The Gatekeepers is like a history lesson. It’s subject is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 1967 war. The instructors are the five former heads of the Shin Bet: Israel’s General Security Service (GSS): Avraham Shalom (who headed the Shabak between 1980-1986;) Yaakov Peri (1988-1994;) Carmi Gilon (1995-1996; Ami Ayalon (1996-2000;) Avi Dichter (2000-2005;) and Yuval Diskin (2005-2011.)
Through extensive interviews with the five, interwoven with archival news footage and computer animation, the documentary does not merely trace the history of the Shin Bet and the role it has played in the fight against Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation. It also charts the Israeli handling of the so-called “Palestinian problem” in general. Still, the lesson of The Gatekeepers’ does not lie in the history it recounts. Rather, it lies in the moral lessons that emerge, as spelled out by the ex-Shabak chiefs, and their crises of conscience.
The reaction in official Israel to Dror Moreh’s film closely resembles the response to a previous Israeli documentary, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008.) Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, for example, contends that the film presents Israel as solely responsible for the failure of the peace process, and thus tarnishes its image. Officials in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the other hand, have sought to leverage the international success of the documentary, in order to present Israel as a liberal, democratic state that promotes and tolerates internal criticism.
The Gatekeepers is best compared to Errol Morris’ Academy Award-winning documentary The Fog of War. Structured around a series of interviews with the US former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, Morris’ film is divided into eleven lessons in which McNamara reflects on the history in which he played a part. Moreh similarly asks his interviewees to discuss their careers in the Shin Bet, and to reflect on their experiences. The results are profoundly disturbing.
On the one hand, the five testify to the growing importance of the Shin Bet in Israel’s ongoing endeavor to suppress Palestinian aspirations for independence. Indeed, they affirm the Shabak’s elevation to the top of Israeli’s intelligence hierarchy. As such, it became not only the main advisory body to the political establishment on Palestinian resistance— but, in fact, the sole authority on the matter, as the Shin Bet was endowed with the power to decide upon and carry out operations against Palestinian targets with little or no supervision from the Israeli government.
Reflecting on their service, and on how it reflects Israeli handling of the “Palestinian problem,” Moreh’s interviewees become philosophical, pondering not only operational successes and failures, but also morality and ethics. The five retired intelligence chiefs sound anything but self-assured. Their reservations aren’t just self-referential. They appear equally perturbed about the failure of Israeli governments — all Israeli governments, with the exception of Rabin’s second government — to seriously address, in good faith, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Gatekeepers suggests that the Shin Bet bears no small responsibility for this failure.
In part, the film is a history of failure: the Bus 300 affair, in which two terrorists were summarily executed after they were captured by the Israeli army (1984;) the Hamas terrorist campaign in the aftermath of the Oslo Accord and the debate on torture (1993-1994;) Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination (1995;) and the assassination of Salah Shehadeh, a Hamas activist whom Israel killed, by dropping a one ton bomb on his home, which also claimed the lives of fifteen additional people. Such missteps become an opportunity to question the operational conduct of the Shabak, and the role it plays in Israel’s general military and political strategy.
For example, does the liquidation of Palestinian militants accomplish anything? Does Israel have the right to kill innocent civilians in order to eliminate a terrorist ? These are the sorts of dilemmas that the five ex-Shin Bet officials explore. Though they might seem self-evident, given the Shabak’s reputation for brutality, their willingness to question their own tactics, and indulge their doubts, is surprising, particularly to Israelis, who are used to being subject to crude excuses for military violence.
The paradox is perhaps best expressed by a comment made by Yaakov Peri. During our military service, Peri states, Israelis witness the systemic suffering and humiliation of Palestinians; suffering and humiliation for which they are directly responsible. These moments become etched in our minds. When we retire from service, we become a bit of a leftist.
Strikingly, all the other interviews echo Peri’s statement. The repetition helps reinforce the idea that they agree that Israel bears inordinate responsibility for the Palestinian crisis. Avraham Shalom even compares their suffering to that of European nations living under German occupation during WWII, excluding the Holocaust.
Yuval Diskin, in turn, echoes the warning of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the high priest of Israel’s anti-colonial left, who already in 1968 warned that the occupation would not only make the life of the occupied unbearable, but would also turn the occupier, Israel itself, into a Shin Bet state, a state ruled by its security services. What is striking, once again, is that all five (with the exception, perhaps, of Avi Dichter) appear to share this opinion.
No one embodies the paradoxes of The Gatekeepers better than the most senior head of the Shin Bet interviewed, Shalom. Indeed, one finds it hard to reconcile his image in the film, as an elderly gentleman who wears red suspenders and talks like a history professor, with his reputation as the head of the Shabak, said to be the most important man in Israel security circles at the time, a smart, powerful, aggressive — in short, a bully, in the words of one of his successors — whom everyone feared, Israelis included. One finds it difficult to reconcile his reputation with his present insistence that Israel must talk with each and every one of its enemies, with Hamas, with Islamic Jihad. Even with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It is equally difficult to reconcile Shalom’s current stance with his previous directives, as head of the Shin Bet. When he comments on the Bus 300 affair, in which Shalom was accused of giving the order to assassinate two captured Palestinian terrorists, annoyed by the interviewer, he responds “forget about morality.” Morality does not come into the equation in the fight against terrorism. Yet, when Shalom comments on Shehadeh’s killing, he insists that not only “collateral damage,” the killing of innocent bystanders, does not make military or political sense. More importantly, it’s immoral. It may not be consistent, obviously, but Shalom’s statements nonetheless speak to a lack of conviction, within the Shabak itself, that its conduct is consistently justifiable.
Such contradictions constitute their own harsh censure, of the Israeli political system, and of Israel’s political echelon in particular, not from the outside, but from its very core. Contrary to public perception, Israeli governments, the five intelligence chiefs suggest, are captive to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Palestinian resistance saves Israeli governments (and the Shin Bet) from the need to negotiate with the Palestinians. Palestinian resistance allows Israeli governments to focus all of their energies on the effort to contain and curb it. Palestinian resistance allows Israel, in other words, to ignore the Palestinians, their aspirations, and their predicament under Israeli rule. The Israeli handling of the “Palestinian problem” is thus done with no directing hand, with no wise people to deliberate the situation, in order to make the best decision on behalf of Israelis.
As disturbing as this sounds, it is equally difficult to come to terms with Moreh’s interviewees. What is to be learnt from their willingness to carry out their assigned job? What is to be made of a security leadership that inevitably moves left, but to no avail? Clearly, if such wisdom is to be gained from their experiences, what’s their point of speaking out in the first place? One would think that if Israel’s security leadership was so self-reflexive, it would take the initiative to end the conflict, once and for all. However, it doesn’t. The Gatekeepers doesn’t offer any answers why.
The Gatekeepers opens March 29th in the US. Screenshot courtesy of Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.