In its broadest outlines, “The Green Prince,” a documentary by Nadav Schirman, is about the recruitment of Palestinian Mosab Hassan Yousef as a spy by Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency. What it finally is about is a most unlikely and deepening friendship between Yousef, whose memoir, “Son of Hamas,” inspired the film, and his Shin Bet handler, Gonen ben Yitzhak.
Because Yousef’s father, Hassan, was a founder of Hamas, his son was a prize catch for the Israelis. Though no jihadist, Mosab at age 17 was arrested and imprisoned for attempted gun smuggling. In prison, his anti-Israeli fervor was tempered by witnessing the shocking brutality of Hamas against its own people within its walls. “We are living a lie. People are dying for a lie,” he says of his thoughts at the time in one of the many talking-head interviews that alternate with ben Yitzhak’s recollections. These interviews complement rather than contradict each other; the rest of the film is filled out, not always to its advantage, with documentary footage and reenactments.
Harboring such sentiments, Yousef, of course, was a prime candidate for spying, and ben Yitzhak maneuvers him in ways that will seem familiar to anyone who has ever read a novel by John le Carré. In order to maintain his cover and avert suspicion, Yousef, who is given the code name “Green Prince,” is regularly rousted and jailed. Very few people, including many high government Israeli officials, knew of the deception.
Why did Yousef become a spy? Although he is intense and forthcoming in his interviews, there is still a void in his demeanor that is not easily penetrated. His answer, essentially: He was disgusted with the wave of violence perpetrated by Hamas. He says at one point, “I don’t think about revenge anymore because I don’t know what I’m fighting for.” What he appears to be fighting for is peace, but in the highly charged vortex of the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what exactly does that entail?
It’s tempting to read into Yousef’s motives. Given his father’s founder status with Hamas, the Freudian aspects of Yousef’s rebellion are patently obvious. And yet Yousef by all accounts loved his father and worked with the Israelis to prevent his assassination. One of the most touching moments in the movie is when Yousef recounts cooking a dinner with his father knowing both of them will soon be arrested.
The counterpoint to all this is that Yousef’s deep emotional connection to his siblings and parents was contradicted by his spying, which placed them in constant danger. He speaks of the agony of having to live a lie “every second” of his life. “How can you establish a life or a family or a relationship of any kind on a false identity knowing that identity at some point gets exposed or gets you killed?”
It’s clear, though, that, as ben Yitzhak says, Yousef “loved” being a spy. “He was addicted to the action.” He may speak of the great shame of working against his own people, his own family, but, in the context of his actions, those words are relatively weightless. And so what we have here is a perhaps unanswerable enigma of the sort all too common in the annals of spying.
Yousef bristled at the cavalier way in which, given his prize status, he was treated by everyone in Shin Bet except for ben Yitzhak, who ends up violating the agency’s code by meeting with Yousef without any other handlers present. This gesture, in turn, secures Yousef’s unwavering trust in ben Yitzhak, who eventually is let go from Shin Bet. Yousef, having finally been granted asylum in America, converted to Christianity. It would have been revealing if he had talked about that conversion on film.
He and ben Yitzhak, who publicly supported him in his battle to gain asylum, now talk weekly on the phone. The Israeli’s children refer to him as Uncle Yousef. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some disturbing images.)