with religion lessons. I did it in secret, of course. I used to travel to the Ramallah hills, to places like the Al Tira neighborhood, and to sit there quietly with the amazing landscape and read the Bible. A verse like "Love thine enemy" had a great influence on me. At this stage I was still a Muslim and I thought that I would remain one. But every day I saw the terrible things done in the name of religion by those who considered themselves 'great believers.' I studied Islam more thoroughly and found no answers there. I reexamined the Koran and the principals of the faith and found how it is mistaken and misleading. The Muslims borrowed rituals and traditions from all the surrounding religions."
But they all did that.
He doesn't respond to this comment directly. "I feel that Christianity has several aspects. It's not only a religion but a faith. I now see God through Jesus and can tell about him for days on end, whereas the Muslims won't be able to say anything about God. I consider Islam a big lie. The people who supposedly represent the religion admired Mohammed more than God, killed innocent people in the name of Islam, beat their wives and don't have any idea what God is. I have no doubt that they'll go to Hell. I have a message for them: There is only one way to Paradise - the way of Jesus who sacrificed himself on the cross for all of us."
Four years ago, he decided to convert. He says that nobody in his family knew about it. "Only those Christians with whom I met and spent time knew about my decision. For years I helped my father, the Hamas leader, and he didn't know that I had converted, only that I had Christian friends."
I remember how you dressed at the time. How were you accepted in Hamas?
"You have to understand, I was never one of them. Although I helped my father and accompanied him, I was always opposed to the use of terror. Hamas members didn't like me. I didn't come to pray in the mosques, I hung around with strangers. They didn't like my leather jacket or even my jeans. They considered it going astray. But I helped my father and conducted his affairs because he's my father, not because he's a leader in Hamas. I'm not a Hamas activist who converted to Christianity. That's not the story. I wanted to help my father understand that harming innocent people is forbidden and through him perhaps to change other people's thinking."
What is Hamas' attitude toward Christians? What is your father's attitude?
"When I was with my father, I in effect pushed a moderate Hamas leader into making logical decisions, such as stopping the attacks and establishing two states alongside one another. I felt responsible. It was better for me to be there rather than a gang of fools who would poison his mind. I tried to understand those people, their thoughts, in order to change them from inside by means of a strong person like my father, who admitted to me in the past that he does not support suicide attacks. He thinks that harming innocent people gives the organization a bad name. The sheikh once said to me that when he sees an insect outside the house he is careful not to harm it, 'so what can I say about harming civilians?'
"But within Hamas there were other leaders, mainly from the Gaza Strip and Damascus, who thought they had to continue with suicide attacks as an effective means of achieving their aims. The problem was that they were stronger than my father in terms of their status in the organization. What helped stop the attacks in the final analysis was Israel's attacks against the Hamas leaders."
How involved was your father in making decisions in Hamas?
"He had no connection to the military arm, but they always consulted him about strategic decisions. The Hamas leadership did not make decisions only according to the opinion of the organization leaders in Syria or Gaza. However, you have to remember that the Hamas leadership in Damascus was in control of the organization's money. Therefore it had the most influence on organization policy. They were also the only ones who were not restricted in contacting one another, as opposed to the leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza, so that they also served as go-betweens among all the groups in Hamas. And incidentally, although they now claim that the revolution in Gaza was not planned, I can tell you from clear knowledge that a year earlier, in the summer of 2006, they spoke among themselves to the effect that if the tension with Fatah continued, they intended to take control of the Strip."
Regards to Israel
Masab-Joseph listens to singer Eyal Golan in his free time. "I've been listening to his music for 10 years," he says. "I like his voice but don't always understand the words." However, his favorite singer is Leonard Cohen. "He's a Canadian Jew," he explains.
He has a bachelor's degree in geography and history from the Al-Quds Open University in Ramallah, but in the United States he has difficulty finding work. He has plenty of free time, and participates in religion lessons and prayers in the church at least once a week. Every few days he plays football with friends from the church, and surfing is a must. This is California, after all.
When he was working in his father's office, he encountered Hamas leaders as well as members of the Palestinian and Israeli security services and Israeli journalists, who often spoke with the sheikh. He does not conceal the fact that he supported contact with the Israeli media and has almost warm feelings for Israel. "Send regards to Israel, I miss it."
You miss Israel?
