The Green Prince

December 13, 2014
Mosab Hassan Yousef in 'The Green Prince' (2014)
Mosab Hassan Yousef in 'The Green Prince' (2014)

Nadav Schirman’s feature-length documentary, The Green Prince, has the makings of a great espionage thriller. It’s impossible not to think of those films made from John Le Carré’s novels, but in this instance it is reality that resembles fiction.

For ten years Mossab Hassan Yousef was the prize recruit for the Israeli secret intelligence agency, the Shin Bet. His father, Sheikh Hassan Youself is a leader and founding member of Hamas, the Palestinian resistance group, usually seen as a terrorist organisation, that has been the elected government of Palestine since 2006. Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel – a goal it has pursued with suicide bombers and rockets.

Meanwhile the Israeli occupation of the Gaza strip continues to cause misery among the Palestinians and breed fresh recruits for Hamas. It’s the most intractable of conflicts, with a mind-set on both sides that hardly admits a peaceful solution.

The eldest of five children, Mossab tells how proud he was of his father, who was acclaimed as a great man for his fiery, patriotic speeches. Inspired by his example, and angered by the way his father was being constantly shuffled in and out of prison by Israeli security forces, at the age of 17 Mossab bought a cache of guns. Before he had a chance to use them he had been arrested, and found himself being tortured and interrogated in an Israeli prison.

His interrogator gave him the option to work for the Shin Bet, and Mossab agreed, thinking he could opt out of the deal when released. Instead he was sent to an Israeli prison where he witnessed Hamas dispensing rough justice to countrymen they suspected of being spies. Watching Hamas thugs torture and kill “hundreds” of their own, made Mossab feel he no longer knew who or what to believe in. When approached a second time by the Shin Bet, he agreed to act as an undercover agent, working under the code name, the Green Prince.

The story is told solely through interviews with the two protagonists: Mossab, and his Shin Bet handler, Gonen Ben Yitzhak. Their accounts complement each other, with one picking up where the other leaves off. The visuals consist of dramatic reconstructions, vintage television news coverage, and simulated drone footage. A minimal, atmospheric score by Max Richter keeps the tension on the boil.

Because there are only two talking heads Schirman’s approach could be accused of lacking breadth and depth. This was, however, a clear choice on behalf of a filmmaker whose track record includes two previous documentaries on espionage and terrorism. It would have been easy to rustle up any number of political commentators but he decided to treat the film as a two-man show.

Schirman’s chief subject becomes the intense, top secret relationship between Mossab and Gonen, not the political conflict between Israel and Palestine. We are encouraged to see both men as humanitarians, concerned with ending the carnage and loss of life. In true Le Carré fashion Gonen refers to spy-handling as a “game”, and takes pleasure in relating the tricks of the trade.

The disadvantage of this approach is that it seems to skim over a lot of detail, leaving too much to the imagination. For the son of a Hamas leader, Mossab’s conversion to the Israeli side is remarkably swift. No matter how we frame his story Mossab remains a traitor to the cause his father held sacred. Even when the aim is to save lives and fight against fanaticism, it’s hard to feel positive about a betrayal on such a grand scale.

Mossab’s reasons may be true and heartfelt, but they still lack veracity. He provides a hint of a psychological explanation by telling how he was raped by a friend of the family when he was 5 years old, which led to an overwhelming feeling of shame. He says the shame of working for Israel is so great that most of his countrymen would say it is worse than raping one’s own mother.

The message is that Mossab has become used to living with shame in a way that other young Palestinians are not. This doesn’t make him any less conscious of the magnitude of his betrayal, which has left him permanently estranged from his family and his homeland.

Gonen, the handler, comes across as a tough guy with a heart, whose career with the Shin Bet was terminated because of his willingness to go the extra mile with Mossab. He doesn’t question the agency’s policy of targeted assassinations and ‘whatever it takes’ mentality, but was prepared to break the rules when necessary. He carried that attitude through to the very end when he put his own life on the line to help his former agent.

Given the scale of his offence it seems miraculous that Mossab remains alive. Nowadays he has converted to Christianity and lives alone in the United States, but is haunted by the lies he had to tell. He also acts as an ongoing source of negative propaganda for Hamas, recently claiming that the organisation has the same all-conquering ambitions as the militants of Islamic State. It may be a precarious strategy, but the Green Prince’s one-and-only recipe for survival has been to take refuge in the spotlight of publicity.

The Green Prince
Directed by Nadav Schirman
Written by Nadav Schirman after a memoir by Mosab Hassan Yousef
Starring Mossab Hassan Yousef, Gonen Ben Yitzhak, Sheikh Hassan Yousef
Germany/UK/USA/Israel, rated M, 101 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 13th December, 2014.