I hope you have seen the Gatekeepers. It is a terrific film. My take on it is both attached and below. On this one I would love feedback.
The Gatekeepers 17.03.13
Yesterday evening, my wife, I and a friend went to see the Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers. It had been nominated for an academy award for best documentary and had won the National Society of Film Critic’s award for best nonfiction film and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for best Documentary Film. I had eagerly been awaiting its release since I missed it when the movie played at the Toronto Film Festival. It has been in the theatres for over two weeks, but illness has meant no movie going this March until yesterday evening. All three of us were mesmerized by this gripping and disturbing film, but we had very different responses to this documentary that intertwines historical footage of events since the Six Day War with extracts from interviews with the six heads of Shin Bet who served between 1980 and 2011. Shin Bet is colloquially known in Israel as Shabak, the domestic intelligence agency of Israel.
Our friend was both proud that Israel was such a strong democracy that the six heads Shin Bet would feel free to talk about their experiences and reflections. What other country had produced such a film? On the other hand, she found it impossible to imagine Palestinians ever being able to permit anyone, let alone anyone in authority, to even survive if they had been as forthcoming as those intelligence service leaders. On the other hand, in discussions of two Israeli movies of the five films that had been nominated at the Academy Awards for best documentary, 5 Broken Cameras (directed by directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi) as well as The Gatekeepers (directed by Dror Moreh), Limor Livnat, the Minister of Culture and Sports in the outgoing Netanyahu cabinet, advised Israeli film makers that though she and others in authority opposed censorship, perhaps they would be well advised to practice self-censorship. “I, who am opposed to censorship, call on all of you to [conduct] self-censorship. After all, Israel is a democracy to be proud of but a democracy goes into self-defense mode when ranged against five broken cameras are thousands of families that have been destroyed by Palestinian terror. You do nothing about that."
Livnat’s comments were a response to criticisms by Israeli film producers, directors, screenwriters and documentarians of her initial comments on the two documentaries that too many Israeli movies made in the last few years, "libel Israel throughout the world". My wife had been very tense in the movie and came out feeling very defensive for Israel. While not advocating either censorship or self-censorship, she did experience the documentary as a polemical propaganda film of unbearable clarity that was very critical of Israel. And Dror Moreh says as much himself. He allows Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the Jewish theologian who criticized Israeli triumphalism and the occupation as far back as 1968 and whose criticisms are included in the film, to utter the words to which he subscribes. Even more powerfully, Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet from 2006-2011, concurs that Leibowitz was 100% right.
It is clear throughout the film and in the many interviews Moreh has had since the film’s release, that this is where his sentiments lie. This is a message film. And that message is loud, clear and unequivocal. The occupation is destructive of the political and moral health of the nation. For Moreh, hopefully the movie will help serve to give new impetus to the peace process. In some interviews, he sees his own film in dramatic and prophetic terms. "If this film does not lead to change, there is no hope for Israel.” He clearly belongs to the camp that believes that Israelis are beyond saving themselves and supports an imposed solution. If Obama doesn’t “roll up his sleeves and use his power to make change, we are doomed.” However, as a filmmaker, Moreh’s voice in the movie as the interviewer is rarely heard. When it is, the voice is quiet and deferential even though persistent.
This does not mean that in intending his film to serve as a propaganda piece for change that Moreh did not practice self-censorship. For Moreh told the Huffington Post that Netanyahu participated in rallies in which Rabin was portrayed as a Nazi collaborator. Netanyahu never objected to those portrayals. In the segment of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, there are very brief clips showing Netanyahu associated with such rallies, but the implied critique of Netanyahu as sharing in the guilt of the assassination goes by virtually unnoticed. I would bet not 1 in 1000 viewers will spot the suggestion of Netanyahu’s complicity in the assassination.