"I respect Israel and admire it as a country. I'm opposed to a policy of killing civilians, or using them as a means to an end, and I understand that Israel has a right to defend itself. The Palestinians, if they don't have an enemy to fight, will fight each other. In about 20 years from now you'll remember what I'm telling you, the conflict will be among various groups within Hamas. They're already beginning to quarrel over control of the money."
He does not conceal his abhorrence of everything representing the human surroundings in which he grew up: the nation, the religion, the organization.
"You Jews should be aware: You will never, but never have peace with Hamas. Islam, as the ideology that guides them, will not allow them to achieve a peace agreement with the Jews. They believe that tradition says that the Prophet Mohammed fought against the Jews and that therefore they must continue to fight them to the death. They have to take revenge against anyone who did not agree to accept the Prophet Mohammed, like the Jews who are seen in the Koran as monkeys and the sons of pigs. They speak in terms of historical rights that were taken from them. In the view of Hamas, peace with Israel contradicts sharia and the Koran, and the Jews have no right to remain in Palestine."
Is that the justification for the suicide attacks?
"More than that. An entire society sanctifies death and the suicide terrorists. In Palestinian culture a suicide terrorist becomes a hero, a martyr. Sheikhs tell their students about the 'heroism of the shaheeds' and that causes the young people to imitate the suicide bombers, in order to achieve glory. I'll give you an example. I once met a young man named Dia Tawil. He was a quiet boy, an outstanding student. Not a Muslim extremist and not radical in his ideas against the Israelis. I never heard extreme statements from him. He didn't even come from a religious family: His father was a communist and his sister was a journalist who didn't wear a head covering. But Bilal Barghouti [one of the heads of the military arm of Hamas in the West Bank] didn't need more than a few months to convince him to become a suicide terrorist." (Tawil, 19, blew himself up in March 2001 next to a bus at the French Hill junction in Jerusalem; 31 people were wounded.)
"Do you know that Hamas was the first to use the weapon of suicide bombers against civilian targets?" he continues. "They are blind and ignorant. It's true, there are good and bad people everywhere, but Hamas supporters don't understand that they are led by a wicked and cruel group that brainwashes the children and gets them to believe that if they carry out a suicide attack they'll get to Paradise. But no suicide bomber will find himself there and no virgins are waiting for them after they have carried out an attack. They have to understand that Islam was created by people and not by God."
Were there good people in Hamas?
"In my eyes there were all cruel, ugly inside. But I think that Mahmoud Zahar [one of the leaders of Hamas in Gaza] is one of the worst."
And yet, in spite of the criticism of the place he left, California can't make the longings disappear. "I miss Ramallah," he says. "People with an open mind. I liked to walk around among the buildings, the restaurants, the people, to feel the night life. I have many friends there whom I would like to see and I don't know whether I'll be able to do that at all. I mainly miss my mother, my brothers and sisters, but I know that it will be very difficult for me to return to Ramallah soon."
In spite of his financial distress, the severance from his family and the loneliness, during the entire interview he sounded determined and sure of himself. "I hope that I'll succeed one day in becoming a writer, in order to write about my personal story and about the Middle East conflict. But at the moment, at least, my ambitions are only to find work, a place to live. I have no money, I have no apartment. I was about to become one of those homeless people, but people from the church are helping me. I'm dependent on them."
Why did you leave? After all, there are other Christians in Ramallah.
"I left behind a great deal of property in Ramallah in order to achieve true freedom. I wanted to get to quiet surroundings that would help me to open the eyes of the Muslims and reveal the truth to them about their religion and about Christianity, to take them out of the darkness and the prison of Islam. In that way they'll have an opportunity to correct their mistakes, to become better people and to bring a chance for peace in the Middle East. I don't give Islam a chance to survive for more than 25 years. In the past they scared people and in that way they prevented anti-religious publicity, but today, in the modern age, they won't be able to hide the truth any longer."
At the moment he doesn't have a partner, but he is relying on help from above on this matter, too. "I hope that someday God will give the opportunity to meet the right one. She will have to be a believing Christian, and if she's a Jew who converted, even better."
There are things that Masab-Joseph is still afraid to talk about. In the middle of the meeting he wanted us to go outside the restaurant in order to make sure that I wasn't carrying listening or recording devices.
"Many people will hate me for this interview, but I'm telling them that I love all of them, even those who hate me. I invite all the people, including the terrorists among them, to open their hearts and believe. Now I'm trying to establish an international organization for young people that will teach about Christianity, love and peace in the territories, too. I would like to teach the young people how to love and forgive, because that's the only way the two nations can overcome the mistakes of the past and live in peace."W
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