In Dror Moreh’s penetrating and important Israeli film, The Gatekeepers, which opens in Toronto and Montreal on March 1, six former directors of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic secret service, candidly discuss their jobs, the war on terrorism and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
The directors in question in Moreh’s 97-minute film, which was a contender for an Academy Award in the documentary category, are Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin. They respectively served from 1980 until 2011.
Shalom, the oldest of the lot, was forced to resign after an Israeli newspaper exposed his role in the summary execution of two Palestinian terrorists who had been captured alive after hijacking a bus.
Peri is credited with setting up a network of Palestinian informers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip upon which Israel relies to nip terrorism in the bud. Gillon, who focused on Jewish terrorism, stepped down after his boss, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a Jewish zealot.
Ami Ayalon tried to rehabilitate the Shin Bet in the wake of Rabin’s death and attempted to stamp out the first embers of the second Palestinian uprising. Dichter, left to deal with the violent repercussions of the intifadah, initiated Israel’s policy of targeted assassinations of Palestinian terrorist leaders. Diskin carried on his work.
Although they performed their duties with a high degree of ruthlessness, they are not hawks, as one might assume, and support a two-state solution. As Peri suggests, “you become a bit of a leftist” after you’ve waded into the depths of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Gatekeepers, however, is hardly a polemical work. Its content and mood are solely determined by the interviewees, who have access to information normally way off the grid.
The Shin Bet is portrayed as a well-oiled organization that has been astonishingly successful in keeping terrorism at bay. Shalom alludes to this, but adds that the Palestinian problem was left to fester and that the prime minister he worked for, Menachem Begin, did not take it into proper consideration.
Gillon discusses interrogation techniques, mentioning in passing sleep deprivation and shaking, and says that tough measures were used to prevent suicide bombings. He observes that ideologically motivated Hamas terrorists are harder to break than secular Palestinian nationalists.
In discussing the war on terrorism, one notorious incident of which ignominiously ended his career, Shalom maintains that morality does not enter into the equation. Disagreeing with Shalom’s harsh assessment, Diskin says that the Shin Bet cannot act outside the norms of the legal system.
Peri, who was recently elected to the Knesset as a Yesh Atid party representative, claims that the first Palestinian uprising was a spontaneous eruption and that the Shin Bet did not foresee it. He adds that Israel should have reached an accord with the Palestinians and withdrawn from the territories.
In related comments, Peri argues that Israeli governments have “coddled” Jewish settlers and “looked away” as they built a web of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
Gillon contends that Jewish extremists could have touched off a war with the Muslim world had they blown up the Dome of the Rock in eastern Jerusalem. He is bitter that members of a Jewish underground group were released from prison so soon after their arrest.
Gillon advised Rabin to wear body armour and increase his security detail, but the prime minister refused, a mistake that cost him his life. In his view, Yigal Amir, the assassin, changed the course of Israel’s history “big time.”
In a claim that has surely raised the hackles of politicians across the board, Peri says that a succession of Israeli governments had no “real desire” to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians following Rabin’s murder.
Ayalon dispassionately describes Hamas’ suicide bombing campaign, from the mid-1990s onward, as an attempt to equalize the balance of power with Israel. Dichter fills in some of the blanks concerning Israel’s response.
For his part, Shalom decries a retaliatory policy dependent on what he calls “overkill.” In a similar vein, Ayalon warns that targeted assassinations may lead to a greater upsurge of terrorism and further radicalize the Palestinians leadership.
Dichter reveals that Israel had an opportunity in 2003 to kill Hamas’ entire leadership, but cancelled the operation out of fear that innocent bystanders would be killed.
Without exception, the former directors call for negotiations with the Palestinians, the sooner the better, warning that the status quo is unsustainable. “We’ve made life miserable for the Palestinians,” says Gillon. Shalom, in a reference to Israel’s “brutal occupation,” claims that the future is “bleak and dark.”
Clearly, whether or not you agree with their assessments, The Gatekeepers does not mince words.