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CNN'S AMANPOUR

Middle East Experts Dissect Claims of Hamas-Israeli Double Agent

Aired March 3, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:00:00]

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Our exclusive interview with the son of Hamas has become a global talking point, and the spin machines are now working overtime. Tonight, we put it all in context.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

Our exclusive interview yesterday with a Palestinian who says he was an Israeli spy has sparked a fierce debate between those who believe him and those who doubt some of his claims. He's the son of this man, a founding leader of Hamas, Sheikh Hassan Yousef. And in his new book, "Son of Hamas," Mosab Hassan Yousef describes his conversion to Christianity and what turned him against Hamas.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MOSAB HASSAN YOUSEF, AUTHOR, "SON OF Hamas": After I was tortured by the Shin Bet themselves, who became my friends later on, I was transferred to a prison -- to prison, and Hamas leaders were torturing Hamas members.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: So we've assembled an incredible group to dissect this story and the phenomenon of wartime espionage. From Tel Aviv, Israeli intelligence specialist Yossi Melman joins us. Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics, at the London School of Economies. And Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan joins us from Damascus, Syria.

Let me go first to you, Mr. Melman. Here is a Hamas, Palestinian gentleman who says that for 10 years he worked as an agent for the Israeli intelligence agency, Shin Bet. Is this something that happens often in Israel and in this Israeli-Palestinian war?

YOSSI MELMAN, HA'ARETZ: Oh, yes, yes, very much so. For the last 40 years and more since Israel is occupying the West Bank and until recently Gaza, Israeli security services -- mainly the domestic security service, the Shabak, Shin Bet, tried to penetrate Palestinian organization in order to get information. And in order to penetrate these groups, you need top agents near the -- near the top echelon, the leaders, the military commanders of the -- of the -- of the organizations.

And, therefore, I think one of the reasons, major reasons to the fact that Israel has managed to prevent many, many attacks is because it used to have a very good access and to know what's going on in this organizations--

AMANPOUR: Yossi--

MELMAN: -- due to agents like -- like Mosab, like the son of Hamas.

AMANPOUR: So you believe his story and the claims as have been written in his book and also in articles in your own newspaper?

MELMAN: Well, I believe his story, and I know that his story is generally speaking accurate, maybe slightly over inflating his own role and its importance. He was not the only agent that the Israeli security service had at the time inside Hamas. The intelligence work is a mosaic work. You need -- you need many sources. You need to verify the information that is coming from these sources. And you put together the picture--

AMANPOUR: OK.

MELMAN: -- once you assemble all this information. Yes, but he was an agent.

AMANPOUR: OK. Let me play this part of an interview that I did with him yesterday when he talks about what turned him against Hamas and towards working for Shin Bet.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: When was the last time you saw your father?

YOUSEF: It was five years ago when we were arrested together. I had to go to prison undercover because I was his assistant. And I had to go to prison for cover. So we were arrested the same -- at the same time. And he's still in prison to this moment.

If I wasn't in the picture, my dad would be killed 10 times.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: So I want to bring in now Osama Hamdan, the Hamas spokesman who's joining us from Damascus, Syria. Mr. Hamdan, you heard there what Mosab Hassan Yousef said. His father is a well-known leader of Hamas. This must be very bad for you, that he's coming out and describing why he turned against you.

[15:05:00]

OSAMA HAMDAN, HAMAS SPOKESPERSON: Well, I have to say, it's not -- it is not very bad for Hamas. It clarifies how the situation of Israeli Mossad is very bad. When they failed in Dubai last month, they tried to do something to say that the Israeli security authorities are powerful and they can do something.

They are talking about a story of, yes, one of the sons of Hassan Yousef, who is a senior leader in Hamas. His father declared clearly that his son, when he was at the age of 17 years old, discovered -- they discovered in Hamas -- our security people, they discovered that he has some problems. So he was far from any sensitive issues inside Hamas.

Israel is trying to create an issue that they can go everywhere, they can touch anyone inside Hamas. They are trying to reform their reputation after what had happened in Dubai when it came to be -- their image became to be as they were big enough (ph) in this issue.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hamdan? Mr. Hamdan?

