An Inescapable Truth

As I watched The Gatekeepers in a small hall in Jerusalem, three thoughts kept repeating in my mind. The first was that if the new Israeli documentary were showing on prime-time television rather than in tiny cinematheque auditoriums, the country's vapid election campaign might morph turn into an urgently needed debate on the occupation. The second was that once the film opens in U.S. theaters on February 1, its interviewees—former heads of Israel's Shin Bet security service—will probably not be invited to speak before certain "pro-Israel" groups in America, the kind that conflate support of Israel with silencing criticism of Israel policies. The film's Oscar nomination for best documentary will not be celebrated in those organizations.

The third thought was that if dissident Israeli philosopher and theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz were alive, he'd watch The Gatekeepers with the furious satisfaction of a prophet proved right. Leibowitz raged against the moral price of occupying the West Bank and Gaza almost from the moment that they were conquered in 1967. If Israel tried to rule over the Palestinians permanently, he warned, the nation's elite defenders would no longer be its combat pilots but its Shin Bet operatives. The Gatekeepers is a history of the occupation as told by the most senior veterans of that elite. Their account of the effort to infiltrate Palestinian society and to prevent terror attacks—and squelch other resistance to Israeli rule—is disturbing, and they know it.

The oldest of the six men, Avraham Shalom, describes the failure of Israeli leaders after 1967 to devise any policy on the future of the occupied territories. There was "no strategy," and the agency was left to devise tactics to keep terrorism "on a low flame," Shalom says, his hand movements shaky, his bemused chuckle frighteningly unsuited to his words. The tactics included recruiting Palestinians as informers, wholesale arrests at times, and interrogations using "moderate physical pressure." Yuval Diskin, who stepped down as head of the agency only in 2011, almost 30 years after Shalom, speaks with quiet anger about the chronic vision deficit of today's leaders, including Benjamin Netanyahu. Nothing, it seems, has changed. Virtually the only prime minister described as breaking the pattern is Yitzhak Rabin, who made the strategic choice of peace with the Palestinians. Rabin's assassination "murdered hope," says Yaakov Perry, the Shin Bet's chief during the Palestinian uprising of the late 80s and early 90s. The assassin, Jewish extremist Yigal Amir, achieved his goal of stopping the peace process, laments Carmi Gillon. For Gillon this is a particularly painful statement. He was head of the Shin Bet at the time of the assassination, and quit in the wake of the agency's failure to protect the prime minister.

Not that the men speak with one voice. Dror Moreh, director of The Gatekeepers, has expertly juxtaposed his subjects to show their disputes. Shalom's successors do not remember him fondly; one describes him as a "bully." Shalom still defends the order he gave on a night in 1982 to one of his subordinates to kill two Palestinian terrorists who'd been captured by the army after they hijacked an Israeli bus. "There is no morality" in the fight against terror, Shalom declares, adding, "First go and look for morals among the terrorists." Yet Ami Ayalon, brought in to rebuild the agency after Gillon, decries the murder of the captives, his anger apparently not softened in the 30 intervening years, and says the Shin Bet lacked the concept of an "egregiously illegal order"—the Israeli military's term for an order that a soldier is obligated to refuse. The murders and subsequent cover-up ended Shalom's career, though a presidential pardon saved him from criminal charges. Diskin says that the affair made the agency aware it was subject to judicial oversight. This is not entirely accurate. It took another scandal later in the 1980s—the revelation that it was standard practice for agents to lie in court about the use of force and humiliation in interrogations—to convey the idea that "national security" was not an airtight alibi.

Avi Dichter, who headed the Shin Bet during the second intifada, defends the tactic that became ubiquitous on his watch: "targeted killings" not only of terrorists on their way to an attack, but of higher-ranking militants, all the way up to political and religious leaders of their organizations. Were it not for squeamishness about killing civilian bystanders, Dichter suggests, dropping one bomb on a meeting of Hamas's leadership could have crippled the movement. And here it's Shalom who insists that overkill is not just stupid militarily, "it's immoral."

To Moreh's credit, the film does not allow easy judgments. It unflinchingly shows terrorism as a reality, a form of evil. The footage of the aftermath of bombings in Israeli cities is almost unbearable to watch. In one harsh scene, the camera looks down from above at a bus stripped of its shell by an explosion, the corpse of the driver still sitting in his seat. The Shin Bet men's strongest regrets concern attacks they failed to prevent.

Yet a near-consensus emerges: The war cannot be won by military means and espionage. When you leave the service, when you have time to reflect, says Perry, you realize that you've become "a bit of a leftist." The film is worth watching most of all for the coda provided by Diskin, and by Shalom, the man inconsistently aware of moral limits, and by Ayalon, at once fierce and thoughtful in his criticism. In order not to give away everything, I won't quote them. Go and watch.

The Shin Bet's methods have been reported before. So have the views of some its ex-directors. But facts in plain view are still news as long as people don't look at them. The Gatekeepers put the facts together as one story, too dangerous to ignore. During an Israeli election campaign in which Netanyahu has managed to evade discussion of peace, occupation, or Palestinians, it's a shame the whole country isn't seeing the film. And as the film's American release approaches, one has to wonder: Will the Emergency Committee for Israel claim that Ami Ayalon and Yaakov Perry have thrown Israel under the bus?

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