Former Shin Bet agent Gonen Ben-Yitzhak’s given name means protecting, and he is going all-out to shield a Palestinian man from deportation from the United States and, Ben-Yitzhak believes, certain death.
The man, Ramallah native Mosab Hassan Yousef, worked with Ben-Yitzhak as an agent for Shin Bet within the Hamas terrorist organization, to which Yousef belonged. The intelligence helped Shin Bet (the acronym for Israel’s General Security Service) prevent attacks that saved countless Israeli and Arab lives, Ben-Yitzhak said. The two men were honored in Washington at a Capitol Hill dinner Wednesday.
Yousef, who has lived in Southern California for three years, faces a San Diego hearing next Wednesday morning at the federal Homeland Security Immigration Court. The U.S. government last year turned down Yousef’s appeal for asylum, and recently initiated deportation proceedings on the grounds that Yousef provided “material support” to terrorists. It bases the case on passages in Yousef’s bestselling book, “Son of Hamas,” including descriptions of his work for Hamas while serving as a Shin Bet agent.
Following the dinner, Ben-Yitzhak shook his head when asked about the U.S. government’s effort to deport Yousef. “It’s hard for me to understand — very hard for me to understand,” he said.
Former CIA director James Woolsey was less diplomatic. “My view is that the decision to deny him political refugee status was incredibly idiotic,” Woolsey said. “It’s hard to think of a worse immigration decision in history. It’s fundamentally nuts.”
Because he will testify on Yousef’s behalf, Ben-Yitzhak revealed his identity at Wednesday’s event. He previously was known only as “Gimel” (“G”). The central-Israel resident left the Shin Bet following 10 years’ service in Judea and Samaria and recently graduated from law school.
The Israeli and Palestinian pair resemble a Middle East Mutt and Jeff: Ben-Yitzhak, 39, a burly bear of a pale-skinned man who could be a bouncer at trendy LA clubs; Yousef, 32, a dark, slight guy with large, eager eyes that suggest an entrepreneur or a graduate student.
They bounded in tandem up the Russell Office Building’s white marble steps and into the stately Senate Caucus Room, where Yousef and Iranian émigré Amil Imani, both converts to Christianity, received Speaker of the Truth awards from the pro-Israel organization EMET: Endowment for Middle East Truth. Congressional honorees included Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).
Yousef and Ben-Yitzhak stand together, too, in their courage and selflessness. By going public, Ben-Yitzhak could be prosecuted under an Israeli law that prohibits Shin Bet officials from discussing their service or revealing their names within five years of leaving the intelligence agency.
A few weeks ago, Ben-Yitzhak said, he was summoned to Shin Bet’s offices and told he’d be breaking the law. When Ben-Yitzhak returns to Israel next week, though, his lawyer will be on vacation in America, “so I’ll be alone,” he noted with a smile. He isn’t concerned about legal ramifications, however.
“It’s my country, my land. I love the Shin Bet, and I love Israel. But I have to help my friend,” he said of the San Diego hearing. “This is my duty — to stand with him and say the truth. It’s something I need to do. He always stood beside me. In the harshest days of the second intifadah, I called and asked about his opinion because his understanding about Hamas is unbelievable.”
Neither Yousef nor Ben-Yitzhak considers his actions heroic. Asked in a March interview on Israel’s Channel Two television about the book’s revelation that his intelligence uncovered assassination plots against Israel’s president Shimon Peres and former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yousef said, “As a Christian person who loves everybody, I’m not trying to be a hero here. It wasn’t a big deal for me. Shimon Peres and a Palestinian child in the Gaza Strip, in my eyes, are the same. … I did what was right. If it was Ovadiah Yosef or if it was anybody [who] could get hurt, I would stop it, and I don’t regret that.”
As for his face not being masked during television appearances, Yousef told the Israeli interviewer, “Look, you are afraid when you do something wrong. When you don’t do something wrong, when you believe in what you are doing, you are not afraid.”
Ben-Yitzhak, however, expressed concern for Yousef. In America, he said, Yousef could remain safe, but not in Israel or Europe. He has advised Yousef to be extremely cautious and to attend advertised events only in the presence of security agents.
“It is dangerous. To Muslims, he says very harsh things, and the truth hurts. His life is in danger,” Ben-Yitzhak said. “He tries to live his life, not to live in fear. He has to manage between security and freedom.”
The two men are linked, too, by their fathers’ prominence: Ben-Yitzhak’s is a retired brigadier-general, Yousef’s was a Hamas founder now imprisoned in Israel.
A standing ovation from the 250 people jammed into the Senate room greeted Yousef’s introduction. Yousef’s very first utterance drew laughs: “I have to ask: How did security let a terrorist like me into this building?”
His remarks thereafter were dead serious. Yousef denounced his former religion for its culture of incitement, hatred and death and for repressing its adherents. He vowed to continue fighting Islam, which led one woman to gasp “no” when he suggested that, if deported, he’d have to work from another country. Yousef also suggested throughout his address that the prophet Mohammed was evil.
“I personally switched Gods. I was very devoted to the God of hate,” Yousef said. “Why did I leave Islam? It’s not easy to answer this question. He doesn’t like music, Jews, infidels — and he doesn’t like Muslims. I can prove it. He is sending them to death. He is enslaving them with shame, fear and guilt. They are being lied to. I came out of that environment and to a religion of liberty. I came to this great country of freedom and liberty.”
He then introduced Ben-Yitzhak as “a real friend of mine, a great brother” who saved his life on numerous occasions. The two men embraced at the podium as attendees stood again and applauded.
“Coming from a royal Hamas family in the West Bank, he is supposed to be a terrorist,” Ben-Yitzhak said. “Maybe I should [clarify] it first: Mosab is not a terrorist. I know him for more than 10 years. I shouldn’t say he served Israel; he served humanity. He knew he needed to prevent violence and killing. He risked his life every day to prevent killing. …
“I have to go to the courtroom in San Diego to tell the judge the truth: Mosab is a moral man, and his moral choice was to tell the truth. … I want to tell you, Mosab: I will be with you. I will tell the truth. God bless you, Mosab, God bless Israel and God bless America.”
Former diplomat and presidential candidate Alan Keyes closed with a stirring address on liberty and the human spirit, then attendees closed in on the stars of the evening. Yousef and Ben-Yitzhak posed for photographs together and individually. They stood less then 10 feet apart, neither man turning his back on the other.