On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore the obvious. What makes the film powerful as a propaganda film is that it is totally one-sided. The only agents shown to be initiating action are the Israelis. We see the carnage of the horrific bus bombings by Palestinian terrorists, but we do no see them as humans deliberately planning attacks against civilians. We see their homemade videos before they go on their suicide missions, but these belong in newsreels. In contrast, the Israeli perpetrators of some of the atrocities against the Palestinians are the key protagonists in the film. What is even more important, they are all portrayed in a confessional mode, offering sin and guilt sacrifices on the altar of modern cinema and outlining inadvertent sins of omission – such as their inability to anticipate the first intifada or to notice an obscure right-wing Orthodox Jew, Yigal Amir, who came out of left field to assassinate not only Yitzchak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, but to shatter the hopes for a fragile peace process. Shin Bet was just unable, according to Carmi Gillon, to prevent Amir from "changing history". In contrast, Palestinian terrorists, even the worst of them, are objects rather than subjects or agents in the film. We never see them instructing their trainees, inculcating them with a fannatic ideology, portrayed as killing Palestinians on the spot who are alleged to be collaborators, or even how they inadvertently killed their own children when setting off rockets headed for Israel which then misfired, hit a nearby Palestinian home and killed many children. We never see them deciding to hide their tracks and place the blame on Israel.
I agree that the film is a tribute to the thriving democracy in Israel which still manages to foster open debate and pluralism in its portrayal of leading figures of the security establishment candidly criticizing their own actions and those of Israeli governments over the last thirty years with devastating comments precisely because those comments are uttered by hard headed pragmatic and ruthless heads of the domestic intelligence service. I also agree that the movie is a powerful propaganda film, though I do not agree that its message is very urgent and more challenging to conventional wisdom. Instead, insofar as it is a propaganda film, it is an expression of the once dominant, at least in a minority sense, different conventional take of the peace camp, not simply about the dead end in which Israel finds itself, but that the dead end is of its own making and the only way out requires the intervention of America imposing its will.
Unlike various reviewers, I did not see it as offering a history of the relations between Israel and the Palestinians from 1967 to 2011 or even of just their conflict, though certainly key highlights of that period were used in the film. I do not even think it offered a particularly harsh appraisal of the Israeli occupation. The film was certainly not a documentary about how Shin Bet operates and makes decisions, and it does not offer a "jarring insight into Israel’s defence establishment" as one headline of one review read. Although there is a great deal of material in the film that refers to decisions made and actions taken, we do not witness how the information is gathered and analyzed, how different scenarios are outlined and again analyzed and different options for options set out. Instead, I think the movie is primarily an educational film on the ethics of just war. But I warn readers that this appears to be my interpretation and so far I have been unable to find anyone who supports that angle. Because that message is not clear at all, and because the narrative is not chronological, nor are the six leaders clearly identified thoughout so that the viewer, unless very familiar with Israeli politics, would not be able to recognize which leader is which and when they served since there are no reminders after the opening, let me begin by clearly identifying each of the six leaders of the Shin Bet and the key episode and ethical dilemma that they faced:
General Theme: No strategy, Just Tactics
Name Dates Key event(s)
Avraham Shalom 1980-1986 killing of two suspected terrorists captured alive after bombing of No. 300 bus; forget about morality; torture
Yaacov Peri 1988-1994 capture of Jewish terrorists who plotted to blow up Dome of the Rock and al-Asqa Mosque on the Haram-al-Sharif or Temple Mount; Oslo Accords
Carmi Gillon 1994-1996 Missiles against terrorists vs suicide bombings in Tel Aviv; Nov. 4, 1995
Yitzchak Rabin assassination
Ami Ayalon 1996-2000 Definition of Victory: to see you suffer
Avi Dichter 2000-2006 assassination of Yahya Ayyash
Yuval Diskin 2996-2911 failure to blow up Hamas leadership (sterile operation)
One way of approaching these incidents and the leaders is whether they achieved successes or failures. There were clearly specific successes: the decline in terrorism, the prevention of the Jewish terrorists from blowing up the al-Aqsa Mosque, a series of clean hits, the process of involving and recruiting informers and of acquiring human intelligence. Those continue. This morning I read that Shin Bet had foiled a Hevron terrorist cell led by an operative released in the 2011 Shalit prisoner-swap. On the other hand, there were clear failures: the killing of two suspects captured alive in a 1984 bus hijacking that led to the resignation of Shin Bet director Avraham Shalom and threatened to bring down the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the inability to anticipate the first intifada, the inability to prevent the Rabin assassination, the failure to destroy the Hamas leadership in Gaza when there was a clear target and solid information. But the film maker does very little to explore the reasons for success or failure. What the director does focus upon is the moral issues at stake in each incident.
