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Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

“The Gatekeepers”

By March 5, 2013March 17th, 2013No Comments

The Gatekeepers, directed by Dror Moreh who also conducted the interviews.Poster from "The Gatekeepers"



By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

“The Gatekeepers” is a riveting documentary film that reveals the behind the scenes actions of one of Israel’s key tools for maintaining its repressive rule over the Palestinian community—Israel’s secret intelligence operations: the Shin Bet (appellation for Israel Security Agency or ISA, formerly Mossad) through candid interviews with ex-leaders, including archival, black and white film clips.   The film opens with a clip of Israel’s six day war with Egypt (UAR at the time), Syria and Jorden in June 5th-10th, 1967.  One result was that one million Palestinians were put under Israeli rule.  Shin Bet had focussed on internal affairs, but now expanded into combating foreign terrorists. A former member, Avi Dichter, shown being interviewed, was only eleven years old during the war.  He had to ask, “What is war?”

Dror Moreh was inspired by Errol Morris’s documentary, “The Fog of War,” where Morris interviewed Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War.  Moreh’s interviewees either retired or resigned from Shin Bet having gained a conscience regarding their actions. The film contains many memorable yet unsettling images, some  seem right out of a Bond or Bourne film, such as a successful bomb in a cell phone triggered to explode in the user’s ear; and the inhumane conditions of prisons where Palestinian suspects are tortured and held without trial.

Acting under Shin Bet orders, Israeli soldiers’ actions were not unlike those of the US military in Afghanistan.  Taught simple Arabic commands, they went to Palestinian homes to count how many lived in each.  Those who didn’t comply got their doors kicked down.  Soldiers grabbed men, bound and corralled them into trucks and hauled them off, leaving wailing women and children behind.  Unfortunately, one of the commands was mistranslated by one vowel so that “We want to ‘count’ you” came out as “castrate.”

Moreh interviewed one ex-leader who spoke of the beauty of the Palestinian olive groves.  Here, he included grainy black and white shots of soldiers driving through them.  Yet soon the land was confiscated and people were sent to refugee camps.   A Shin Bet leader, curious about the camps, paid a visit and was sickened by the conditions.   Illustrated by archival film clips, we saw people who once lived freely on their land relegated to rows and rows of one room concrete blocks.  Demeaned, Palestinians protested with rudimentary acts of terrorism against Israelis they now saw as” occupiers.”  As these acts increased, a curfew was instigated and as many as a hundred people a night were arrested and tortured.  One Shin Bet member laughingly bragged that some of the methods were such that a victim would confess to killing Jesus.  Shin Bet also relied on human intelligence (HUMINT).  We witnessed films of warehouses filled with rows of file cabinets containing dossiers on hundreds of thousands of alleged suspects.  Clerks sat at Microfiche machines running countless records from which Shin Bet recruited people to betray friends and family.  I imagined that their record-keeping rivaled those of the Nazis.  Villagers, fearing for their safety, ratted on each other.

One of the most unsettling interviewees was Avram Shalom.  In 1982, after the Israeli war with Lebanon, the organization recruited him to head it.  He’d been an officer.   He told Moreh that he felt he could do whatever he wanted and if you didn’t go along, heads would roll.  Sitting for the camera with his glasses and argyle sweater, Shalom, looked more like someone’s grandfather than a leader of a ruthless killing machine.   One incident was the blowing up of a bus transporting suspected terrorists, killing most.  Moreh asked him about it; Shalom couldn’t remember.   When asked if he thought the attack was illegal, Shalom replied that there was no such thing as an illegal action.  Moreh pressed on, “Not even shooting people with their hands behind their backs?”  He said he ordered killings instead of trials because he didn’t want the chance of an armed terrorist in court.  (Ironically, this sounds like a sound-bite from today’s US administration speaking about the “war on terror,” especially how it dealt with Osama bin Laden.)  Impassively and coldly, he answered Moreh’s questions:, “In a war against terrorists, there is no morality.” Anyone who argues with an Israeli soldier is shot in cold blood.  When questioned about their intelligence, he snickered, “All the intelligence in the world could not have predicted the worst terrorist acts,” which made me think of 9-11- there was plenty of intelligence, but no one acted..  He actually chuckled when he said that Shin Bet reminded him of the Nazi’s handling of Jews during the Second World War.   Palestinians see Israelis as terrorists.  Another interviewee said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.   One of their mottos is: “Victory is to see you suffer.”  Yet in n November 2003, four former heads of Shin Bet ( Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Gillon and Ami Ayalon) called upon the Government of Israel to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Retaliation for the bombing of the bus resulted in a suicide bus bomb in Tel Aviv.  It was hard to watch the news coverage of mangled, dismembered bodies among twisted, blackened metal.   Talks about the peace process between Shimon Perez, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat angered radical, right-wing Jews.  Rabin said, “We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today, in a loud and a clear voice, enough of blood and tears … enough!”  Meanwhile, Israel soldiers were fighting Jews building illegal settlements in the West Bank.  Radical Jews were organizing to bomb buses carrying Palestinians.  They also plotted to destroy the Dome of the Rock, clips illustrated how they would do it.  This would bring on Armageddon and the long-awaited Messiah would appear, was their thinking.   Shin Bet infiltrated the Jewish underground to make arrests and succeeded in preventing further attacks.  Shin Bet did double-duty: investigating both Palestinians and their own people.   Yet they could not prevent the 1995 assassination of Rabin by Yigal Amir, a radical right-wing Orthodox Jew, for his signing of the Oslo Accords.

Their matter-of-fact attitude, calmness, and lack of emotion (except for Shalom’s giggles), made them appear as pathological killers.  Still, they verbalized their remorse.  Whether or not they meant it, only they would know.  With decades of stale-mated peace talks, the dismantling and building of settlements; the separation wall; promises, and on-going devastating attacks on both sides; two deadly intifadas; and the division between Hamas and Fatah, between radical, orthodox and moderate Jews; with Palestinians continuing to lob missiles into Jerusalem and Israelis retaliating with air wars and successful missile intercepts; the disagreement on the possibility of a two-state or one-state solution appear to be an endless problem of insurmountable proportions.  Shin Bet has its work cut out for them.

In 2007, the organization started a public recruitment drive with a blog where current members would answer questions; a Web site, and an international ad campaign aimed at computer savvy people.   Shin Bet’s heads stated that all this is geared towards “promoting a more accessible and positive public image for the secret service, long associated with ‘dark, undercover and even violent activity’.”