Open Zion

01.10.13

Who Will Watch "The Gatekeepers"?

To move between “The Gatekeepers,” a new Israeli documentary featuring interviews with six former heads of Israeli’s internal security force, and the wave of campaign ads flooding the country is, let us say, disconcerting. On the one hand, you have former Shin Bet (Israel’s FBI, more or less) director Avi Dichter narrating the moral dilemmas of the Second Intifada. With buses regularly exploding in Tel Aviv, do you, for instance, flatten a residential house containing Hamas leaders, but also maybe civilians? On the other hand, back in the present, the ultra-Orthodox party Shas has just pulled a campaign ad which featured a wedding, anti-Russian racism, and an anti-religious fax machine. The country’s recent rightward shift is both disturbing and somehow venal. So can “The Gatekeepers,” with its sober yet sweeping history of post-1967 Israel, bring the occupation back to the national conversation?

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It is a remarkable effort. Director Dror Moreh secured access to six of the last seven Shin Bet directors. Their words, though illustrated with archival footage and punctuated by Moreh’s occasional question, largely stand on their own. Starting with post-'67 jubilance, they narrate an insider history of the occupation. You watch the early American settlers, whose enormous sideburns, knock-off AK-47s, and grandma glasses look quaintly retro, morph into the hardened ideologues who plotted to dynamite the Dome of the Rock. Most chillingly, you hear the Shin Bet’s disappointment at the plotters’ light sentences and quick return to influential government posts.

There are dozens of vignettes like this. They talk, it seems, about everything: building an intensive (and brutal) security network in the territories, arguments whether to continue torturing Palestinian prisoners after the Oslo accords (Rabin said “yes”), failing to protect Yitzchak Rabin from assassination. A plump, grandfatherly and suspendered Avraham Shalom, who presided over the Shin Bet in the eighties, hesitates but finally discusses his role in the infamous “Kav 300 affair,” in which his agents killed two Arab terrorists in their custody. He’s probably lying a little, but that’s kind of the point. “The Gatekeepers” is clearly inspired by Errol Morris’s non-confrontational handling of Vietnam planner Robert McNamara in “The Fog of War” (and Moreh says as much in interviews). But “The Gatekeepers” is actually stronger than Morris’s original, partially because the Israeli history treated is more recent, but more because the six combined interviews give a profile of an institution, not just an individual.

It’s a depressing profile. Several of the directors express skepticism that terror can be completely suppressed without a Palestinian state. Avraham Shalom says that Shin Bet’s arrests, monitoring, and anti-terrorism network developed in the Territories before Palestinian terrorism did (thinking of the hijackings of the 1970s, it seems likely he’s talking about West-Bank-based terror), and that until things heated up, he was not sure what to do with the operation he had built. Combined with images of mass arrests and blindfolded prisoners, this raises the question where security ends and controlling an occupied people begins. When Israel started dealing with terror, Shalom says, “we forget about the whole Palestinian [state] question.”  

Other arguments are more familiar. Yuval Diskin—who’s been a vocal critic of Netanyahu—points out that to Palestinians, he and the security forces he controlled were terrorists. Ami Ayalon wonders if Israeli reprisals are about security or vengeance, and he notes that Israeli settlement doubled between Oslo and Camp David. And so on. The movie touches on nearly all the classic arguments of what used to be the mainstream left in Israel. This is unsurprising, given the links between the former Shin Bet chiefs and opposition parties like Labor and Kadima. Indeed, especially at the end of the film, when the interviewees wade into contemporary debate (several, for instance, support negotiations with Hamas), “The Gatekeepers” feels like the self-conscious intervention in Israeli elections it is.

But the film rises above the occasional stump speeches. Take one of its opening anecdotes. During the first census of the territories, Israeli soldiers, going door-to-door after just a crash course in Arabic, disastrously confused the Arabic for “count” and “castrate.” Like the movie’s blow-by-blow telling of a targeted assassination via booby-trapped cell phone, this story has as its core the scandalous humanity of Israeli occupiers.

The masters of war, it turns out, are as fallible as the rest of us. They shape history, to be sure, but they are also plainly subject to politics (it’s amazing how many were forced to resign). These are canny, cunning spy masters, and they are thoughtful and reflective. But there’s no long-term strategy here, just the murky and temporary logic of security. And whether or not voters recognize it later this month, as long as the forceful domination of the Palestinian territories persists, so will the horrible, tragic mistakes.