Mohammed Massad: The Incredible Journey from Terrorist to Peace Promoter
Arif Massad was proud of his son Mohammed when he was a young terrorist, and he was proud of his son when he put down his gun and took up the mantle of nonviolence. Just how does one go from being a rock-throwing child and a Kalashnikov-toting adolescent to being a voice for peace and negotiation in adulthood? And how does the father support both positions, given that they seem to be such polar opposites?
The Homelife of a Child Terrorist
In 1975, Mohammed Massad was born in the village of Burqin, about 5 km from Jenin. This was one year after the PLO was recognized as the official representative of the Palestinian people and only 8 years after Israel won control of Judea & Samaria when Arab armies had tried once more to get rid of the Jewish state in 1967, instead losing more land than a victory would have gained them. The humiliation of defeat and their sense of the injustice of Israeli control could only be overcome by fighting back against the Jewish enemy.
This was the reality into which Mohammed was born and by the time he was seven years old, he was throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers.
At the same time, there was another reality for the young boy. The reality of his home life. He describes a home environment characterized by dignity and respect. His father, who died six years ago, was “the most honest person I have ever known,” Mohammed tells me. “And, like his father before him, he sought truth and justice.”
Mohammed attributes his self confidence and inner strength to these most important men in his life. A recurring theme, when talking about the men who influenced him, is the way he was treated with respect and how they commanded the respect of others.
From an early age, the age of five, my father would take me to places only for adults, such as the mosque and to sulha ceremonies, both because I was the eldest son and because I was courteous, knew how to show respect. I remember at 5 that I made my father proud.
His grandfather also took him to visit others
I remember the huge funeral of a sheikh that my grandfather took me to when I was 5 years old. I remember one visit to family when I sat behind him on a mule as we climbed a high hill. We passed a school and he told me ‘that is your school.’ And I felt like I am part of these things. That it is my property. And to this day I see it as mine, personally; almost as if it is listed in the land registry as my own personal property.
And my grandfather implanted within me a high degree of self confidence and guided me to be decisive and to have impact, even on my own father and mother and uncles. I was greatly loved by him. I was special in his eyes.
Later, at about age 13, Mohammed accompanied his mother and father on a visit to a cousin of his father’s he had not yet met, Abu Ahmad, who will have an important influence upon him, something that is true to this day.
From the first moment we entered their home,” Mohammed recalls, “a young man, very elegant and courteous, received us with love. It was the first time I met him; he shook my father’s hand and shook my hand in an adult way and made me feel special. He paid attention to me and I felt that he pulled me toward him. I saw him more and more — in the fields and in the village and the streets, the mosque, weddings, family events — and I was magnetized by him. He commanded respect and he never hurt anyone, he never talked badly about anyone. People respected him and sought him out for consultation. From the moment he met me till today, I feel his love toward me.
I asked Mohammed about his mother. “She has a big heart and so much love,” he replies. “She made us feel important. All of us feel equally loved by her and she made sure we all take care of each other.”
A lesson in self-respect came in a perhaps unusual way: Arif said that the father who loves his children does not feed them with stolen food or with that which is provided for free. It would be better to die of starvation, he would say, than to accept donations.
“If something is not yours, you do not touch it. You do not give anyone reason to point at you and say you stole it or cheated to get it.”
With a life so filled with family, I was surprised when I asked him to describe the very first memory that comes to mind and he painted a picture to me in which he was alone:
I was in an old building, about a hundred years old, a building that stands to this day. There is an opening over the door near the ceiling and the morning sun shines in through that opening. I stand in front of the ray of light and move my hands to twirl the dust. I was maybe three years old.
I don’t know about you, but for me, that is a very evocative image that can be interpreted in a number of ways. I see it as prophetic of the visionary leader that little boy grew up to be.
Induction into Terror
Mohammed remembers how, when he was 6 years old, Nasser Kamil, 25-year-old former security prisoner, a member of the PLO, assembled the young children from the neighbourhood and bought them candies. He taught them anti-Israeli songs and Massad remembers in particular a song of love toward Yasser Arafat.
He would take care of us and play all kinds of games with us—to this day I respect him and he has a place in my heart. Nasser wanted to keep us from playing in the street and getting hit by a car. He kept us from doing crazy things but we were living in the middle of ‘crazy’.
For me, as an Israeli, it was ironic to hear how Mohammed says Kamil kept the kids from doing ‘crazy’ things but with every IDF vehicle that passed by, he would tell them how Israel wants to kill them and steal their land. And his parents were well aware of all of this.
Mohammed was in 2nd grade when the first demonstrations took place and he recalls having taken part in them.
I remember my mother’s words. She told my father: ‘when he grows up, we will need a lot of money to pay for his lawyers’.
