Near the end of The Gatekeepers, filmmaker Dror Moreh's merciless, walloping documentary about the history of Shin Bet, Israel's secretive internal intelligence agency, one subject implies that the entire Israeli occupation — his word — of the West Bank and Gaza, since the Six Day War in 1967, has been a mistake. Another subject says of Israeli policy, "We are making the lives of millions unbearable." A third likens the Israeli army to "a brutal occupation force."
These opinions would not be startling if they came from dissident critics, non-Israeli academics, or pro-Palestinian activists commenting on the situation. Instead, each and every one comes from a former head of Shin Bet.
Moreh's film has only six subjects, each a former Shin Bet leader, each a man once charged with his country's intelligence and security. These men — Avraham Shalom (1980-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1994), Carmi Gillon (1994-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-2005), and Yuval Diskin (2005-2011) — have, according to an opening claim, never before spoken publicly about their work. They do so now out of what appears to be a sense of frustration, bordering on hopelessness, about where politicians have taken their country.
Watching the film from an American perspective, you're struck that all of these men would be deemed too "anti-Israel" for Senate confirmation in the United States.
One, remembering raids on Palestinian homes and the tears of mothers when their sons are taken away, muses, "When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist." Another asserts, in the face of the cycle of violence and the difficulty of a two-state solution, that "the future is bleak. It's dark."
Moreh keeps what is essentially a talking-head documentary taut with sharp, judicious use of archival footage, reenactments, and other visual materials. And, for those not well-steeped in this history, the film offers a primer on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1967.
We see the rise of terrorism and the emergence of the PLO after the Six Day War; the war in Lebanon in 1982; intense footage of the first and second intifadas (Palestinian uprisings); the peace talks that led to the Oslo Accords, which fed growing violence on the Jewish right, leading to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; and further radicalization via the rise of Hamas.
The former Shin Bet leaders are understandably cagey about their own role in potential misdeeds, including the "Bus 300 incident," in which Shin Bet killed two Palestinian hijackers who were in custody. Shalom, who was head of the agency at the time, deflects implications of having a personal role in the incident but coldly dismisses the idea of "morality" when dealing with terrorists. Others struggle more publicly with their roles, such as the assassination of a Hamas leader in which a one-ton bomb was dropped on his urban dwelling, killing several innocents in the process.
The Gatekeepers was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature but lost out to Searching for Sugar Man, an outcome that belongs on the lengthy list of Oscar mistakes. It's an unavoidable companion piece to the similarly underrecognized Zero Dark Thirty but also belongs in the company of such modern-classic docs as Errol Morris' The Fog of War (about former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara) and Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight (about the mismanagement of the Iraq war).
You may or may not agree with the film's implied conclusions — about a two-state solution, about the misguidedness of Israeli policy — but the strength and particularly the source of the film's critiques are startling.
"The tragedy of Israel's public security debate," says one man once charged with ensuring Israel's public security, "is that we don't realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle, but we lose the war."
Opening Friday, April 5th