Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Green Prince: Son of Hamas Speaks

According to international law, the use of human shields constitutes war crimes, making Hamas the only war criminals in the latest round of Gaza fighting. Mosab Hassan Yousef probably was not shocked to see the terrorist organization sacrificing women and children. After all, it was not his Israeli handler who turned him into an extraordinarily well placed source, but the brutality of Hamas that he witnessed with his own eyes. Yousef and his Shin Bet contact Gonen Ben Yitzhak tell their unlikely story of espionage and ultimately friendship in Nadav Schirman’s The Green Prince (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As the son of a top-ranking Hamas cleric, Yousef was practically born into terrorism. Taught anti-Semitic hatred from an early age, Yousef rashly embarked on his own terrorist operation as payback for one of his father’s many arrests. Fortunately, the Shin Bet saw him coming and they knew who he was.

It was Yitzhak’s job to recruit Yousef, not to befriend him. Initially, Yousef pretended to go along with the plan, hoping to murder his handler at a later date. However, his cover-establishing time in prison changed everything. There he heard the shrieks as his Hamas comrades tortured and executed fellow terrorists falsely accused of working with the Israelis. Upon his release, the widespread suicide bombings sponsored by Hamas also deeply troubled his conscience. Before long, Yousef was working with Yitzhak in great earnest, at enormous personal risk.

Based on Yousef’s expose-memoir Son of Hamas, Schirman’s documentary is far more even-handed and level-headed than you might expect. Yousef’s testimony leaves little doubt regarding the violent extremism of Hamas’s ideology and methods. He also personally witnessed Arafat, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, secretly coordinating the Second Intifada with his father.

However, Prince is obviously not intended as pro-Israeli propaganda. Yousef explicitly blames everyone at the Shin Bet except Yitzhak for the difficult straights he eventually landed in as a U.S. asylum seeker facing certain deportation and certain assassination. Of course, he would hardly be the first intelligence asset cut loose by his spymasters, whereas every suicide bomber recruited by Hamas is fatally used and discarded.

There are scenes in Prince of Hamas at work that are genuinely scary. Without question, the stakes Yousef faced were as real as it gets. While it would be difficult to miss the drama of Yousef’s chronicle, both he and Yitzhak also happen to be compelling story tellers, as well as sympathetic figures that are sure to challenge audience preconceptions. Schirman bolsters the suspense and intrigue with moody noir lighting for his two talking heads and some PBS-quality re-enactments. There techniques can be a little hokey, but their effectiveness must be conceded nonetheless.

There are more than a few jaw-dropping moments in Prince and the revealing look it offers inside the inner workings of Hamas is only too tragically timely. At times, Yousef and Schirman seem to be struggling to find less than edifying Israeli anecdotes to balance the ledger (“welcome to the slaughterhouse” a prison guard once said to him). Yet, the film and its participants strive to end on a hopeful note, emphasizing the unlikely bond forged between Yousef and Yitzhak. Again, it might be manipulative, but it works. In fact, the film is consistently engrossing and eye-opening. Recommended to a surprising extent, The Green Prince opens this Friday (9/12) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.