And this was said with pride.
Nasser was arrested by Israel when Mohammed was about 11 and for two years he lived a normal life, going to school and coming home, learning karate and going on trips with his family. He considered it his duty to carry on with Nasser’s activities but this was not uppermost in his mind during these two years. Then the first intifada began and Mohammed and his friends began throwing Molotov cocktails and grenades at IDF vehicles and burning tires. Abu Ahmad was now a leader in Fatah..
I asked him to let me in on operations – the most difficult operations. He was wanted by the IDF and had status in the whole region. The fact that he was my relative gave me status as well. I wanted to be like him.
A Young Terrorist
Mohammed joined up with the founding members of the Jenin branch of the Black Panthers. Yahya Ayyash, also called “The Engineer”, invited them to participate with them in suicide attacks. Massad and his peers declined, saying that they are willing to risk death to achieve their goals but they are hoping to live.
In 1991, at 16½, Mohammad and four members of his squad pulled over an Israeli car; two members of the group held the driver and the rest drove around without clear plans, looking for an Israeli soldier to abduct to exchange for Palestinian prisoners being held in Israel. They were spotted by Israeli security forces and forced to abandon the car and run back behind the border.
“Thank goodness it did not end tragically,” says Massad in retrospect. “We had 2 rifles and grenades. It could have ended differently.” And he means that he is glad there was no loss of either Jewish or Arab life.
He was arrested by the IDF after that incident. Sure that he was being followed, he took a chance, however, and spent a night at home. The family was well aware that Mohammad was at risk of arrest.
I missed my family and I stopped home on my way to another operation. We generally did not sleep at home because we were wanted by Israel. But that night, I came in at about 11 pm and fell asleep. We had hidden all our weapons in the woods so there were no firearms in the house. At 2:30 am, I suddenly woke up from a deep asleep, seeing soldiers standing over me. They broke down the door, jumped over the outer walls, came down on ropes from the roof of the neighbour’s house. Back then, it was a big deal to catch a terrorist who had grenades and other weapons.
After 45 days of interrogation, he admitted, in his words, to 2% of what he had done, activities that were, in any case, known to all: “I gave them what they already knew.”
Torture in the Israeli jail included sleep deprivation, no access to a shower, being kept in a room the size of a closet, and being forced to stand all day with his hands tied to a pipe above his head so that his arms were in the air. The ceiling was a grail that kept him exposed to the rain and sun and he had nothing to protect him from the cold of approaching winter. Mohammad said they did not beat him – “there were a few slaps, nothing serious”. They cursed and humiliated him, but he expected this as they were the enemy and that is how the enemy is expected to behave.
As they became harsher, I gave them even less. Their harsh treatment only increased my resolve. This helped me keep my secrets.
I asked him if he was afraid. “I have never been afraid in my life,” he replied. “People talk about fear and I have no idea what that feels like.”
He was sentenced to 7½ years in prison. To the prosecution this was too light and they appealed. About two years after his arrest, however, before the appeal, he was released as part of the Oslo Accords in 1993. “I got off easy.”
Upon his release he was invited to join the Tanzim, the military arm of Fatah. After having attended “Terrorist University” in prison, he had fresh ideas to teach others.
I was responsible for my village and served as a bridge between the local villages and the high ranking leaders of the movement.
But in 1996, Fatah arrested him and interrogated him for 23 days.
Lead-up to the Arrest
While the Oslo Accords brought Massad’s release from Israeli prison, it was not long before he became disillusioned with what was happening in the name of resistance to the Israeli “occupation”. From the beginning he was opposed to the leadership brought in by the foreign-directed peacemaking deal.
“I did not give anyone power of attorney to sign a deal with Arafat on my behalf,” he said. Then, turning to a friend sitting with us in the living room, he asked, “Did you give them power of attorney?” This comment foreshadowed Massad’s explanation later of what he is working toward: the time when the Palestinian people will be set free to determine their future without outside interference.
I began protesting as soon as they arrived in the PA – when I saw who they were. These are the people I was ready to die for? Those who are looking for bribes and prostitutes and such, this is who I risked my life to bring here? It was a psychological shock for me.
He described a situation in which many gangs operated in the PA, each gang on its own. There were those who collected money supposedly for the purposes of freeing the land. They would write a receipt with a sum and then go to shop owners and ask for the money written on the receipt. Anyone who did not contribute was accused of being against the PA.
Mohammed Massad is not one to keep quiet. So they arrested him on trumped up charges. Some would be executed for speaking up but there were those in the security forces who had his back, he said. “While they did not object to the PA, they objected to certain acts committed by the PA.”
Massad said that after 23 days of interrogation, the head of the security services told his staff that he could have had him released immediately but he did not so that there would be no suspicion of showing favouritism toward a friend. He asked the interrogators if they have any evidence against Massad after all this time. They did not.