The movie is about the relationship of intelligence to politics within a moral frame. The moral frame used in that of just war theory. There is no question that the 1967 Six Day War was just. It is one thing for a country to defend itself against Arab states around it which declare war on Israel. It is another to conquer and hold the territory captured in that war – the Sinai, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The movie does not analyze the case and come down on the assessment that occupation was immoral. It presumes that immorality and directly or indirectly gets every one of those heads of intelligence to explicitly or implicitly concur with that judgement. For the fundamental moral issue is whether a war fought decade after decade to continue the occupation is a just goal. Just wars require just purposes. The conclusion presumed by quotes from Leibowitz is that it was and is not just. Not only because of what it does to the one million Palestinians being ruled by Israel. But because of what it does in corrupting the Israeli soul.
Dror Moreh could have quoted Hebrew University historian, Jacob Talmon, as well. But he mostly conveys the message that the continuation of the occupation was carried out because of an absence of a goal rather than the deliberate policy to occupy the West Bank. As Avraham Shalom put it, there were tactics but no strategy. Only Yitzchak Rabin is excused from this failure in justice. He was the only politician to genuinely pursue peace. Begin did it with the Egyptians but he is largely ignored. Sharon unilaterally withdrew from Gaza but he is given a very ambivalent assessment. Shamir is presented as totally indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians, but Moreh could have treated him much worse by portraying his personal history of terrorist activities. Perhaps, Benjamin Netanyahu comes off worst of all.
In the end, it is not the Palestinians that these ruthless leaders of the intelligence service feel so sorry about as the way the intelligence service was used and abused by politicians who abandoned their own duty to protect the service so dedicated to serving them and the Israeli people whenever a crisis arose. Politicians only want to hear binary options and not various shades of grey. They want to make decisions – Yes or No. When mistakes are made or when the consequences of some decisions get too hot, it is the intelligence service that is left holding the bag.
The film is structured in terms of a series of themes. This theme of the overall justice of the occupation and the way the intelligence service is treated is the main thrust of the opening episode and the one theme referred back to in every other episode. But the movie opens with a much simpler just war moral equation – the responsibility of fighting the war over the occupation in just ways. One of those principles requires that innocent civilians be protected as much as possible from being injured and killed as collateral damage when terrorists are directly targeted. That is a decision largely within the purview of the Shin Bet and with some exceptions, as in the opening scene, the Shin Bet performs commendably. It may be an unjust occupation – quite aside from whether it is illegal or not – but the Shin Bet tries to fight it with just means. Or at least since the reign of Avraham Shalom over Shin Bet! It is clear that he has little regard for the just war protection of terrorist captives.
The film seems to have two different moral narratives along this line. The immorality of means is portrayed as starting in 1980 when Avraham Shalom was in charge from 1980-1986. In 1984, what became known as the Kav 300 affair took place. The details were eventually uncovered by the Landau Commission which henceforth set down strict guidelines for the treatment of prisoners. Twenty-nine years ago on 12 April 1984, four Palestinian terrorists from the Gaza Strip boarded a regular Egged bus (#300) heading south and hijacked the bus. At Ashdod, they let a pregnant Israeli get off the bus. She alerted the Israeli authorities about the hijacking. The army set up road blocks. The bus smashed through two sets of roadblocks until the army shot out its tires when the bus had reached a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza, Deir el-Balah, ten miles north of the Egyptian border. In the standoff, the hijackers demanded to exchange the occupants of the bus for the release of 500 Palestinian prisoners. The Chief of Staff of the IDF, Moshe Levi, the Minister of Defence, Moshe Arens, and the Director of Shin Bet at the time, Avraham Shalom, had all reached the scene. At 7:00 a.m. the next day, a special unit of the IDF under Yitzchak Mordechai – later to become infamous for other matters – stormed the bus, shot and killed two of the four hijackers through the windows and captured two of the hijackers alive. Only one passenger, Irit Portugese, a 19 year old Israeli soldier, who was a passenger on the bus, was killed, and she died as it turned out by "friendly fire". Otherwise, it appeared to be a triumphant operation.
