By Avi Issacharoff
It takes a few seconds to digest this sight: The son of a Hamas MP who is also the most popular figure in that extremist Islamic organization in the
The younger Yousef is well aware of the implications of this interview, and how it will likely offend his family, as well as of the slim chance that he will be able to return to Ramallah one day. But apparently he is on a crusade of his own. "I know that I'm endangering my life and am even liable to lose my father, but I hope that he'll understand this and that God will give him and my family the patience and willingness to open their eyes to Jesus and to Christianity. Maybe one day I'll be able to return to
"I'm now called Joseph," he says at the outset. A few seconds earlier he had received me with greetings in Arabic: "Ahalan wasahalan. I'm very excited that you're here," he said, switching to a few words in Hebrew: "Shalom, ma nishma [What's up]?" he laughed.
We met for the first time about four years ago, outside the military prison at the Ofer Camp, only about half a kilometer from the family home in the town of
Since then, the young man has hardly changed. He is 30 years old and has lost several kilos ("because I don't eat much"), his hair is short, he is suntanned and looks like just another young Israeli in
"As a child I grew up in a very religious family, on the principle of hatred of Israelis. The first time I encountered them was at about the age of 10, when soldiers entered our home and arrested my father. Until then I had never been separated from him. We didn't know anything about the circumstances of his arrest. His membership in Hamas was a secret matter, and we certainly didn't think he was one of its founders. I didn't understand anything about politics or religion. I only knew that the Israeli army had arrested my father repeatedly, and for me he was everything: a good, loving man who would do anything for me. He took care of us, bought us gifts, gave of himself, whereas the soldiers entered our house and took him away from me. In high school I studied sharia, Islamic law. In 1996, when I was only 18, I was arrested by the Israel Defense Forces because I was the head of the Islamic Society in my high school. It's a kind of youth movement of the organization. And my process of awakening began."
Masab-Joseph: "Until then I knew Hamas through my father, who lived a very modest and loving life. At first I really admired the organization, mainly because I admired my father so much. But during the 16 months I spent in prison I was exposed to the true face of Hamas. It's a negative organization. As simple as that. A fundamentally bad organization. I sat in Megiddo Prison and suddenly I understood who the real Hamas was. Their leaders in prison received better conditions, such as the best food, as well as more family visits and towels for the shower. These people have no morals, they have no integrity. But they aren't as stupid as Fatah, which steals in broad daylight in front of everyone and is immediately suspected of corruption. [Hamas people] receive money in dishonest ways, invest it in secret places, and outwardly maintain a simple lifestyle. Sooner or later they will use this money and screw the people.
"Nobody knows them and how they operate as well as I do. For example, I remember how the family of Saleh Talahmeh, a member of the military arm of Hamas, who was assassinated by Israel, was forced to beg for financial assistance because they were left with nothing after his death. The Hamas leadership abandoned them as well as the families of other shaheeds [martyrs], while the senior members of the organization abroad wasted tens of thousand of dollars a month only on security for themselves."
"Even some of the current leaders of Hamas were involved in the past in the 'security arm' in the prisons, so that he is among those responsible for these acts. They were suspicious of prisoners who spent too much time in the bathroom, even if it was only an upset stomach. They suspected that the prisoner was transferring information or alternatively having sexual relations with other men. A homosexual. The gays were immediately suspected of collaboration. Then I understood that not everyone in Hamas is like my father. He's a nice, friendly man. But I discovered how evil his colleagues are. After my release I lost the faith I had in those who ostensibly represented Islam."
Were you tortured?
"No. I enjoyed immunity because of my father's status."
'Jesus loves me'
Masab-Joseph has five brothers and two sisters. He is in regular contact with them and keeps them informed of his situation. However, until recently he refrained from telling his family that he had converted to Christianity, and at the time of this interview his father the sheikh still did not know that his son had converted. And in spite of the secrecy surrounding his conversion, sometimes he seems like a veteran missionary who is trying to get entire communities to change.
"You'll see, this interview will open many people's eyes, it will shake Islam from the roots, and I'm not exaggerating. What other case do you know where a son of a Hamas leader, who was raised on the tenets of extremist Islam, comes out against it? Although I was never a terrorist, I was a part of them, surrounded by them all the time."
How were you exposed to Christianity?
"It began about eight years ago. I was in
But they all did that.
He doesn't respond to this comment directly. "I feel that Christianity has several aspects. It's not only a religion but a faith. I now see God through Jesus and can tell about him for days on end, whereas the Muslims won't be able to say anything about God. I consider Islam a big lie. The people who supposedly represent the religion admired Mohammed more than God, killed innocent people in the name of Islam, beat their wives and don't have any idea what God is. I have no doubt that they'll go to Hell I have a message for them: There is only one way to
Four years ago, he decided to convert. He says that nobody in his family knew about it. "Only those Christians with whom I met and spent time knew about my decision. For years I helped my father, the Hamas leader, and he didn't know that I had converted, only that I had Christian friends."
I remember how you dressed at the time. How were you accepted in Hamas?