The Turning Point
Each day of interrogations in the PA was harder than all 45 days in prison in Israel. Each day. Harder, more humiliating, more torture. People from the Tanzim that I knew conducted the interrogation. They beat me with anything that came to hand. They hurled curses insulting my family. I expected the Israeli enemy to curse my family, but the ones who I brought into the land over the dead bodies of my friends, that I made my government, I did not expect them to humiliate me or my family. There is psychological injury, in addition to physical injury. Before the Israeli interrogator applies any physical pressure, he must get permission and make sure the person can tolerate it and it is according to the law; but in the PA, it is a mafia.
He grew angry and felt a growing desire for revenge.
I felt the others, the weak prisoners. I know that I am strong and can sustain a lot, but what about the weaker ones? What is the condition of the poor others? Why should they have to experience it? Those without support, no courage, no knowledge?
I would sit in my cell, waiting, and hear them beating others. And they would cry and beg them to stop and I felt sorry for them. When they beat me, I threatened them. Told them I would make them pay for what they are doing to me.
Massad kept his wits about him. He was accused of murder but when the murders were supposed to have been committed, Mohammed was in prison in Israel.
Then he found something suspicious about one of the questions they asked him: someone reported seeing him at 1 am in Afula in a meeting with the Shabak. His interrogators beat him and hounded him, asking over and over, “what were you doing in Afula?”
After all the curses, I told him – I could tell you that I was looking for women, drinking alcohol, looking for a car to steal, I could make up a lot of reasons and I will avoid the issue of Shabak. But if I want to tell the truth, I will tell you that my foot has not stepped on the ground in Afula. I have passed through Afula in a taxi, and that is all I know about Afula. But to get out of the car and walk around in Afula, to this day I have not. But someone told you that he saw me in Afula. What was he doing there? Was he there meeting the Shabak and putting it on me? The interrogator stopped. He did not know what to say.
They asked him about the weapons he used when he was in the Black Panthers. Massad told his PA interrogators that the Israeli Shabak asked him the same questions, and he did not skip a beat when he said:
…and I did not answer them. Are you the new Shabak, I asked them? Who are you interrogating me for?
Massad understood that they were using him to show anyone who thinks about protesting against the PA that they will be suspected of being agents of the Shabak, as traitors.
In the end, his interrogators were forced to admit they had nothing on Mohammed.
They apologized to me and apologized to my family. I will never forgive them. I was able to get away from them because I am honest, strong, with self-confidence, but others after two slaps will confess to anything just to avoid more beating. Many people were executed in that way. Even children, 15, 16, 18, they took them to the woods, not even to the police station and began beating them all night, put out cigarettes on their skin. They want to stop the suffering. So if interrogators say, you killed 20 people, he will say he killed 22, just to put a stop to the torture. After that, they execute him and claim he confessed.
I saw children crying over the father who was executed and I felt bad for these children. Our squad was against the Israeli soldiers not against our own people.
Aftermath of the Arrest Experience
After his release, he could no longer tolerate living under the PA leadership. He would enter Israel illegally and worked in construction. Then, in 1997, he walked into a police station in Haifa and told them his life is in danger if he would be forced to return to the PA.
I told them my life story. They were not sure about letting someone who admitted to having been a terrorist remain in Israel – is he planning to attack from within Israel?
He must have convinced them of his sincerity since he got permission to stay in Israel temporarily.
I slept in the buildings I was working in during the day. Every six months I would be interrogated by the Shabak and they would always ask me the same questions. Four hours the interrogations lasted and they asked me the same questions: did I plan to carry out an attack in Israel?
Massad worked 20 hours a day and advanced from being a labourer to having his own illegal workers. He attributes his success to the fact that he is honest and fair with his workers.
By the year 2000, he had grown quite familiar with Jews as he worked alongside them in their homes, and he had an Israeli girlfriend.
Terrorist to Hero
Because the Israelis treated me so well, and I saw that they are people just like me, there was a point at which I turned from being a man who would be willing to kidnap and kill an Israeli into one who was willing to risk his own life to save that of an Israeli.
One day when I went to the border to meet my workers, I saw a terrorist attack a lone Israeli soldier and steal his M16. The soldier was down and the terrorist was about to shoot him. He saw me and expected me to help him. But I no longer believed in that. I raced up to the terrorist and pushed him aside – I don’t want to see death – the terrorist ran off. I held the M16 and helped the soldier up until help came.
Massad was awarded a certificate of appreciation for this act and then his path to citizenship moved along more easily.
