Directed by: Dror Moreh.
Featuring: Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom.
The Gatekeepers is an urgent, necessary and depressing look at the relationship between Israel and Palestine since 1967, told through the eyes of six former heads of Shin Bet – the Israeli intelligence agency responsible for anti-terrorism and intelligence gathering in the West Bank and Gaza. I’m sure some will complain that the Palestinians are not given a voice in this documentary – and as such it is biased – but I don’t think that’s a fair complaint. This documentary is about these men, and what they did, and their opinions on what is happening now, and their predictions for the future. And the outlook is bleak.
You would expect that the men who led Shin Bet to be hardliners in their defense of Israel and their actions against Palestine – especially since they played in role in what has happened. But they really aren’t. Perhaps this is because they are not politicians – never have been – and for much of their career, no one in Israel knew who they were. The only member of Shin Bet whose identity is known to the public is the head – and they answer directly to the Prime Minister. What emerges as these men tell their stories is a portrait of men who did what they thought necessary at the time, who followed the orders of politicians, and have had that experience change them. One of them says “I think you become a leftist once you leave this job”. To a man, they support a two state solution between Israel and Palestine, and support getting the illegal settlers out of the West Bank and Gaza. They think Israel should be willing to talk to any group about a solution – even if that group answers rudely, they should at least talk to them, and work on a solution. One resigned after Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by a radical right wing Israeli for trying to get a permanent peace treaty in place. They express frustration that the Israeli underground – who they tracked and arrested planting bombs on buses to kill hundreds of Arabs at once, and were even plotting to blow up the Dome on the Rock, which would have led to all out world with the entire Muslim world, basically got a slap on the wrist and went back to their normal lives.
Yet, these are also the men responsible for the deaths of many Palestinians – blown operations where they dropped a one ton bomb on a house in a residential neighborhood, killing many innocent civilians, or killing terrorists who took a busload of Israelis hostage – even though the men had been arrested and were no longer a threat. They had almost unlimited authority to carry out missions, and use deadly force. One Prime Minister told the head of Shin Bet, if you can’t find me, just use your best judgment.
Do these men try and justify their own behavior? To a certain extent, yes. But overall, I think the reason they have come forward to speak about the work they did – which the documentary tells us is the first time they have done so is simple: They are tired of Israel’s actions being decided by a group of spineless politicians, who are not thinking of the long game, but instead only the immediate. These men talk of how Israel has become “cruel”, one compares them to the Germans in WWII (not the ones who exterminated the Jews, but the ones who occupied the Poles, Dutch, Czechs, etc.) and the final line in the movie candidly tells us that Israel will “win every battle, and lose the war”.
The film is directed by Dror Moreh, who has obviously been inspired by the great Errol Morris. He weaves the interviews with these men together with some great, heartbreaking, violent archival footage, to give us a sense of the events being discussed. Moreh remains unseen throughout the movie, but occasionally you can hear him ask a question – once as he tries to get an opinion on the morality of what has been done “Forget morality when you’re dealing with terrorists” he is told. There will be people on all sides of the debate who find The Gatekeepers troubling – those who think it is too pro-Israel, and those who think it is too anti-Israel. Anyone who walks into The Gatekeepers with their mind made up about the situation is likely to have that opinion shaken – or at least challenged. To me, that is what a great documentary does. And The Gatekeepers is a great documentary.