"The Gatekeepers," the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary by Dror Moreh, is now being broadcast in an expanded version, including a great deal of additional footage, as a series on Israeli state television’s Channel One. The film is comprised largely of remarkably candid interviews with the last six heads of Israel’s General Security Services, known by its Hebrew initials as the Shin Bet.
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Channel One’s decision to conduct a panel discussion following each episode to provide what it calls “balance” to the series provoked a harsh response from director Moreh, who charged that it was a politically motivated attempt by the government to dilute the impact of the film. I myself have no objection to such panel debriefings. But since the Shin Bet is responsible for security within Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and its job is preventing terror attacks, it’s not clear what it would mean to provide “balance.” Perhaps Palestinian terrorists should have been invited to the studio.
Prime Minister Netanyahu famously announced during the run-up to the Academy Awards and again on the Israeli satire show Eretz Nehederet that he would not watch the film. It would be hard for him to use the right-wing’s usual dismissal of the left – that they are soft on security – against heads of the Shin Bet. Nor could he apply the more recent form of demonization turned against anyone who questions the Occupation – that s/he is disloyal to the country.
What Netanyahu’s Channel One proxy panel really wants is to undercut the fact that the leaders of the Shin Bet for a collective 33 years have reached a unanimous conclusion regarding Israel’s central political and existential dilemma; for the sake of Israel’s security and future, these men agree that we must reach an accommodation with the Palestinians and end the Occupation.
But while Netanyahu may try to ignore these men, the rest of us should pay close attention. Here are some of their messages:
Israel’s suppression of terror has been largely tactical, with little overall strategy related to a larger vision for our country or region. Intelligence agencies are so focused on day-to-day security challenges, and they must do the bidding of political leaders, most of whom are similarly short-sighted. In the view of the former Shin Bet heads, Israel usually wins the battles with Palestinians, but is probably losing the war.
The Shin Bet favored the creation of a Palestinian state and was the first Israeli government entity to articulate this position, decades before Oslo. Since formulating international policy is not within its purview, and because combating increasingly sophisticated Palestinian terror became the Shin Bet’s livelihood and pre-occupation, its voice on this matter became muted. But given the Shin Bet’s tactical focus, the argument would be that a Palestinian state gives Israel a tactical advantage.
Nonetheless, every Israeli government since 1967, whether led by right wing or left wing parties, has supported the settlement enterprise, and protected it through a harsh occupation, while also attempting to suppress terror.
Avraham Shalom (Shin Bet head from 1980-86, during the first Lebanon war), who escaped Austria as a child in 1939, argues that the process of maintaining the occupation has been just as corrosive and corrupting as the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz prophesied it would be more than 40 years ago. The occupation, in Shalom’s words, made us “cruel,” and “brutal," breaking an Israeli taboo with the charge that “… our forces are similar to the Germans in World War II… similar, not identical.” This comes from the man who offhandedly approved the middle-of-the-night execution of the captured Palestinian terrorists who had hijacked Bus 300.
The security chiefs agree that peace can be reached, but also that both sides are lacking a partner. The distrust, suspicion and hatred are mutual. One of the most chilling recollections is the claim of victory by a Palestinian leader to Ami Ayalon (1996-2000 during Netanyahu’s first term and Ehud Barak’s failed peace initiative), despite the huge discrepancy in the number of victims on the two sides. Terror is not intended to defeat Israel, the Palestinian explained to the disbelieving Ayalon. Palestinians know terror cannot overcome the IDF, but simply making Israeli Jews suffer is seen both as a victory by Palestinians and sufficient justification for their actions. Indeed the Palestinians perceive us as terrorists just as much as we see them as terrorists.
Moreh said his film was inspired by Errol Morris’ "The Fog of War," about Robert McNamara and Vietnam, and it shares some of that film’s strengths. The camerawork is deft, crisp and clean. You see every twitch, and feel the interviewees thinking, and yet it is not all talking heads. Photo animation brilliantly recreates the scene following the liberation of the Bus 300 hostages from the very news photograph which proved some of the terrorists were taken alive. Archival footage shows Palestinians both vulnerable and menacing, while images of bus bombing victims instantly summon our worst nightmares. Aerial reconnaissance footage of bombing sites in Gaza and a simulation of the control room are used to give the viewer the feeling that s/he is deciding whether to drop that one ton payload that will inevitably kill civilians, along with its terrorist target. The music is haunting and relentless. You hardly breathe while watching this on screen.
The Gatekeepers is disturbing on several levels. Controversial interrogation tactics, such as shaking and sleep and light deprivation, are openly discussed. Apprehension is shared over “collateral damage” – harming or killing innocent Palestinian civilians, which has prevented or dialed down some actions – such as at least one botched opportunity to wipe out the Hamas leadership in an attack on their meeting-place in a Gaza residential neighborhood. This followed an earlier operation when an entire building was leveled with many innocent casualties to take out Hamas spiritual leader, Sheikh Yassin.
Surprisingly, the Shin Bet heads come across as human beings rather than omnipotent masterminds, with deep concerns over their power to play God with Palestinian lives. They share their torturous moral dilemmas, while admitting that invariably concerns of morality take a back seat to operational considerations. It’s not clear whether this humanization will add to Israel’s aura of invincibility or diminish it.
Carmi Gillon, (1994-96 – in charge during the Rabin assassination) recalls with pleasure the targeted killing of Yahya Ayyash, the “Engineer” responsible for the bombs that murdered so many Israelis, because the operation was “nice and tidy” with no one hurt or killed. We shed no tears for Ayyash, but Gillon’s satisfaction still makes us squirm, as does his pain over his agency’s failure to prevent Rabin’s assassination. Yigal Amir, the interviewees agree, changed history and stopped the peace process.
We also discover that the Shin Bet shares the morale problems of other organizations, such as when they felt “sold out by the political echelon” when the Jewish underground, which had violently maimed Palestinian mayors and planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock, was freed by the Shamir government. The organization's leaders have doubts and blind-spots, and a painful sense of failure over every successful terrorist attack.
Yuval Diskin (2005- 2011 - the second Lebanon war, Operation Cast Lead) exposes his doubts and philosophical searches, and along with Avraham Shalom, seems particularly aware of the contradictions inherent in the Shin Bet's work. “These moments end up etched deep inside you,” explained Jacob Perry (1988-95 – the first intifada), currently Minister of Science, Technology and Space from the Yesh Atid party, “and when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.”
Moreh’s hand in reinforcing this message is evident in the way he shaped the arc of the viewer’s experience in the theatrical release. He set up his anti-occupation message from the beginning, going back to 1967, and the subsequent dismissals of Palestinian aspirations by prime ministers Golda Meir and Menachem Begin. But this structure seemed consistently supported by the interviews, and since the interviewees stood behind the finished film, charges of distortion seem baseless.
The series continues on Israeli television for the next month, and the 101-minute original version will be released on DVD with English subtitles on July 9.
Watching the film evokes pride, pain and discomfort in almost equal measures. If our government had political or marketing sense, it would celebrate "The Gatekeepers" as an example of the accountability demanded by a democratic society and the power of the Fourth Estate to provoke self-examination. The question is whether we will be provoked to organize, or limited to private rumination. While our prime minister remains committed to inaction, the rest of us cannot afford to do so.
Don Futterman is program director at Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private foundation that has been building civil society in Israel for more than 20 years. He can be heard bi-weekly on the Promised Podcast.