The Cine File: In the World of Shadows
Aug 27, 2013 | Or Avi Guy
Director: Dror Moreh; Cinephil; 95 mins.
Watching all six living former heads of the Shin-Bet – Israel’s internal security service – talking candidly, and even humbly, about their experiences during their service, there is no escaping the feeling that something very unusual and special is happening.
If for no other reason, this makes the film “The Gatekeepers” a true cinematic achievement. Getting six of the most influential men in Israel’s security establishment – individuals generally far more used to being behind the scenes than in front of the camera – to talk openly about the most secretive, controversial and thorny issues they have faced is nothing short of extraordinary.
It also makes a statement about the vibrancy of Israeli democracy in the midst of very difficult security challenges.
The honesty is surprising at times, even heart-warming. We usually think of Shin Bet directors as strong, decisive “no-nonsense” types, but the film uncovers another side to them – one of self-reflection. Learning from the film about this human, modest and sympathetic side could be a very reassuring experience for many Israelis. The film suggests their security is indeed in good hands, with the people in charge apparently mindful of the complexity of even split-second decisions during the most daring of operations. They appear to take their responsibilities and the many challenges of counter-terrorism in Israel very seriously, understand the weight of their day-to-day decisions, admit their failures and learn from their mistakes, and, most of all, strive to strike a balance between a healthy dose of self-questioning and the need to make difficult, sometimes “life or death” decisions, often “on the spot”.
Despite how the documentary has been represented in some quarters, knee-jerk critics of Israel could be in for a rude awakening should they watch the film. Those who make outrageously false claims about Israel’s actions in the name of security and its human rights record might be shocked to find out that the reality is far from the war-mongering, cold blooded image of Israel’s security establishment they may have in their minds. In reality, the top decision makers in this establishment come across as the first to consider all consequences of their orders – not least in terms of human rights and human lives.
The film weaves together one-on-one interviews conducted by the film’s director, Dror Moreh, with Avraham Shalom (Head of Shin Bet 1980-1986), Ya’akov Peri (1988-1995), Carmi Gillon (1995-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000- 2005), and Yuval Diskin (2005-2011).
During their combined years of service as heads of Shin Bet, they confronted the threat of Palestinian terrorism and were in charge of Israel’s counter-terrorism efforts during the first and second “Intifadas”, the long peace process, Rabin’s assassination, the Gaza disengagement plan, the rise of Hamas there, the construction of the security fence, successive waves of murderous suicide attacks and the ongoing rocket launches from Gaza. They talk about these events and the tools and tactics implemented in response, including the use of “human intelligence” and the move towards technology-based intelligence and information gathering, the interrogation of “ticking bombs” (terrorists who know about a terror attack already underway), targeted assassinations and other sensitive topics.
While the openness and honesty with which they speak is both impressive and admirable, is it important to keep in mind at the same time their post-service roles and pubic positions.
Avraham Shalom is among the initiators of the “Geneva Initiative” to promote a two-state solution, Ya’akov Peri is currently a minister after joining the centrist “Yesh Atid” party in the last Israeli election, Ami Ayalon initiated a peace initiative with Palestinian counterpart Sari Nusseibeh and was a member of Knesset for the opposition Labor party, while Avi Dichter has been a minister in previous governments after joining Ariel Sharon’s centrist Kadima party.
While in the film it is claimed that being a director of the Shin Bet turns you into something of a “leftie”, this is not quite right. What the record shows – as do the statements of the interviewees featured in “The Gatekeepers” – is that being a head of Shin Bet makes a person a committed supporter and advocate of a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This has for more than a decade been the aspiration and policy of consecutive Israeli governments of all political stripes – including those on the right – and a concept supported by a large majority of Israelis, according to the polls. It is not today a left-wing position but a mainstream one in Israel.
The error, however, is sadly representative of a larger problem with the film – a determination by director Dror Moreh to frame both the interviews and the background material to support his own views, rather than let the material speak for itself.
Moreh’s narrow viewpoint in framing the film was on display quite overtly in a recent interview about the film he did with ABC Radio National “Breakfast” (August 14) where he insisted on reducing the whole conflict to settlements, settlers and the “occupation”. No implication that it is more complex than a dispute over the land beyond the 1967 borders featured in his discussion.
Thus, the background chronology in the film itself begins with the Six Day War in 1967 and its aftermath. This may fit the director’s narrative, but is notably incomplete, historically, in terms of providing understanding of the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Most obviously, the Palestinian narrative about the “right of return” for refugees dates back to Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and the annihilationist aspirations of most of the terrorists mentioned in the film – who were not merely fighting for sovereignty within the 1967 borders – are marginalised by the director’s insistence on forcing everything through the lens of the “occupation” that began in 1967.
Further, this framing also completely overlooks, or perhaps conveniently ignores, the fact that the Six Day War was not fought against the Palestinians, but against neighbouring Arab countries, and that the land over which Israel took control during that war was not “Palestinian” before 1967, but rather administered by Jordan, Egypt and Syria. Yet, disappointingly, none of these countries were even mentioned.
This flaw, unfortunately frames the tone, sub-context and editing of the discussion with the six Shin Bet heads as well. The director attempts to provoke the interviewees not only to express support and hope for a political-strategic resolution of the conflict – something which most Israelis would support – but to concede that the undoubtedly high price of Israel’s military control over the West-Bank is unbearable and to criticise the political leadership for having so-far failed to establish a Palestinian state.
Moreh’s determination to get his interviews to expose the “ugly side of occupation” even involves means as crude as literally putting words in their mouths – specifically a prediction by the late Israeli religious philosopher Yeshayahu Liebowitz, a notoriously provocative critic of Israeli policies, that ruling the West Bank would cause “the corruption found in any colonial regime” to afflict Israel.
Further, while the role of Israeli leaders and politicians is discussed at length throughout the film (keeping in mind that three of the six interviewees went on to become politicians themselves), the responsibilities and role of the Palestinian leadership is hardly mentioned at all. But in forging peace, “it takes two to tango”, and it would be surprising if the smart and self-reflective individuals at the centre of this film failed to discuss this obvious reality. Yet such discussion is all but absent – and one cannot help but suspect that this footage ended up on the cutting room floor.
Moreh’s agenda also leads to a superficial debate about the differences between security officials making tactical security-based decisions, as complex as those might be, and political leaders operating in a context of parliamentary democracy making historical, strategic decisions with much wider implications. One example, out of many, was evident in the film when the early release of Jewish extremists who plotted to carry out terror attacks against Palestinians was criticised – with the “settlers’ lobby” and the politicians who “caved in” to their demands condemned. Yet bizarrely, the repeated releases of much larger numbers of convicted Palestinian terrorists, including murderers with “blood on their hands”, is not discussed at all. This is baffling since some of the interviewees, for example, Yuval Diskin, have previously publicly criticised the release of Palestinian terrorists as part of prisoners’ exchanges.
Overall, this is an important film, and anyone interested in understanding more about the realities behind the headlines emanating from Israel and the Palestinian areas would be well served by seeing it. But they would also be well-served by noting that it was a film made with a definite, narrowly-focused political agenda, and that both some of its content, and some of the commentary about it – including from its director – is best understood by recognising and taking into account this fact.