“The Gatekeepers” (“Shomrei ha’saf”)
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
The Oscar nominated documentary from Israel is a collection of interviews with all of the surviving heads of Shin Bet, the highly respected and well-known security agency whose activities and membership are closely held state secrets.
The most recent history of the Israel/Palestine conflict is here related to us by some of its most prominent and important players. Documentarian Dror Moreh was granted an extraordinary level of access to six former heads of the Shin Bet counterterrorism agency in Israel. This is Moreh’s first documentary and with it he is able to provide a powerful and clear assessment of how violence sanctioned by the state of Israel, either pre-emptive or retaliatory, has cost an enormously high price and crippling moral toll on the region in the pursuit of peace.
What I found particularly fascinating was that Moreh was able to not only get the former heads of Shin Bet on film but that he was able to get them to speak. I remember all too well my days in Israel and in the Israeli army that aside from the members of Shin Bet itself, we are not privy to any of this information and there were even cases that agents worked on cases without ever knowing who their superiors were. (Spielberg was able to show us that in his film “Munich”). The men that we meet here oversaw Israel’s internal intelligence-gathering operations at different times from 1980 until the present and they speak here with unprecedented candor about what their jobs entailed. Some of what they say may seem to avoid an issue but, by and large, what we hear seems to be a raw and confessional ruthlessness in their speech and one can surmise that these retired officers have some misgivings about acknowledging their miscalculations in a war where it is impossible to understand and to foresee the human toll. We still do not know what the consequences of their speaking out will be especially regarding selective assassinations.
Beginning with descriptions of the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967 (and my first real experience with the Israeli military), former agency heads Avraham Shalom (1980-86) and Avi Dichter (2000-06) tell us that Israel tried to establish military authority over some one million Palestinians and this almost failed. There existed mutual mistrust, hostilities and language barriers that set off attacks and counterattacks and here we get to see actual film footage of Israeli soldiers moving through Arab refugee camps. Yaakov Peri who was Shin Bet head from 1988-94 tells that the escalation of violence drastically hurt any possibility of peaceful solutions and there were numerous arrests and interrogations by Shin Bet.
Shin Bet was a well-oiled intelligence machine yet everyone understood that gaining any kind of control over the frequency and intensity of terrorist activity did not solve the major problem of occupation. One of the former heads of Shin Bet blames several prime ministers from Golda to Begin and says that none of them bothered to even consider the Palestinian people. (Personally I am not surprised at that being said about either Golda or Begin and while Golda wanted to be the grandmother of the Jewish state, she seemed to have forgotten her adopted children. Begin, with his military knowledge from the War of Independence then assumed a messianic like prime ministry which did not include all of his constituents). Yet another head mentions the ineffectual nature of Shin Bet’s attempted crackdown with the first Intifada in 1987 when the old form of terrorism was replaced with that of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
Others interviewed here mention the importance of cooperating with Palestinian intelligence. Regarding the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, it is felt to be a direct undermining of the peace process even with the signing of the Oslo Accords there years earlier.
I believe that what makes this such a compelling film is that as I watched it, I felt a strong sense of moral ambiguity. The men interviewed here do not move away from the terrible implications of counterterrorism and they are straightforward in acknowledging the sense of power that goes along with the decision to take the lives of the enemy. To reinforce for the viewer, there are computer-generated simulations of Shin Bet bombing operations. There is a moral revulsion that I felt here and I find it strange that I would say that after myself having served in the Israel Defense Forces. I see the satisfaction on the faces of these “superior tacticians” who feel that their jobs have been well done. On the other hand I am reminded of the short (2 year) tenure of Carmi Gillon and his widely criticized interrogative techniques.
While the men are interviewed separately, their voices come together in despair when they speak of the futility of violence as a political imperative and of the cruelty and the corruption of Israel which has continued since the 1960’s. Victory does have to come with the suffering of others.
The subjects of “The Gatekeepers” clearly describe their respective ambivalence. We hear no ideology—they have seen and done too much to resort to that. Yuval Diskin who headed Shin Bet from 2005-2011 tells us that problems that come in binaries can be dealt with by the use of binary solutions but the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank which began in 1967 has produces unending problems in many different shades and in no way fit into binaries. Diskin was a youngster and idealist during the 67 war. He joined Shin Bet as a proud and gung-ho young man because he wanted to be part of the solution. We hear from him and his colleagues about the moral and political evolutions that they went through as occupiers and they did not evolve—they devolved and it is this devolution that they believe is what threatens Israel from within.
All of those interviewed are now retired but we do not feel any sense that it is any easier for them to question the leadership of the country. They all agree on and insist upon continuing talks with Palestine—it is the only option. Shalom says that they have become cruel to themselves just as they have become cruel to the occupation. The war on terror gives them an excuse for cruelty. What Israel has become is a divided country unto itself. This is not just a collection of horror stories, stories of spying on, tracking, arresting and often killing those their government has decreed are terrorists. It is not that they failed to anticipate the Intifada and deal with it. These men have some of the blood of Rabin on their hands and they tend to agree that they are an obstacle in the peace process and will remain so as long as there are the organizations of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Here we see the true cost of occupation—the scars, both psychic and moral that are still there.
I could continue but I just really realized that talking about this film to those who have not seen it is valueless. It must be seen by every thinking person and it will keep you thinking even more.