Politics aside, the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians rivals the Old Testament and Greek tragedy in its narrative and dramatic potential. Especially when it comes to the covert operations of such Israeli agencies as Mossad and Shin Bet.
Viewers here had known little about the latter organization until such recent Israeli fictional features as Ziad Doueiri’s “The Attack” (2012) and Yuval Adler’s “Bethlehem” (2013) dramatized its activities. Dror Moreh’s 2012 documentary “The Gatekeepers” also revealed the group’s sometimes morally questionable but crucial security operations. This new documentary by Nadav Schirman delves deeper into one such operation, focusing on two men and the conflict between conscience and duty. It takes a personal rather than a political perspective, exploring the ambiguities of truth and individual identity rather than the complexities of an ongoing historical calamity. And though the human drama is hypnotically gripping, it comes at the expense of the bigger picture.
Mosab Hassan Yousef had every reason to hate Israelis. His father, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, helped found the Hamas movement, and consequently endured frequent imprisonment and harassment by the Israelis. This radicalized Yousef, and as a teenager in 1996 he bought guns to go on a killing spree. Shin Bet, which had been monitoring him, nabbed him immediately.
Patriotically motivated, Gonen Ben Yitzhak joined Shin Bet even though his father warned him that it was a “dark organization.” When Yousef was imprisoned, Yitzhak saw him as a prime candidate to turn into a double agent, even though he knew by doing so he would be ruining the youth’s life. By 1997 he had manipulated Yousef, now codenamed “the Green Prince,” into Shin Bet’s most effective mole within Hamas, responsible for preventing countless assassinations and suicide bombings, and also for the arrest of many in its hierarchy, including his own father.
How did such a transformation happen? In his search for an answer Schirman employs techniques familiar from the films of Errol Morris, combining intense, separate interviews of Yousef and Yitzhak describing the story from their points of view, intercut with recreations of events and actual, eerie Shin Bet surveillance videos, showing the activities from the silent, aerial, omniscient eyes of drones and hidden cameras (Schirman, unfortunately, does not distinguish between the real and the simulated).
In these interviews Yousef explains that after witnessing in prison how the incarcerated Hamas leadership tortured members it suspected of betrayal he began to turn against the organization. Schirman further hints at oedipal resentment, with Yitzhak taking on the paternal role in a Shin Bet version of psychoanalytic transference. These explanations don’t quite add up, as they lack context and exist in a political and historical vacuum.
On the other hand, the note of simple human decency on which the film ends, with Yitzhak stepping in to save his friend when both sides have abandoned him and left him to his fate, suggests that all politics are essentially personal. Until each side recognizes the common humanity of the other, peace will never come.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.