HAMDAN: So we don't believe what he had said. We believe he -- this is something that was dictated to him to be said as a part of his job. His family knows that well. Hamas members, they understand that well, and they are -- they don't believe what the Israelis -- the Israelis are saying.

AMANPOUR: OK.

HAMDAN: So it doesn't make any sense inside Hamas. There is no disturbance as maybe some Israelis believes. They are dealing with the issue as an old issue, also, which the Israelis brought it from the archive in order to say that they were able to do something once upon a time.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hamdan, hold on one second, because you're obviously admitting that he is the son of -- of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, and you seem to be saying it is possible that he worked for Shin Bet, only that he didn't know much, according to you.

I would like to play another piece of the interview that we had with him yesterday in which he describes why he turned against Hamas.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YOUSEF: Shin Bet is an organization that is committed to the constitution. They have their own rules. And they respect the rules.

Yes, there are mistakes, and they are responsible for killing civilians, and I admit that, and I'm witnessing for things like this, but this doesn't make them thirsty to kill Palestinians.

Now, what Hamas is having something absolutely different. Hamas targeted -- targets civilians. It's their goal to target civilians.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: I want to bring in Fawaz Gerges from London, a Middle East expert, an observer of this whole conflict, and to put some of this in perspective. He's basically saying that he made a decision that--

HAMDAN: I will not continue that if they turn back to the Israeli guy. Tell them.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hamdan?

HAMDAN: They have to respect the people. They are not supposed to do that. Even if you are Amanpour.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hamdan? Mr. Hamdan, I'm going to ask you in that case.

HAMDAN: Yes, excuse me, I -- I -- I -- excuse me.

AMANPOUR: What's the problem?

HAMDAN: I've said initially I will not go on a program -- I -- I will not go on a program with any Israelis. I've said that at the beginning. Twenty-four hours before, I informed your people about this.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hamdan--

HAMDAN: So after you finish with them, and then come back with me.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hamdan, we did not get that message. I want you to stand by, because I still have questions for you. For the moment, I would like to talk to Mr. Gerges about putting this in context. Is this normal that you have in the context of this war, of this conflict that's gone for decades, a Palestinian who could be so turned off his own side that he would go towards Shin Bet and feel that perhaps they were his friends? He says that he was first arrested, he was tortured by Shin Bet, but in prison, he made the switch.

FAWAZ GERGES, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: Christiane, a point of clarification for your audience. We are dealing with an underground world, a universe of espionage, where it's very difficult to disentangle myth from reality. This is a very, very complex universe where lies are the norm, lies are the norms, not the exception.

Remember, Christiane, Hamas is a highly -- in particular, the military wing -- a very, very difficult and secretive organization. It's extremely difficult for a young man like Junior Yousef to penetrate or infiltrate the military wing of Hamas. Many Palestinians whom I have spoken to in the last two days say he's a wacko man, it's a pack of lies.

I think what -- I mean, was he an agent? Absolutely.

[15:10:00]

What's really on the line is his credibility. He exaggerates greatly, and we need to be skeptical.

And let me answer your question directly now. Yes, Israel has succeeded over the years in infiltrating Palestinian society. Thousands of Palestinians serve as agents for the Israeli security forces. He is no exception except that he is the son of one of the top Hamas leader, but we need to be skeptical, we need to realize that his credibility on the line, and not to take everything that he feeds your audience or feeds you, because, of course, he has a story and a big tale to tell.

AMANPOUR: Well, of course, this is why we're doing this report, because putting it in context is important. And as you say, this is part of the norm of this kind of cynicism that develops during wartime, when each side tries to penetrate the other side. So--

GERGES: You know, Christiane, the big story really is that, why has Israel succeeded in basically recruiting thousands of Palestinians? And this tells you about the fragmentation of Palestinian society. It tells you about the resources and the means by which Israel infiltrates Palestinian society.

And you're absolutely correct. I mean, Palestinians have been engaged in a civil war as a result of this espionage because, as we know, many supposed or alleged agents have been killed by both the PLO and Hamas, because there's a war taking place, very bitter, very bloody, very cynical, indeed.

AMANPOUR: We'll be right back after a break. We'll have more with our guests in a moment on the son of Hamas, Mosab Hassan Yousef, and his connection with Shimon Peres, he says, who is now Israel's president.

