Acclaimed Film The Gatekeepers Reveals Jarring Insight Into Israel's Defense Establishment

In his film, which on Saturday night won the U.S. National Society of Film Critics' award for best documentary, director Dror Moreh manages to extract frank admissions and fascinating analysis from the former Shin Bet chiefs.

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
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Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

The six people who were interviewed in the new documentary film "The Gatekeepers" dispatched people at risk to their own lives into enemy territory. The six approved brutal interrogations of security detainees. They convinced people to betray their own homelands and there were even those who ordered a number of assassinations.

All six headed the Shin Bet security service, one of the country's most important security agencies. They used the massive power at their disposal in an effort to forestall terrorist attacks and protect Israel's population. But the human and moral toll that this goal exacted was sometimes great.

The six sat down in front of the camera and provided surprising revelations and jarring insights into the reality in which we live. Particularly now, just weeks before the Knesset election, it's fascinating to hear their analysis of the reality here, coming from people who have gotten to know the most violent and cruel side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from up close.

In his film, which on Saturday night won the U.S. National Society of Film Critics' award for best documentary, director Dror Moreh manages not only to extract frank admissions and fascinating analysis from the former Shin Bet chiefs. They also acknowledge mistakes they made while in office and level pointed criticism at decisions made by the political leaders to whom they reported.

"Peace is not created through military means. You have to build peace through relations of trust, either after military campaigns or without hostilities. As someone who knows the Palestinians well, I say there doesn't have to be a problem creating genuine relations of trust with them." That, for example, is what Avi Dichter, who served as Shin Bet head between 2000 and 2005, had to say.

"In the State of Israel, it's too great a luxury not to speak with our enemies," Avraham Shalom, who was at the helm of the Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986, concurs. We should talk to anyone willing to talk to us, he says, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "Even if his response is insolent, I'm in favor of continuing. There is no alternative," Shalom asserts. "It's in the nature of the professional intelligence man to talk to everyone. That's how you get to the bottom of things. I find out that he doesn't eat glass and he sees that I don't drink oil."

Next appearing in the film is a text written by the late intellectual and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz in 1968, just a year after the Six-Day War. "A country that controls a hostile population of a million foreigners will necessarily be a Shin Bet state, with everything that requires, with implications on education, freedom of speech and thought and on democratic governance. The corruption characterizing every colonial regime will also infect the State of Israel. The administration will on one hand have to deal with suppressing Arab rebel movements and on the other cultivate quislings, Arab traitors."

And for his part, Yuval Diskin, who headed the Shin Bet between 2005 and 2011, responded firmly: "I agree with every word."

In the film, Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet chief from 1996 to 2000, cast doubt on the effectiveness of targeted killings of the enemy's spiritual leaders. And Carmi Gillon, Ayalon's immediate predecessor at the security agency, thinks Israel could suffer another political assassination in addition to the killing of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 when it becomes necessary to evacuate West Bank Jewish settlements.

For his part Jacob Perry, who served as head of the agency from 1988 to 1994, acknowledged that anyone who served at the Shin Bet and left with memories of operations involving nighttime raids on the homes of frightened families "becomes a bit of a leftist."

The six former Shin Bet directors also acknowledged that the occupation of the West Bank inflicts great damage on the Israeli side. "The future is black," Avraham Shalom asserts in one of the most jarring comments in the film. "It brings about a change in the nature of the population, because you're putting most of our young people into the army, and they see the contradictions there. On one hand, that it wants to be a people's army and on the other, a cruel occupation army, similar to the Germans during World War II."

What influenced Ariel Sharon

"The Gatekeepers," which is currently playing at movie theaters around the country, is one of two Israeli documentaries whose creators will be biting their nails on Thursday in anticipation. The film about the Shin Bet is one of 15 films in the Oscar semifinals for best documentary. The other Israeli film in the running is Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi's "Five Broken Cameras." And Thursday is when the five finalists for the Oscar will be announced.

Dror Moreh's Shin Bet film premiered at the last Jerusalem Film Festival and then made the rounds of some of the world's best film festivals. It has managed to excite filmgoers everywhere it has been shown, amid outstanding reviews, and has snatched up one award after another, finding its way into the hearts of its audiences.

In the competition at the National Society of Film Critics in the United States, "The Gatekeepers" beat out "This is Not a Film," by Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Rumor has it that the film was smuggled out of Iran to France in a cake in advance of the most recent Cannes Film Festival. The Israeli film also won the best documentary award of the Los Angeles film critics and second place from the New York film critics. And it featured in the best films of 2012 lists in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the U.S. magazine Entertainment Weekly.

In a Tel Aviv interview Moreh explained that he got the idea for the film while working on his 2008 movie "Sharon." In interviewing Dov Weisglass, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's bureau chief, Weisglass described how Sharon had been deeply influenced by a 2003 interview given to military affairs reporter Alex Fishman in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, in which four Shin Bet heads said Israel would reach a dead end if Sharon continued to run the country as he was doing. Weisglass explained that the prime minister was greatly affected by the remarks because they were coming from the heart of the country's defense establishment.

