Palestinians suspect Israel's hand behind double scandal

Senior presidential aide shamed in video, then Hamas founder's son claims he was a Shin Bet spy.

Jailed Hamas leader Hassan Yousef calls for end of fighting between Palestinians as he is guarded by Israeli police officers prior to a hearing at Ofer Military Court between Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2007. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
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RAMALLAH // As Palestinians digest a second political scandal in as many months the question many are asking is, why now? The revelations that the son of a senior West Bank Hamas leader had for years spied for the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, came not long after a video purporting to show a senior aide to the Palestinian president apparently soliciting sex in return for employment.

Some have linked the two, suggesting that their timing is a deliberate Israeli attempt to smear the full range of Palestinian leaders, from Hamas to Fatah. Others have pointed to the assassination in Dubai of Mahmoud al Mabhouh, suggesting that the Shin Bet story was coming out because Israel wanted to divert attention from a Mossad blunder. Mossad is the external Israeli intelligence agency, which is suspected of being behind the al Mabhouh assassination.

The disclosure of Israel's infiltration of Hamas has rattled Palestinians, if only because of the personal dimension to the story. Conversations among Palestinians, since the story broke last week in the Israeli media, have mostly revolved around what people thought they would have done if a child of their own had acted in a similar manner. On Monday night, the Hamas leader in question, Hassan Yousef, disclosed his reaction from an Israeli prison where he has been held since 2005. In a letter published on a website affiliated to Hamas, Mr Yousef wrote that, "my family [wife and children] announce our complete disownment of the one who was once our eldest son, who is called Mosab, who is now in America."

Mosab Hassan Yousef revealed himself as an Israeli spy in a book, Son of Hamas, published on Tuesday in the US where he now resides, and in an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz last week. In that interview, Mr Yousef said he had worked with the Shin Bet for almost a decade from 1996, when he had been approached by an agent in prison after he was first arrested, until 2005, when he left the country.

At first, Mr Yousef said, he had deliberated whether to become a double agent. But his experience of jail, where he claims Hamas inmates had tortured and killed those suspected of collaboration, had turned him against a movement of which his father had been among the original members. After being impressed by his Israeli handler, Mr Yousef started to pass information to Israeli intelligence. He eventually became the Shin Bet's most important informant, whose insights "were worth a thousand of ours", according to the Haaretz article, which quotes Mr Yousef's handler, one Captain Loai, .

Mr Yousef claims to be responsible for information that led to the arrests of such notable Palestinian figures as Marwan Barghouti of Fatah and Ibrahim Hamad of Hamas as well as his own father, the latter in order, according to Mr Yousef, to prevent him from being assassinated. He also claims to have been in close contact with Khalid Mishaal, the Hamas leader in exile. In 2005, after his father was arrested for a second time, he left the West Bank, became a Christian and now lives in the US.

Some have cast doubt on his account of the value of his information. One Palestinian analyst, who did not want to be named because he is a personal friend of Hassan Yousef, said it was unlikely that the son could have provided much information about Hamas's military activities, since the father was not involved in the military wing. This analyst also suggested that the timing of the disclosure was intended to accompany the recent scandal of Rafiq Husseini, the aide to Mahmoud Abbas the PLO leader, who is alleged to have solicited sex for employment opportunities.

"The scandal of [Hassan Yousef's] son was known years ago. It is disclosed now to paint both leading Palestinian factions as corrupted from the inside," the analyst said. Nevertheless, the disclosure is sure to have repercussions within Hamas. The movement has traditionally had a reputation as being hard to infiltrate, especially within its military wing, the Ezzedine al Qassam Brigades, where layers of secrecy surround its leadership.

That reputation has now been rocked, first with the assassination of al Mabhouh in Dubai, where several reports have suggested that only an inside source could have known of his travels, and now the revelations of Mosab Hassan Yousef. Even in the West Bank, Palestinian Authority figures have urged Hamas to tighten its security. One security source in the West Bank, responding to a question last week about allegations that two of those arrested in Dubai were affiliated to the Fatah movement, said Hamas needed to pay closer attention to its own ranks. "Hamas needs to investigate itself sometimes, before it accuses others of betraying it."