And you can watch the whole of my interview with Yousef on amanpour.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:13:26]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: You talk about trying to save lives. You said that you thwarted a plot to blow up the current Israeli president, Shimon Peres, back when he was foreign minister. What was that about?

YOUSEF: One of the Hamas bomb-maker -- his name is Abdullah Barghouti -- he's a killing machine, very dangerous man. I discovered a few hours before he was planning to plant four bombs in cars and explode the prime minister's car.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: That was another excerpt from my interview with Mosab Hassan Yousef and another stunning claim. Joining me again, Israeli intelligence specialist Yossi Melman from Tel Aviv, Middle East expert Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics, and Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan from Damascus, Syria.

I would like to talk, please, first to Yossi Melman about some of the things you've just heard. Number one, given your study on this issue, do you think -- how can one know whether what he says about thwarting such a high-level potential assassination attempt is true? And also, to the very point of what people are saying, that couldn't this all be Israeli attempts to discredit the Palestinians, to divide them even further than they already are?

[15:15:00]

MELMAN: Well, let me -- let me make three comments. First of all, I'm kind of puzzled by Mr. Hamdan, because Hamas leaders here in Gaza, in the West Bank are talking to us Israeli journalists.

Secondly, I would say that this book was not initiated by the Israeli security services, obviously, not to divert attention from Dubai, because the book was written weeks and months before that, I assume.

Actually, the book is kind of an embarrassment for the security services of Israel, because like any professional intelligence organization, they try to protect their sources, as we do journalists. And therefore, they don't reveal the names of their agents. Even if they were not very important agents, still they try to protect their identities.

And the fact that Mosab went public and surfaced and admitted that he was an agent is not liked by the security service of Israel. So there -- the book is not a pack of lies, but at the same time, I think he's a bit exaggerating his role and his importance to providing -- in providing information for Israel and for helping Israel to protect its -- its national interest and to protect the safety of our civilians.

AMANPOUR: What about -- you sort of touched on it briefly -- but of course people who are watching this are going to say that this could be an attempt by Israel to yet again try to divide a divided people.

MELMAN: Well, so people will say it, but the truth is that Israel has many, many agents, as the CIA has agents and trying to have many agents in Afghanistan in the war against global terrorism or terrorism at that part of the world. This is the nature of the game. You have to penetrate these groups.

And the top agent you have, the better. You try to get to the top of the leadership of the other -- of your enemy or the other organization. And, therefore, it's not a lie. It's a well-known fact. Israeli -- Israeli prisons are filled with Hamas terrorists and -- and PLO activists. Some of them have been in the past agents for Israel. Some of them maybe are still agents while serving their jail terms.

Israel has managed to cover very widely in mapping the Palestinian organizations, including Hamas. And the fact is that Israel -- the results, the end result of it is that Israel has prevented many, many terrorist attacks against our citizens.

AMANPOUR: All right.

MELMAN: Not always. It does not succeed always--

AMANPOUR: Can I -- can I go to Mr. Hamdan, please, in Damascus, Syria? And to -- to ask you to react to this notion that it is a risk for Palestinians in prison to be recruited, Mr. Hamdan. Don't you find that many Palestinians, whether they're Hamas or Fatah, whoever they are, can be recruited in prison?

HAMDAN: Well, I have to say it's a war. And the Palestinian people are under the occupation for more than six decades. In such a case, such things may happen. It's not a big success. The Israelis are trying to say that it's a big success to do that, while, in fact, it's not.

I have to say, the Israelis issued this book as a kind of propaganda. When you say that someone was working for his enemies, it means that he lies for his own people, and we expect that there is big lies in this book. It doesn't mean that everything in this book is serious. There may be some facts which was used to make a kind of credibility for the book, while we believe most of this is lies.

In Israel, they are trying to say they are in a war against terrorism while they are the terrorist country or the terrorist state in the region, killing the people -- the Palestinians under the occupation, like what had happened in Gaza in the last year, what had happened in Lebanon in 2006, all their wars killing the civilians.

I have to remind all the people that 1,400 Palestinians were killed in 2009 in Gaza by Israeli bombing. Most of them were civilians.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hamdan?

HAMDAN: I am talking here about 450 children.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hamdan?

