Ex-spy handler of Hamas co-founder's son says PM 'destroying' Israel

Gonen Ben Itzhak, former Shin Bet agent (JORGE NOVOMINSKY)
Gonen Ben Itzhak, former Shin Bet agent (JORGE NOVOMINSKY)

On a Tel Aviv overpass, former spy Gonen Ben Itzhak addresses a small gathering of flag-waving protesters worried about the future of Israel under longest-serving premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

Motorists honk enthusiastically to the group from the road as they drive past, and a man on a scooter passing underneath shouts "Traitor!"

A former Shin Bet intelligence agent, Ben Itzhak once handled the son of a Hamas co-founder as an informant, to prevent attacks in the occupied West Bank.

Now he protests on the streets against Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government.

"Netanyahu is really the biggest danger to the state of Israel, and believe me I arrested some of the biggest terrorists during the Second Intifada," the 53-year-old told AFP at his home in Modiin, referring to the 2000-2005 Palestinian uprising.

"I know what is a terrorist. I think Netanyahu is dragging Israel into destruction."

He cites Netanyahu's recent tensions with US President Joe Biden -- he accused him of delaying American arms deliveries for Israel's Gaza war -- as an example of why many believe the Israeli leader must go.

"Biden is the biggest supporter of Israel... and Netanyahu spit on his face," said Ben Itzhak.

"He's destroying the very important relationship with the United States."

- 'The Green Prince' -

Ben Itzhak -- who joined the security services in the 1990s after premier Yitzhak Rabin's assassination -- has become a leading figure in protests against Netanyahu.

He is part of the "Crime Minister" movement, and once stepped in front of the premier's motorcade during a 2018 anti-corruption protest.

He ended up being tackled by the very security service he once worked for.

Prosecutors are still pressing ahead with a corruption trial against Netanyahu despite the war, and some protesters have tried to break through police lines to get to his home.

Years before his own protest, Ben Itzhak was the handler for Mosab Hassan Yousef, known as "The Green Prince" and the eldest offspring of Hamas co-founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef.

He worked with the Hamas collaborator to follow Palestinian militants to thwart suicide operations, including arresting jailed Fatah figurehead Marwan Barghouti.

Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel could have been prevented by a double agent like Yousef reporting the plan, and the country's security elite underestimated Hamas, the former spy believes.

"You need an old asset to call you and to tell you something is going wrong. And it seems like we didn't have it," he said.

"We think that our enemy is stupid. In the end, Hamas was smarter. It's very hard to say."

Ben Itzhak believes it is time to "change the equation" in Gaza -- end the war and rally international support to put Mahmud Abbas's Palestinian Authority in charge.

- 'Everything is explosive' -

"The military rules the West Bank, rules Gaza. Enough. We need to find the solution," he said.

Ben Itzhak accuses Netanyahu of propping up Hamas while seeking to nix any peace process so he can stay in power.

"Netanyahu thinks only about himself, about his criminal problems, how to survive politically in Israel," he said.

Netanyahu has repeatedly denied allegations of corruption, and on Monday reiterated that Israeli forces will eliminate Hamas.

"We will not end the war (in Gaza) until we eliminate Hamas, and until we return residents of the south and north to their homes securely," he told parliament.

The former agent also claims the Israeli leader has let ultranationalist security minister Itamar Ben Gvir use the police as his own "militia" to disrupt weekly anti-government protests in Tel Aviv.

He questions Netanyahu's allegiance with the far-right Jewish Power party frontman who was once barred from the Israeli military and investigated by the country's security services for extremism.

"God... didn't help us on October 7, the way he didn't help us in Auschwitz," he said.

Ben Itzhak said he himself has jumped in front of a water cannon to protect protesters from increasing police brutality, which landed him with a conviction that was overturned in March.

"Today Israel from the inside is destroyed. He (Netanyahu) is destroying everything," he said.

The more Netanyahu bends to the ultranationalist allies, the weaker Israel's security, says Ben Itzhak, claiming that they are also taking control of the army and prison service.

"Everything is explosive now," he said.

"I will tell Netanyahu... resign. This will be the biggest help you can do to the people of the State of Israel."