The movie omits all that detail. It focuses on the pictures of the two captured terrorists who are alive and then the report that they died in the attack. As Avraham Shalom testifies in the film, he was informed that they had been terribly beaten by Israeli soldiers once in captivity and he personally authorized Ehud Yaton, the Shin Bet chief of operations at the scene, to put them of their misery when he saw the condition of the captives. Yatom took the badly wounded captives elsewhere to another site and smashed their heads in with a heavy rock.
Initial reports in Israel reported that all four were killed when the bus was stormed but The New York Times three days later ran a story that told of the two hijackers captured alive with the photographs we see in the movie. One Israeli newspaper got around the censors by reporting The New York Times story. Needless to say, "the shit hit the fan". It is that aspect and only that aspect of the story and the political consequences that the movie covers. It does not deal with the decision to blow up the houses of the families of the hijackers after the incident. It does not deal with the attempts to censor Uri Avnery, the editor of the weekly, HaOlam Hazeh, that first ran a picture of the hijacker in captivity and alive. The focus is on the illegal and totally unethical treatment of the two captured prisoners who were killed in cold blood. The film did not replay the television tapes at the time of Moshe Arens and IDF, Chief of Staff, Raphael Eitan, boasting that terrorists who hijack buses cannot expect "to come out alive". The movie does refer to the arrest of and trial of Brigadier General Yithak Mordechai (and eleven other officers) for kicking the two prisoners to death. They were found not guilty.
The movie does not tell us that in 1986, the Deputy Chief of the Shin Bet, Reiven Hazak, went with two other officials, Rafi Malka and Peleg Raday, to see then Prime Minister and current President, Shimon Peres, to tell him that Shalom had not only ordered the fatal blow but had coordinated the testimony of the witnesses to undermine the prosecution case. The three official whistleblowers were fired from the Shin Bet. The story then went into broad public circulation. Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir launched an investigation. When he refused to halt that investigation, he too was forced to resign. Eventually a public inquiry was ordered and Shalom himself had to resign. It seemed clear, and this is suggested in the movie, that Yitzchak Shamir, the Prime Minister at the time of the incident, had approved Shalom’s decision before it was carried out. The matter was fully aired in a television mini series in 1987 called Kav 300, but Moreh chose to focus on only three items – the killing of the captives, Shalom taking the hit for a political decision and Shalom’s opinion that when dealing with terrorism you can forget about morality. The film does not remark on the fact that subsequent heads of Shin Bet had abandoned the latter position though it is clear from their comments. This belies Shalom’s cynical view of the downward spiral of the Zionist dream and his amoral view towards the treatment of captives.
In Yaacov Peri’s period as director of Shin Bet from 1988-1994, the big political story was the Oslo Accords The big intelligence story was the Jewish terrorist plot to blow up Dome of the Rock and al-Asqa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, the messianic vision of the Jewish terrorists and the expertise of their explosives genius,
Menachem Levi. In Avi Shlaim’s book, The Iron Wall – Israel and the Arab World, he quotes Uzi Narkis, the commander of the Israeli forces that captured the Temple Mount in 1967, as having been urged by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren to blow up the Mosque of Omar. As I wrote earlier, the army did seize the keys to the al-Masjidul or Moroccan Gate and demolished the Maghariba and al-Sharaf Arab neighbourhoods to make room for the space in front of the Western Wall and the reconstructed and resurrected Jewish Quarter.