HAMDAN: Excuse me. I'm not hearing you well, so -- so I have to say, if I understand you--

AMANPOUR: Can -- can you hear me now, as I -- as I speak a bit louder?

HAMDAN: I am not hearing you--

AMANPOUR: Can you hear me, as I speak a little bit louder?

HAMDAN: Yes. Yes.

AMANPOUR: I hear what you're saying about the war in Gaza.

[15:20:00]

And as you know, there has been a Goldstone report, which has accused both sides of inappropriately targeted civilians. Now, just today, Hamas has rejected allegations--

HAMDAN: Well, excuse me, about -- about Goldstone--

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hamdan, just today, Hamas has rejected the allegations in the Goldstone report, saying that it rejects the notion that it is also being accused of killing civilians, which, as you know, is a war crime. Why are you rejecting that? Even Mosab Yousef Hassan said that Hamas targets civilians. Why are you rejecting the Goldstone report, after first saying that you would investigate it?

HAMDAN: Well, I'm not in a position to have any comment on what have Mosab said, because anyone who's serving the enemies of his own people does not deserve anyone to make any comment on him. He's a big liar. He lost his faith. He lost his moralities. And he's working for the enemies who are killing his own people, who are arresting his father, and who are occupying his own country.

So if I could about Goldstone report--

AMANPOUR: What about the Goldstone? What about the Goldstone? Yes.

HAMDAN: Yes, yes. Goldstone report, we said that he has a clear position condemning the Israelis by killing the Palestinians as civilians, and he has some doubts about some Palestinian groups who may have done such a thing. We had a report.

The Palestinian government in Gaza issued a report about this. They send this report to the general secretary of the United Nations. They reacted to the report legally in the right way, which is expected by any other government. And I believe there must be a follow-up for the Israeli crimes against the Palestinians.

AMANPOUR: Mr. -- Mr. Hamdan?

HAMDAN: That what had happened, for example (inaudible) yes?

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hamdan, just to -- just to -- I know your view of this. I'm just asking you -- and I need to move on to Mr. Gerges, why -- as you know, the General Assembly has given both sides more time to conduct their investigations, and now Hamas is rejecting the Goldstone report, which says that it also committed war crimes by rocketing civilians in Israel.

I want to go now quickly to Mr. Fawaz Gerges and ask you, Mr. Gerges, were you impressed by the very passionate way that Mosab Hassan Yousef talks about his conversion from Islam to Christianity? That seems to have been such a motivating factor for what he did.

GERGES: You know, I mean, this is also an element in the tale that also must be taken into account when we discuss the credibility of what he says. And the reason why I say so is that Mr. Yousef, Jr., obviously has gone through tremendous upheaval, psychological, personal, on multiple levels.

And I think this is why it seems to me -- I mean, listen to what he says. He says he was tortured by the Israeli security forces in the prison. What I really would like to know, what I would have liked you to have asked him, Christiane, what kind of torture was he exposed to? What kind of tools were used against him? What kind of evidence does the Israeli or did the Israeli security forces have on him? Did he have any particular acts that he could have been ashamed of?

And this is why -- and this is why, Christiane, for many Palestinians -- many Palestinians say, well, look, he's not the only agent that was recruited by the Israelis. Why listen and, in fact--

AMANPOUR: And that's the point.

(CROSSTALK)

GERGES: And that's -- it's a human story for most of us who are living in the West.

AMANPOUR: Yes, indeed.

GERGES: For the Palestinians -- for the Palestinians, Christiane, it's a tragedy that reminds them of what Israel has done to their society, how it infiltrates their society.

AMANPOUR: Fawaz Gerges, thank you so much. And also to Osama Hamdan, spokesman for Hamas in Damascus, and Yossi Melman, Israeli intelligence specialists and journalist, who's joined us from Tel Aviv. Gentlemen, thank you all very much for helping to dissect this story.

And we will be right back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:26:00]

AMANPOUR: And that's the end of our highly charged discussion for today. Catch it on our podcast today and every day.

And tomorrow, we'll be interviewing the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to the U.N.'s atomic watchdog agency, as world powers work to impose new sanctions against Tehran. In the meantime, as I say, do catch the podcast of this program on amanpour.com/podcast. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.

END