If you have any interest at all in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "The Gatekeepers" is essential viewing. This gripping, disturbing film, an Israeli-European production, features brutally frank interviews with six retired heads of Israel's security agency, Shin Bet. These are intertwined with raw scenes of agency operations in the West Bank and Gaza, including civilian roundups, home invasions, and remote assassinations of accused Palestinian terrorists - combining real footage and realistic computer simulations.
The six spymasters, who served from 1980 to 2011, were responsible for some of the most shocking repression of Palestinians in the occupied territories in the name of fighting terrorism. Avraham Shalom, who headed the Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986, ordered the summary execution of two terrorists who had already been captured and handcuffed after hijacking a passenger bus in Israel. It became a public scandal in Israel, eventually forcing Shalom's resignation, although he said the action was approved at the top levels of government. In the film Shalom says cynically, by way of explanation, "I didn't want any more live terrorists in court." Later Carmi Gillon, who was Shin Bet head from 1994-96, says, with a smile, "I like operations that are nice and tidy."
These are not men who would have much appeal for progressive-minded people.
But the power of the film lies in this very fact. In that respect it reminds the viewer of "The Fog of War," the powerful 2003 film by Errol Morris about Robert McNamara's agonized reflections about the Vietnam War. And in fact, "Gatekeepers" director Dror Moreh says he drew his inspiration from that movie.
In "The Gatekeepers" it is Shalom who says that Israel's refusal to work toward establishment of a Palestinian state led to an increase in terrorism. Disputing the claim by some Israeli politicians that there is "no one to talk to" on the Palestinian side, Shalom says Israel should talk to anyone, including Hamas, to reach a peace pact.
Yuval Diskin, who headed the agency from 2005 to 2011, notes, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." He adds, "To the enemy, by the way, I was also a terrorist."
Avi Dichter, who as Shin Bet head from 2000 to 2005 was responsible for the increasing use of targeted assassinations, says, "You can't make peace by military means."
Yaacov Peri, Shin Bet chief from 1988 to 1995, says since retiring he thinks he's become "a bit of a leftist."
For these men, the ongoing occupation has plunged Israel into an existential crisis that must be dealt with. In an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post last month, Diskin said that ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel "is a matter that requires national responsibility of the highest order. It requires taking advantage of what may be the last opportunity to extricate ourselves from the deadly clutches of our conflict with the Palestinians, clutches which we have tethered to ourselves."
Israeli columnist Bradley Burston wrote in Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper earlier this year, "These six men know more about the occupation of the territories captured in 1967 than any Israeli prime minister, settlement advocate, diplomat, professor, leftist or rightist. They know more than anyone. Because they built it. They made it possible. They kept it going. They know exactly what it took. They saw what the rest of us did not. They directed and carried out and stomached what the rest of us were too pleased - and are still too pleased - not to know about. Not to ask about. Not to think about."
Addressing himself to Israelis, Burston concluded, "These six men were at the crux of it all. And they are telling us that we need to stop it."
The six Shin Bet heads, who worked closely with Israel's top political leaders, are highly critical of those leaders for lack of courage and failing to recognize these truths. So is the film's director, Dror Moreh. These officials "understand that nothing good can come from this conflict, and the sooner we would solve this conflict the better it would be," Moreh said in an interview last year. "Regrettably, I don't see anybody willing to do that, in the current administration. It worries them [the intelligence chiefs] a lot, it worries me a lot."
With their preoccupation with violence and terrorism, none of the "Gatekeepers" address the nonviolent side of Palestinian resistance to the occupation, but the film shows the impact of the agency's actions on ordinary Palestinians, in their homes and in the streets.
The film shows the growing problem of Jewish terrorism, starting with the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish religious extremist opposed to the recently signed Oslo Accords. Gillon discusses a Jewish extremist plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's holiest sites, in East Jerusalem. Such an attack would have triggered all-out war well beyond the Middle East, Gillon says.
"The Gatekeepers was nominated for an Academy Award for documentaries this year, ironically along with "5 Broken Cameras," a film about a Palestinian farmer's nonviolent resistance to actions of the occupying Israeli army. (Both lost to "Searching for Sugar Man.")
"The Gatekeepers" was released in the U.S. earlier this year. It is available now on Netflix and Amazon instant video.
Directed by Dror Moreh
Hebrew with English subtitles
Photo: Official film site