There were previous terrorist attacks on the Mosque, one by an Australian Christian Zionist, Michael Dennis Rohan, in 1969 who set a fire that gutted the ancient wood and ivory minbar of Sallahudin. On 2 March 1982 a Jewish Talmudic student attacked the mosque but was subdued by Muslim guards. On 11 April 1982, Allen Harry Goodman, an IDF soldier, went on a shooting rampage on the Temple Mount with his army-issued M-16 and killed a mosque guard and wounded others before being subdued; he received a life sentence. In October 1982, Yoel Laerner, a follower of the extremist, Meir Kahane, tried to blow up the Dome of the Rock but was arrested. On 10 March 1983, 45 Jewish terrorists who were followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane planned a military raid, but they were intercepted before the plot could be executed; they were tried but not convicted. On 1 August, 1984, a Jewish terrorist plot to blow up the Mosque was thwarted by the Al-Aqsa security guards; Yosef Zeruya was sentenced to only three years in prison for the plot. On 8 October 1990 Jewish extremists tried to lay the cornerstone for a Jewish temple in the Haram al Sharif plaza and in the protests by the Palestinians, the border guard killed 22 Palestinians and a judicial inquiry under Israeli Judge, Ezra Kama, later determined that it was the Israeli police who provoked the violence. None of these Jewish terrorist efforts were nearly as extensive or as well coordinated or would have been nearly as devastating as the plot broken up and discussed in the movie. The Shin Bet and many political analysts, in a view echoed by Yaacov Peri, believe that if such a plot had been successful, it would have set off a war between Muslims the world over and Jews. What was most revealing in the film was the charge that the plotters network extended to the highest levels of politics and the revelation that, after serving relatively light sentences, they were freed. But this is mentioned as an aside and not explored.
Carmi Gillon served as head of Shin Bet from 1994-1996 until he resigned over the Shin Bet’s failure to stop the Rabin assassination on 4 November 1995 at a rally in support of the Oslo Accords. What is not revealed in the film is that the assassin, Yigal Amir, had been under Shin Bet surveillance but the agent assigned to him had concluded that Amir did not pose a threat to the Prime Minister. Though it is widely believed that Rabin’s assassination totally undermined the possibility of a peace agreement based on the Accords, the evidence in my mind does not support such a contention. In fact, Rabin`s terms were far less generous than Barak`s or Olmert`s and the latter two were also unable to conclude a peace agreement.
With the last three heads of Shin Bet, we return to Palestinian terrorism and the ethics of conducting a just war against terrorism. Ami Ayalon, who served as director from 1996-2000, had an epiphany when a captured Palestinian terrorist told him that their definition of victory was not a conquest of Palestine but seeing Israelis and Jews suffer. He realized that such a war could never be won. It was one thing to hold onto occupied territories but to do so at the cost of a peace agreement was clearly immoral. What was not put in the film was that Ami Ayalon had rounded up his three predecessors in 2003 to sign a letter to the Prime Minister strongly supporting a peace agreement based on a two state solution.
Avi Dichter who was director of Shin Bet from 2000-2006 oversaw the organization when the first intifada broke out and ordered the assassination of Yahya Ayyash, the Hamas engineer and explosives expert, by means of an explosive cell phone. Though it is mentioned, the intricate weighing of targeted killings versus the political costs and dangers to nearby civilians is mentioned but inadequately discussed. Similarly, the great success in drastically reducing terrorist attacks on Israel and what went into that receives insufficient attention and no analysis. Nor does Avi Dichter`s subsequent career as a member of Kadima and the Knesset and his role as Minister of Internal Security and the reforms he put in place. Yuval Diskin who ran Shin Bet from 2006-2011 discussed the opportunity and failure to blow up the Hamas leadership when it was decided to use a 1/4 ton bomb instead of a full 1 ton bomb knowing that if the leadership were on the first floor they would escape death but if on the second floor they would all be killed. This was done to minimize collateral damage that would have been the inevitable result of using a one tone bomb. The effort to conduct a "sterile operation" in this case meant the sacrifice of a success in favour of a strict application of the just war norm demanding minimal intentional risk to civilian lives.
The film ends where it begins with Ayalon`s reference to a long corridor but one which does not lead to a door behind which a leader sits in his office and makes these momentous decisions. According to Ayalon, there is no door and no one to take responsibility for an occupation that is sapping the moral strength of Jewish Israelis. This metaphorical story echoes a sentiment he uttered earlier in the film: "We don’t realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle, but we lose the war." My own sense from the film is that the occupation, however bad it has been, especially for the Palestinians, has very much sharpened the moral acuity with which Israeli members of Shin Bet have been making their decisions, a message that is the very opposite to the one overtly conveyed by the film.