An Israeli Citizen
In 2001, Massad married an Israeli Arab and has seven children. He is currently studying toward a masters degree in Middle East Studies at the University of Haifa. In an interview with Avri Gilad on a morning news programme (in Hebrew), Mohammed says he lives a normal life, as do many others in his position, former terrorists who are now Israeli citizens contributing toward the good of the country.
Upon getting his citizenship, Massad was free to speak his mind:
At this point nobody would send me back there and then I broke my silence. In 2003 I began to write a book. I examined the Islamic religion and how it relates to jihad – my purpose was to get the book into the hands of the terrorist and if he reads the book he will not commit a suicide attack. They are brainwashed and told that they will go to heaven and get 72 virgins but this is a corruption of our holy writings. I proved from within the Quran and Sunna and Islamic history that there is no such thing as suicide attacks in Islam. I published the book, Islam and Dangers, in 2008 and to date 8000 copies have been printed.
I distributed the book in mosques, universities and public libraries at my own expense because it was important to me that young people open their eyes and not be willing to turn themselves over to those who exploit them, those for whom their lives are cheap and dispensible. The book succeeded more than I anticipated. I get people sending me messages and arguing with me – sheikhs, for example, and when I show them that suicide attacks are against the Quran, they finally accept it.
In the 1980s, the Egyptian Islamic scholar and one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, approved of suicide attacks in jihad. However,
In 2014, al-Qaradawi acknowledged my book and after I debated with him, he changed his mind – suicide attacks are not permitted in Islam.
Massad said that of the members of his squad: three were killed by Israel, two moved to Europe as political refugees and two joined the PA.
The two who are in Europe regret their actions and do not want to remember what they did. They feel they wasted their lives – nothing came of it and instead of installing a leadership that would protect our people, we brought in gangsters who oppress our people more than Israel ever did. Nobody knows where one of these two men is; he sends money to help support his family. The other worked in a blue collar job and his children are now completing university degrees. His wife has a life she could never have had in the PA. She works in a day care, drives a car and goes out on her own; she takes an interest in many different subjects, she can talk about many topics.
Looking back on his years as a terrorist, he says:
My luck is that I did not kill anyone. I burned vehicles but a sign that God loves me is that nobody died – no Jew and no Arab.
Mohammed Massad Looks to a Better Future for his People
For many years, he has been working behind the scenes to help develop the foundations of the democratic free society that he anticipated would arise when he was a Black Panther fighting Israel and that he hopes will still arise. When he was a Black Panther terrorist, Mohammad Massad was fighting for truth and justice as he saw it. He is still doing that now but his understanding of truth and justice has changed.
Last spring, he and a group of 25 others from all over the West Bank/Judea and Samaria, founded the Palestinian Workers’ Organization. He is official spokesman and is the voice opposing exploitation by the PA. Today the organization has 60,000 members. The organization avails itself of the Israeli legal system in attempts to bring justice to the Palestinian people. Mohammed anticipates the fall of the PA and is doing everything he can to bring that about.
We don’t want a Palestinian country ruled by corrupt and terrorist leaders. We tried to build a country and the leaders brought in from outside stole the country from the people, abused the people. When the PA falls, Israel won’t find itself without someone to talk with. We don’t want to hurt Israel, for one thing, because that causes us harm: We kill one Jew and that leads to 1000 deaths on our side then we have closures and destruction that take us back years. Also, we saw what happened in Gaza and we will not make the same mistake. Security and the economy are indivisible for both sides; if you hurt one side in either security or economy, all of us suffer, Israelis and Palestinians alike.
We are trying to convince Israel and all other countries to stop supporting the corrupt leadership in the PA and stop forcing the people to have to live under the dictators that are ruling for 14 years without elections.
In fact, in May of this year, Mohammed, representing the Palestinian Workers’ Organization, submitted a Supreme Court petition asking the State of Israel to respect the basic human rights of Palestinian workers in Israeli employ and not transfer the taxes and social benefits collected from them at source to the PA which will merely embezzle these funds. He requests that this money be paid directly into the employees’ bank accounts. To date, the case is still pending.
We are nostalgic for the electoral polling stations. There are people who were born and reached voting age and don’t know what it is to vote.
Last May there were demonstrations against the PA. Since then, things have been relatively quiet. However, Mohammed has not stopped working for change:
There will be more demonstrations in the PA, letters will go out to foreign governments requesting they stop supporting the PA leadership. We want to show the world that we are an orderly people and for the past 14 years there are those among us who have been preparing for the moment when they can arrest Abbas et al. We want to bring these corrupt leaders to justice. If they succeed in fleeing (we are asking the Supreme Court not to allow any of them to get through the borders of Israel), we will chase them and their kids all around the globe to get back the money that was stolen from us.
Massad is optimistic and determined:
I feel obligated to my people who need me. If we free our people from fear, you will see something very different.