Moreh was also inspired by Errol Morris' "The Fog of War," a film about U.S.Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Initially Moreh approached Ami Ayalon, who agreed to recruit the other Shin Bet directors for the film. (At the time,
Yuval Diskin was still serving as the agency's chief and he was recruited

"The Gatekeepers," which is an Israeli-French-Belgian co-production, proceeds chronologically from 1967 to the current time, exploring key events along the way.
The agency chiefs describe the difficulties, the challenges, thearguments and moral dilemmas involved in mass arrests of Palestinians, thefirst intifada, suicide bombings, right-wing demonstrations against the OsloAccords, Rabin's assassination, the second Intifada and other major events.

It also deals with the Bus 300 incident of 1984, in which terrorists hijackedan Israeli bus. They were photographed alive and bound, but were later killed.

Later evidence indicated that the order to kill them came from Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom, who initially declined to discuss the affair on camera. The case is explored in detail in the movie.

The film, which is apparently the most expensive documentary ever made in Israel, was produced on a budget of 1.5 million euros, about NIS 7.5 million, with support from Channel 1 and the Yehoshua Rabinowitz Foundation. The film
uses three-dimensional animation to depict reconstructions of entire scenes, including the hostage takeover of Bus 300.

"It was important to me for the viewer to understand that it is based ongenuine documents," Moreh said. "It knew there were places in the film where I wouldn't have enough visual material, particularly regarding Bus 300, which is one of the State of Israel's most memorable events and almost brought down the government."

The fact that Shalom, the Shin Bet head at the time, was ultimately persuaded to discuss the case after many hours of interviewing, adds greatly to the power of this segment of the film.

Moreh acknowledges that he was repeatedly surprised by his subjects. "My jaw dropped at least 20 times in each interview," he says. He makes particular reference to a question put to Yuval Diskin about an illegal order.

"Suddenly this monologue comes out that opens the film, about what happens to you when you get up and decide to take the life of a human being. I absolutely wasn't expecting such a thing."

Moreh says Diskin had been called the father of the targeted killing along with Moshe Ya'alon, a former Israel Defense Force chief of staff who is now a cabinet member.

"What interests me most is moral qualms, the psychological
reason motivating a person," he says.

The people of the Shin Bet, Moreh says, are nothing more than emissaries. They are sent by the State of Israel to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the country's behalf.  "For members of the public in Israel, particularly in Tel Aviv, it's always very easy to level criticism and say the Shin Bet conducts itself with brutality," he says.

"It's important that they do this [criticize], but you also need to remember that they are sent on our behalf to do the most stinking, dirty work there can be so that you and I can sit here and conduct a conversation in peace and quiet without being blown up," he adds.

Asked whether the Shin Bet heads spoke to the politicians running the country the same way they spoke to him, Moreh replied: "It's complicated. First of all, I assume some of them have had insights that have formed since they left
their positions which made it possible for them to look back retrospectively at those days. In addition, you have to remember that the heads of the Shin Bet serve on the level of government servants. With each one of them, when I asked them this question, they said: 'I stated things clearly.' Yuval Diskin, for example, recounted that sometimes it got down to shouting and screaming to such an extent that you didn't know who in the room was the head of the Shin Bet and who was the prime minister. Others put it more delicately.

"By the way, I don't think they express their political opinions in the movie. I don't think they are coming from either the left or the right, but instead they are very pragmatic and speak from a deep understanding of what this
conflict has cost, is costing and will continue to cost if everything continues to be handled as it is being handled [now]. They know this. They've used force. As our emissaries, they did everything possible to suppress this thing and they come today and say 'Enough. It's not possible to go on this way. We've had enough with force. It doesn't work and it also won't work [in the future].'

"The problem is that officials on the diplomatic and political level that have to decide where they want to take this country don't always do their jobs. In any event, it's important not to leave the impression that the Palestinian side is a wonderful partner. That's not the situation. But what they [the Shin Bet heads] are saying is that first of all we need to look at ourselves."

Asked whether making the film has made him more optimistic or pessimistic about the situation, Moreh replies: "Much more pessimistic. In my view, we have passed the point of no return. I don't see a leader around today who
would be capable of taking the decisions necessary to resolve this conflict.

The heads of the Shin Bet are a lot more optimistic than I am. They tell me: 'Don't be pessimistic, because resolute and strong leadership can carry this out.' But I don't see that kind of leadership on the horizon, so I have lost
hope. For my standpoint, the last of the giants that can do this has been lying in a coma for six years [Prime Minister Ariel Sharon]. Of the people that I see today in Israeli politics, I don't see anyone who can carry this load on his shoulders, and the conclusion is very dismal and depressing."

'The Gatekeepers' producer Philippa Kowarsky, left, and director Dror Moreh.Credit: Nir Kafri
Yuval Diskin, Jan. 18, 2011.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Avi Dichter.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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