Israeli director Nadav Schirman discusses his award-wining documentary, The Green Prince
Any hope that Israelis and Palestinians will ever be able to live in peace feels precariously close to being snuffed out by the current wave of violence in Jerusalem. But before everyone gives up in despair, a compelling new documentary, The Green Prince, shows that sworn enemies from opposite sides of the conflict can not only become allies, but close friends.
The film has captured the Israeli imagination. When its protagonists, Mosab Hassan Yousef - the eldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founding leader of Hamas - who became a spy for Israel's security agency, Shin Bet, and Gonen Ben Yitzhak, his former handler, walked nervously out on stage following the film's first screening in Tel Aviv, the audience, including representatives from Mossad, Shin Bet, and the media, gave them an eight-minute standing ovation.
“This never happens in Israel,” says the film's Jerusalem-born director, Nadav Schirman. “The people getting standing ovations is like Zubin Mehta and the Philarmonic Orchestra. Movies don't get them. Israelis are very cynical. But they were applauding Mosab and Gonen. They were applauding the relationship.”
Informed by Schirman's fascination with identity, The Green Prince revolves around intense and searching direct-to-camera interviews in which Mosab and Gonen candidly describe how the bond they developed in their fight against terrorism put them at odds with their respective worlds.
Mosab, who appeared on TV condemning Hamas during the recent Gaza conflict, told his story in the memoir, Son of Hamas, following a move to the United States. Schirman says The Green Prince, named after the Palestinian's Shin Bet codename, is very different.
“The book was his point of view. This is about the relationship between him and Gonen. I'm not a journalist. It's not about facts and the interpretation of facts. It's about emotions and storytelling.” He needed to know, then, that the men “would allow me to lead them into the darkest corners of their own narrative.”
His first rendezvous with Mosab, in the lobby of a New York hotel, coincided with the announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. Right away, Mosab told Schirman they should visit Ground Zero.
“Literally within the first few minutes of meeting the son of a Hamas leader, we were in a taxi going down town to Ground Zero. There were thousands of young Americans screaming, 'America! America!', as if they'd won the World Cup. I remember watching Mosab and he was really trying to partake in this celebration. It was fascinating, because years earlier he would have cheered for the other side.”
During the first Gulf War, in fact, Mosab had stood on a roof-top in Ramallah doing just that as Scud missiles flew towards Tel Aviv. And when the first intifada erupted, he'd hero-worshipped the “masked men” of Hamas who set out to spill Israeli blood. “Mosab wanted to be one of them but he wasn't allowed, ironically, because of his father's position,” says Schirman.
Hate and anger were part of the environment, and Hamas used them “as a political tool”.
At 17, Mosab was arrested for smuggling guns. After extensive interrogation, he agreed to work for the Shin Bet. He still wanted to kill an Israeli, and secretly plotted to murder Gonen. But after spending time in prison as a ruse to get him closer to Hamas' leaders, and seeing the brutal way that the group dealt with suspected collaborators in its ranks, the Palestinan's moral compass started to shift.
Schirman recalls that Mosab had also been shocked by the way that the organisation used civilian children as shields during the second intifada. “He talked to me about violent demonstrations that he would go to where they put children in the first row to go against tanks, because the leaders knew it was good for the media.” They even used slogans about building “our pride on the blood of our children”.
Still, they weren't as bad as Shin Bet, or so people claimed. “The word on the street in Palestinian society,” says Schirman, “is that they're going to force you to have sex with your sister and mother, and make a video tape and bring them back the video tape so that they can force you to do things for them.” Instead, Mosab found in Gonen someone who encouraged him to pursue his education, pray, and be a good son.
He explained that in the process of changing sides, he “chose to be with people who favour life rather than death,” says Schirman. “In his environment you had to die, be a martyr, whereas the Shin Bet very much wanted him to be alive. Obviously for their own aims, but there was a deeper philosophical sense with this, too.”
Mosab became his father's closest aide and gatekeeper, secretly passing intercepted communications between him and other Hamas leaders to the Shin Bet. He helped thwart terrorist attacks, and saved Israeli and Palestinian lives. His father regarded him as a traitor when he learned the truth. In a story that's riddled with irony, however, he would have been assassinated if Mosab hadn't been working for Israel.
Today, they are separated by geography, religion and ideology. Hassan publicly denounced Mosab for his betrayal, but he had no choice, claims Schirman. “Had his father endorsed him, the whole family would have been killed. When Hassan tried to make peace with the Israelis when Mosab was still there, he was shot at in a drive-by shooting in Ramallah. So they don't joke.”
Mosab's love for his family, and his sadness at losing them, is palpable in The Green Prince. His experiences with the Shin Bet, however, have expanded his horizons beyond the “very fundamental, very religious environment” in which he was raised, creating a wide divide.
“He learned about democracy, he taught himself about different religions, he became a Christian, but in a spiritual way not in a religious way, he learned about Judaism. He took off the blinds, in a way,” says Schirman, “whereas he knows that his family is very much stuck in that world with the blinds on. That is very frustrating for him and I think he believes that only when they are able to take off the blinds and think freely, will they be able to connect again.”
And therein, at least in part, perhaps, lies the secret of a future peace. Most encouraging, though, is the deep and lasting bond of trust that developed between Mosab and Gonen. The latter lost his job over breaking protocols for his charge, and risked being accused of treason, Schirman claims, when he went public with his story for the first time in The Green Prince: a film, ultimately, about humanity triumphing over the seemingly insurmountable differences fuelling the Middle East conflict.
“When an Israeli meets a Palestinian one on one, it's all good,” says the director. “They share the same sense of humour. They like the same food. They're very close. I believe in people and I believe that things are going to work out, somehow. I know that there's nothing on the horizon to indicate this right now, but I think it's going to work out.”
The Green Prince is on general release
© Stephen Applebaum, 2015
© Stephen Applebaum, 2015