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Film Review

The Gatekeepers

The Israeli journalist, Dror Moreh, has produced a powerful, disturbing, yet important documentary film, The Gatekeepers.   To fully appreciate his film, a knowledge of the recent history of Israel is helpful.    One of the tragedies of our time is the continuing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.   The Palestinians and most Arab countries have never really reconciled to the creation of the state of Israel.   They have been at real or virtual war ever since Israel declared independence in 1947.   Five Arab armies invaded, and nearly overran the new nation.  A cease fire left Israel in control of the coastal cities and Jordan with control of much of the land west of the Jordan River, what is now called the West Bank.   Jerusalem was split.    When Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and threatened an invasion, the Israelis, combined with French and English forces, struck first, inflicting a humiliating defeat on Egypt.   After the ceasefire, the Israelis withdrew from the Sinai, which reverted to Egyptian control.   In 1967, Egypt again blocked the Straits of Tiran, and began massing troops in the Sinai.   Jordan and Syria also mobilized.   Israel struck first, and in six days destroyed the Egyptian air force, and captured the Sinai Peninsula (including Gaza) and the West Bank.   In 1973, the Egyptians attacked (The Yom Kippur War), catching the Israelis off guard, and nearly overran the entire Sinai before being beaten back to the Suez Canal.    Clearly, Israel has real security concerns that few other nations have, which is worsened by having a tiny land area (smaller than the state of New Jersey).   As one Israeli general noted: " We live in a dangerous neighborhood."   

But with Israel in control of the West Bank and the Sinai after the 1967 War, the government turned a blind eye to religious settlers who began to build homes in the West Bank, claiming that it was biblically sanctioned, having been part of the historic land of Israel   The trickle of settlers turned into a flood, and by 2012 there were 350,000 Israelis living in the West Bank.   This was territory that the Palestinians expected to be part of their own state, and the continued encroachment further poisoned relationships.   Many incidents occurred, and the Israeli response was usually heavy handed.  The two Intifadas were a game changer, especially the use of suicide bombers, and discredited the Israeli peace movement.   At the same time, the religious right became much more powerful in Israeli politics.   The result was a huge security wall constructed between Israel and the West Bank, mostly on Palestinian land.   Ironically, one of the Academy nominees for best documentary film this year is 5 Broken Cameras, an gripping account of the conflict in a West Bank village.

The Gatekeepers is composed of on camera interviews of six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel's internal security organization, largely responsible for anti-terror intelligence and operations.  It is not to be confused with the Mossad, Israel's equivalent of our CIA.    Although Shin Bet operates in great secrecy, these men have been publicly identified but they rarely, if ever, give interviews.   It is astonishing that Moreh managed to interview them, and even more astonishing to hear their recollections, concerns and regrets.   The first, Yuval Diskin, who headed Shin Bet from 2005-2011, talks about some of the difficulties operating under a political leadership that seemed much more interested in re-election than strategy, and how short sighted many political decisions have been.  The film is grouped into chapters ("Our Own Flesh and Blood"), interspersed with very upsetting photographs and footage of bus bombings, riots, war scenes, and other incidents.   The men, older, low key but articulate, tend to remind us of a beloved uncle.   Avraham Shalom, the oldest, and head of the Shin Bet from 1981-1986, explains why he resigned after ordering the killing of two captured terrorists, yet his conclusion in the film is that Israel must talk to the Palestinians, even those with blood on their hands, otherwise there will never be peace.   Some very successful operations are discussed in detail, such as the use of an explosive rigged cell phone to kill a bomb maker ("clean and elegant").   The issue of collateral damage is discussed and one says flatly "there is no morality in terrorism". 

Several talk about terrorism by the religious right in Israel, especially extremist settlers.   Their attempt to bomb the Dome of the Rock nearly succeeded, and would have incited the entire Muslim world to take up arms against Israel.   But the rabbis and their followers were unapologetic, and largely escaped punishment.    Another former head muses that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", and says that no doubt the Palestinians consider him a terrorist.    Sometimes we hear questions that Moreh asks the men, and their responses seem heartfelt and candid.   The interviews are fascinating, and their remarks not what we might expect heads of an anti-terror agency to say.    Nearly every one criticizes each prime minister they served under, condemning their poor leadership: "All tactics, without any strategy".  The exception is Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who was assassinated in 1995 by a member of the religious right because Rabin was serious about peace with the Palestinians, even if it meant giving up the West Bank.   Several praise Rabin's vision and courage, and all agree that Rabin's killing changed everything.   It was Israel's equivalent of President Kennedy's assassination here.

Interspersed with the interviews is archival footage, both video and stills, that is often dramatic and upsetting.   Most is the actual footage or photographs, but there is some use of re-enactments, most obvious but not always.   In addition, Moreh constructed replicas of Shin Bet facilities, such as banks of monitors and endless file cabinets.   The use of replicas and re-enactments is not in itself bad, but needs to be labeled as such because it could cast doubt on the veracity of some of the archival footage.

Nearly all comment on the political strength of the religious right, and how this is warping Israeli democracy, which will lead to disaster.   And most remark on the appalling quality of political leadership in Israel.   Most are quite frank about the Shin Bet's failures, not only Rabin's assassination, but the failure to predict the Intifadas.   Even allowing for a tendency to shift blame from the head of the agency to political leaders, their comments are disturbing in their pessimism.   Ami Ayalon (1996-2000) and others feel strongly that the time was ripe for a real peace accord with the Palestinians immediately after the 1967 War, but was never pursued and relationships deteriorated.   The interviews are riveting.   We are left feeling demoralized about missed opportunities and continuing poor leadership.   In a stunning ending, Avraham Shalom says that "we have become cruel to the population [Palestinians] and to our own people", and that although we are "winning every battle, we are losing the war".   Another says "you can't make peace using military means".  The consistency and agreement of all of these former heads of Shin Bet is remarkable, and a real indictment of Israeli political leadership.    In a year of outstanding documentaries, The Gatekeepers is a standout.   It's not a message that those who love Israel may want to hear, but it must be heard.   Just opened at the Embarcadero and the Century Regency (San Rafael) and was one of the five Academy nominees this year for best documentary film.   Screening time is 95 minutes, which goes by in a flash.

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