Dror Moreh’s riveting documentary, The Gatekeepers, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, gives viewers an unprecedented peek into a usually secretive and murky world.
Six former directors of the Shin Bet, Israel’s well-oiled internal intelligence agency, speak candidly about their jobs in counter-terrorism. They are surprisingly open as they discuss their missions and methods and express their personal views of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“No one understands the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians better than these six men,” said Moreh in an interview last week. “When they speak, leaders listen. They’re highly respected and their views count.”
He spent about 100 hours with them over a three-year period. “I was startled, but also thrilled, when they agreed to speak to me,” said Moreh, who describes the Shin Bet as the most important institution in Israel after the armed forces. “They were generous with their time and information. I thought they were as honest as they could be without revealing state secrets.”
Not a single former Shin Bet director declined Moreh’s invitation to be interviewed, though one died before he could meet him.
Moreh conducted interviews with Avraham Shalom (1980-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1995), Carmi Gillon (1994-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-2005) and Yuval Diskin (2005-2011).
Shalom, who was part of the Israeli undercover team that tracked down and kidnapped Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, says that morality has no place in the war against terrorism. A proponent of a two-state solution, he suggests that Israeli governments have generally not addressed the Palestinian issue seriously enough.
Shalom, forced to resign in the wake of an incident in which two Palestinian terrorists were killed after being captured alive, bemoans Israel’s “brutal occupation” of the West Bank and talks about a “bleak and dark” future.
Peri, who was instrumental in setting up a vast network of Palestinian informers and collaborators in the early years of Israel’s occupation, admits that Israel did not foresee the first Palestinian uprising, which broke out in 1987, and claims it was a spontaneous rather than a manipulated manifestation.
Peri believes that Israel should have reached a political agreement with the Palestinians and withdrawn from the territories. He charges that a succession of Israeli governments “coddled” Jewish settlers and looked the other way as they built their settlements. After Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, he claims, Israel had no real desire to reach an accommodation with the Palestinian leadership.
Gillon, who shifted the Shin Bet’s focus to Jewish terrorism, says that a plot by Jews to blow up the Dome of the Rock in eastern Jerusalem could have touched off a war between Israel and the Muslim world. Fearing that Jewish extremists wanted Rabin dead, Gillon advised the Israeli prime minister to wear a bullet-proof vest and increase his security detail. Rabin refused.
Ayalon, whose task was to rehabilitate the Shin Bet after Rabin’s murder, says he saw deep divisions and currents of hatred in Israeli society after that catastrophic event. Calling targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders not necessarily effective, Ayalon says they may actually increase terrorism by radicalizing Palestinians.
Dichter led the agency after the eruption of the second intifadah, initiated the construction of the separation barrier and supervised the assassination of Hamas’ most accomplished bomb maker. His observations on the dangers of “collateral damage” – the unintended deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians during Israeli raids – is instructive.
Diskin, who destroyed Hamas’ military infrastructure in the West Bank and perfected the doctrine of targeted assassinations, talks about the split-second decisions he was forced to make. He acknowledges that the Shin Bet hit bottom in terms of effectiveness during the post-Olso era, and argues that Israel’s occupation is unsustainable.
In Moreh’s judgment, Israelis like Shalom, Peri and Diskin are neither dovish nor hawkish. “They are realists,” he said. “They know that, beyond a certain point, you can’t achieve anything by military means.”
He added, “They are the people in Israel with the greatest knowledge of the Palestinians, and the message they send is clear: the occupation has to stop.”
Moreh claims that Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, decided to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip after four former heads of the Shin Bet concluded that Israel’s presence there was counter-productive and no longer in its national self-interest.
Moreh has a message for the Jewish community: “Listen to them. They understand the Arab-Israeli conflict better than politicians and journalists. Listen to them.”
He is clearly glad that his interviewees liked The Gatekeepers. “They were happy with it,” he said.
The 97-minute film has been purchased by Sony Pictures Classics and will open in theatres in Canada in 2013.