"You have to understand, I was never one of them. Although I helped my father and accompanied him, I was always opposed to the use of terror. Hamas members didn't like me. I didn't come to pray in the mosques, I hung around with strangers. They didn't like my leather jacket or even my jeans. They considered it going astray. But I helped my father and conducted his affairs because he's my father, not because he's a leader in Hamas. I'm not a Hamas activist who converted to Christianity. That's not the story. I wanted to help my father understand that harming innocent people is forbidden and through him perhaps to change other people's thinking."
What is Hamas' attitude toward Christians? What is your father's attitude?
"When I was with my father, I in effect pushed a moderate Hamas leader into making logical decisions, such as stopping the attacks and establishing two states alongside one another. I felt responsible. It was better for me to be there rather than a gang of fools who would poison his mind. I tried to understand those people, their thoughts, in order to change them from inside by means of a strong person like my father, who admitted to me in the past that he does not support suicide attacks. He thinks that harming innocent people gives the organization a bad name. The sheikh once said to me that when he sees an insect outside the house he is careful not to harm it, 'so what can I say about harming civilians?'
"But within Hamas there were other leaders, mainly from the Gaza Strip and Damascus, who thought they had to continue with suicide attacks as an effective means of achieving their aims. The problem was that they were stronger than my father in terms of their status in the organization. What helped stop the attacks in the final analysis was
How involved was your father in making decisions in Hamas?
"He had no connection to the military arm, but they always consulted him about strategic decisions. The Hamas leadership did not make decisions only according to the opinion of the organization leaders in
Masab-Joseph listens to singer Eyal Golan in his free time. "I've been listening to his music for 10 years," he says. "I like his voice but don't always understand the words." However, his favorite singer is Leonard Cohen. "He's a Canadian Jew," he explains.
He has a bachelor's degree in geography and history from the Al-Quds Open University in Ramallah, but in the
When he was working in his father's office, he encountered Hamas leaders as well as members of the Palestinian and Israeli security services and Israeli journalists, who often spoke with the sheikh. He does not conceal the fact that he supported contact with the Israeli media and has almost warm feelings for
He does not conceal his abhorrence of everything representing the human surroundings in which he grew up: the nation, the religion, the organization.
"You Jews should be aware: You will never, but never have peace with Hamas. Islam, as the ideology that guides them, will not allow them to achieve a peace agreement with the Jews. They believe that tradition says that the Prophet Mohammed fought against the Jews and that therefore they must continue to fight them to the death. They have to take revenge against anyone who did not agree to accept the Prophet Mohammed, like the Jews who are seen in the Koran as monkeys and the sons of pigs. They speak in terms of historical rights that were taken from them. In the view of Hamas, peace with
Is that the justification for the suicide attacks?
"More than that. An entire society sanctifies death and the suicide terrorists. In Palestinian culture a suicide terrorist becomes a hero, a martyr. Sheikhs tell their students about the 'heroism of the shaheeds' and that causes the young people to imitate the suicide bombers, in order to achieve glory. I'll give you an example. I once met a young man named Dia Tawil. He was a quiet boy, an outstanding student. Not a Muslim extremist and not radical in his ideas against the Israelis. I never heard extreme statements from him. He didn't even come from a religious family: His father was a communist and his sister was a journalist who didn't wear a head covering. But Bilal Barghouti [one of the heads of the military arm of Hamas in the
"Do you know that Hamas was the first to use the weapon of suicide bombers against civilian targets?" he continues. "They are blind and ignorant. It's true, there are good and bad people everywhere, but Hamas supporters don't understand that they are led by a wicked and cruel group that brainwashes the children and gets them to believe that if they carry out a suicide attack they'll get to
Were there good people in Hamas?
"In my eyes there were all cruel, ugly inside. But I think that Mahmoud Zahar [one of the leaders of Hamas in
And yet, in spite of the criticism of the place he left,
In spite of his financial distress, the severance from his family and the loneliness, during the entire interview he sounded determined and sure of himself. "I hope that I'll succeed one day in becoming a writer, in order to write about my personal story and about the
Why did you leave? After all, there are other Christians in Ramallah.
"I left behind a great deal of property in Ramallah in order to achieve true freedom. I wanted to get to quiet surroundings that would help me to open the eyes of the Muslims and reveal the truth to them about their religion and about Christianity, to take them out of the darkness and the prison of Islam. In that way they'll have an opportunity to correct their mistakes, to become better people and to bring a chance for peace in the
At the moment he doesn't have a partner, but he is relying on help from above on this matter, too. "I hope that someday God will give the opportunity to meet the right one. She will have to be a believing Christian, and if she's a Jew who converted, even better."
There are things that Masab-Joseph is still afraid to talk about. In the middle of the meeting he wanted us to go outside the restaurant in order to make sure that I wasn't carrying listening or recording devices.
"Many people will hate me for this interview, but I'm telling them that I love all of them, even those who hate me. I invite all the people, including the terrorists among them, to open their hearts and believe. Now I'm trying to establish an international organization for young people that will teach about Christianity, love and peace in the territories, too. I would like to teach the young people how to love and forgive, because that's the only way the two nations can overcome the mistakes of the past and live in peace."
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