Israel's Gatekeepers

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Gatekeepers, the recent, much-lauded documentary by Dror Moreh, consists of interviews with six former directors of Israel’s domestic security agency, the Shin Bet: Avraham Shalom, Yaacov Peri, Avi Dichter, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, and Yuval Diskin. The film tells us a great deal about the organization these men led, its operations and travails, but less about the interviewees themselves.  It is above all, a political document. 

After retirement, security service directors sometimes agree to be interviewed, but it was a real coup for Moreh to corral six from across the past 40 years.  Yet these men are not as far from the public eye as some of the film’s admirers seem to believe.  As Moreh neglects to inform us, three of the former directors are now or have recently been Israeli politicians, one is a diplomat, and all except the elderly Shalom remain prominent figures.  While their discussions of the Shin Bet and its operations are mostly new, their faces and personalities are not, at least to Israelis.  This is a small but telling point with respect to the film’s overall orientation. 

That the film has a point of view, wholly political and linked to the secular Israeli left, is obvious and perfectly legitimate.  The Gatekeepers is not an objective history of the security service, its operations and directors, but a subdued plea for the evacuation of the West Bank, the creation of a Palestinian state, and the suppression of Israeli’s religious settler movement.  Moreh’s questions, the film’s narrative structure and, ultimately, the respondents themselves all reflect these goals.  In itself, the position is hardly original, but six security professionals making the same case lends it unique strength and compels serious thought. 

That former security service personnel advance positions associated with the left is not uncommon.  When they do, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish genuine political beliefs from exculpatory statements.  In the case of the Shin Bet directors, their apparent leftism may be partially a function of their having the freedom to exhale after stepping out of a brutal operational environment into a more relaxed and contemplative situation that allows them to examine, as they previously could not, strategic ramifications.  It may also be a function of their having operated for decades as instruments of an Israeli system that, as most of them pointedly note, has only tactics and not strategy.  This is a criticism frequently heard from representatives of Israeli military circles as well.  In the view of the service directors, only Yitzhak Rabin rose above this limitation.  Oddly enough, the name Ariel Sharon is conspicuously absent from the film, and his image appears only once, for a fleeting moment.  This, too, is telling, for Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza and unrealized calls for settlement consolidation in the West Bank qualify as strategic innovations that advanced the political goals endorsed by the film.  It may be that Sharon simply did not fit the film’s narrative.

This narrative emphasizes Israel’s brutal efficiency in occupying the West Bank but also its regular failures. It does so with justice, but only to a certain extent.  Intelligence and security services are not celebrated for their humdrum successes, which go unseen, but are necessarily and properly excoriated for their all too public failures.  Of these there are, unfortunately, too many.  The film focuses on two of them: the Bus 300 incident and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.  In 1984, after the military recaptured a bus on the coastal road that had been commandeered by Palestinian terrorists, two of the hijackers were beaten and finally killed by a Shin Bet officer on the order of director Avraham Shalom.  In 1995, after a long period of protest by the political and religious right against the Oslo Accords, Yigal Amir murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  In one case, two wounded terrorists had been eliminated, murdered in captivity, while in the other, a little man had managed to kill Israel’s most towering figure. 

These and other Shin Bet disasters are correctly presented as failures that traumatized the nation and crippled the organization.  But the film does not explain (or have the interviewees explain) in what ways the Israeli system worked to reveal and then investigate the failures, produce a modicum of justice, and introduce legal, political, and tactical reforms.  The Bus 300 killings were uncovered by the press, and while those involved were ultimately pardoned, the ultimate result of the entire mess was the establishment of the Landau Commission, which created guidelines for interrogations and treatment of prisoners.  The Rabin assassination led to unprecedented soul-searching, criticism of the Shin Bet, and renewed attention to the threat of incitement against Israel’s leaders.  Other failures, such as the death of prisoners under interrogation and terrorist backlashes after targeting killings, have generated even more elaborate responses.  Layers of lawyers now assess the practical and ethical ramifications of targeted killings, and anti-terror operations are now assessed by still other layers of lawyers.  New military tactics that minimize collateral damage have been introduced.  Residents of buildings about to be targeted in Gaza, for instance, now receive telephone and text message warnings prior to any attack. 

All of these innovations are imperfect.  They spare some lives while costing others.  They enable some terrorists to escape justice and kill another day and permit Israelis guilty of abuses to go unpunished.  But on the whole, they represent moral improvements.  New thinking and new techniques born of failure and pain may also in some sense improve the strategic outlook by producing forethought and precision.  All of this is missing in The Gatekeepers.  That is the film’s greatest and obviously deliberate failing.

But it has other flaws as well.  The film does not take the Palestinians seriously, or seriously enough.  They are two-dimensional victims, with either standard-issue nationalist aspirations or inexplicable religious passions.  Little is said about Palestinian tactics or strategy; individual Palestinians appear simply as terrorists or innocent bystanders.  The film says nothing about a Palestinian culture that condones and celebrates the deliberate brutality of terrorism, let alone its specific roots in religion and culture.  Nor does it take seriously the reality of the corrupt Fatah movement that runs the Palestinian Authority or the religiously fanatical and murderous Hamas movement that wishes to extend its control from Gaza and is prevented from doing so only by Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.  It does not, in short, respect the threat.  Nor does the film say anything about the moral and practical difference between indiscriminate non-state violence directed at civilians and state-sponsored violence aimed at thwarting attacks against civilians.  The film strives to create equivalence between Israelis and Palestinians, invoking the classic equation-cum-slogan, “one man's terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”  But a careful look at methods and intentions puts Palestinians and Israelis into sharp contrast.  The film’s failure to do so is unfair, although perhaps understandable, given its politics and those of the world film festival circuit.

The Gatekeepers is powerful and well-made, with a viewpoint that deserves to be heard, even if there is a certain predictability to it.  Though hardly a film that lets Shin Bet directors speak for themselves, The Gatekeepers provides a valuable look at the men and the organization.  Viewers will judge for themselves whether they are happy with what they see. 

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