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Film Review: The Gatekeepers
Dir. Dror Moreh
Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary opens with an aerial view of a maze of city streets somewhere in Israel from high above, through what appears to be a (simulated) military satellite camera, a simulation absolutely appropriate for a country which is forced to see almost everything through the prism of a crosshair.
As with any polarizing issue, there are those who would say the Israel/Palestinian occupation is a simple, black-and-white case of good vs. evil, wrong vs. right and oppression vs. the oppressed (just which country would fit on which side of the margin would, of course, be very much open to the interpretation of the speaker). But if anything can be gleaned from the conflict since the six-days war back in 1967 allowed the Israelis to take command Gaza and the West Bank, it’s that there are more shades of grey here than could be imagined on the palette of a colorblind painter.
If ever that were in doubt, Moreh’s film looks to add some more dialogue to this already richly covered political quagmire, by interviewing the living former heads of Israel’s super-secret intelligence agency, Shin Bet. By utilizing individual interviews with these six men, and intercutting with other mixed media, including video, photographs and computer graphics, the historic incidents they discuss in detail, Moreh strives to offer a sense of the kind of muddled morality and stubborn convictions of the Israeli military since occupying the Palestinians.
As you can imagine, it’s anything but clear and concise. To the contrary, several of the former security heads seem to contradict themselves from sentence to sentence, as is the case with one of the more notorious Shin Bet leaders, Avraham Shalom, who lead the agency from ’80-’86 (each serves up to a six-year term), now old and grandfatherly rotund, with pudgy pale fingers that don’t seem capable of independent movement. One moment, he’s discussing his extremely controversial decision to have the Army brutally beat to death a pair of young terrorists who had hijacked a bus (an incident observed by an Israeli journalist, who naturally filed a story that night), the next he suggests the best way to achieve peace in the region is to talk with “everyone” — even despised terrorist leaders — and continue an open forum.
He’s not alone amongst the former Shin Bet commanders. Carmi Gillon, who abruptly resigned his post only two years after then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, having recently signed the potentially peace-bringing Oslo accords, was assassinated by a radical Israeli right winger, seems particularly wistful about the lost opportunity when his leader — who finally seemed to be within hailing distance of a genuine, groundbreaking peace accord — was lost.
But, there are also much darker turns. Yuval Diskin, the most recent of the leaders having served a term from 2005-2011, speaks of the terrible “power” of the position, calling it “unnatural,” as if wielding the authority to wipe someone — or entire families — off the face of the earth could be anything other than a horrible burden. More chillingly, Shalom refers to the first major Arab uprising in Gaza, and subsequent successful terrorist attacks as a good thing in that it gave him an excuse to get back to work, taking prisoners, leading interrogations and crushing the Palestinians where they lived. Put simply as Ami Ayalon (’96-’00, completing the term after Gillon’s resignation), “with terrorism, there are no morals.”
Aligned together in this way, you begin to understand just how complex and deep-seated the conflict becomes. After all, it wasn’t Palestinian terrorists who killed Rabin, after a series of scalding riots and uprisings of religious Israelis (who believed that peace would never be an answer with the Arabs), it was one of Rabin’s own countrymen. And when Israelis themselves complied with the will of their leadership, merciless splinter groups such as Hamas were always quick to create discord and further muddy the waters with brutal bombings and further acts of violence.
Not to mention the deep divisions between the military/security wings of the government, dedicated to preserving Israel and its citizens at almost any cost, and the elected politicians, who always needed to cover their collective backsides against bad press and international condemnation. This is what Shalom means to address when he says of the government’s policy, “There was no strategy, just tactics.”
To make matters even more morally confounding, the film touches on the rise of the Jewish Underground, a non-sanctioned Israeli terrorist organization that sought reprisals to Palestinian aggressions by systematic assassinations, demolitions, and — most horribly — a plan to blow up the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s most sacred shrines, in Jerusalem, in order to bring about total warfare in the Middle East. Captured by the Army, the leaders of the Underground, many of whom were well-placed members of Israel’s upper class, were eventually let go by Knesset and were free to resume their former positions in society.
Still, it would seem as if all hope weren’t completely lost. At least in the aftermath of having this “terrible power,” many of the former Shit Bet commanders seem thoughtful, even reflective, in their advancing years (“when you retire,” one of them says, “you become a bit of a leftist”). Even Shalom, considered even by his fellow Shin Bet brethren to be a “bully,” speaks to the nature of an occupation on the soul of a nation, likening it to, of all things, the German army during WW II. This analogy, startling in its stark honesty, almost has to be seen as a sign of hope — a form of progress that can’t so simply be taken away.