A Night at the Oscars for Israel-Palestine
February 28, 2013
Roane Carey / The Nation & Gar Smith / The Berkeley Daily Planet
Dror Moreh's film "The Gatekeepers" is one of five nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary feature category. It offers a deeply disturbing portrait of the post-1967 Israeli occupation. The nominees also include "5 Broken Cameras," another film about the occupation, directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat with Israeli Guy Davidi.
A Night at the Oscars for Israel-Palestine
Roane Carey / The Nation
LOS ANGELES (February 20, 2013) -- Dror Moreh's film The Gatekeepers-one of five nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary feature category-is a brilliant, deeply disturbing portrait of the post-1967 Israeli occupation. This year's strong field of nominees also includes 5 Broken Cameras, another film about the occupation, directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat with Israeli Guy Davidi.
It's hard to imagine two more stylistically and thematically distinct films. Burnat's is a highly personal account of the struggle of his West Bank village, Bil'in, against Israel's separation wall, and the accompanying army and settler destruction of its olive groves.
Burnat interweaves scenes of domestic life with those of Bil'in's weekly protests; the fact that five of his cameras were broken by the army in the course of filming is a testament both to his seemingly continuous engagement and the army's habitually violent response to unarmed protest. 5 Broken Cameras is a moving and artfully constructed diary of family and community resistance.
The Gatekeepers, on the other hand, tells the story of occupation from the standpoint of its leading enforcers, six former heads of the General Security Service, or Shin Bet. The film is remarkable for its historical breadth and revelations from those who have run one of the country's most secretive agencies.
Never before have this many Shin Bet heads spoken on the record. From Avraham Shalom, who led the service from 1980 to 1986, to Yuval Diskin (2005–11), these men are intellectually impressive and sometimes eloquent, though at times they display a chilling ruthlessness.
Moreh says he was inspired by The Fog of War, Errol Morris's 2003 portrait of Robert McNamara, and the influence is evident. Moreh's interviews are framed by creepy re-enactments of intelligence operations, multiple computer screens, repeated surveillance shots of assassination targets.
The underlying mood, heightened by a doom-laden soundtrack and computerized simulations, is one of foreboding, conveying the sense of an impersonal, machinelike bureaucracy at work. Yaakov Peri (1988–94), who headed the Shin Bet at the height of the first intifada, says it is "a well-oiled system. It's well organized and effective."
Yet that mood stands in contrast to the thoughtfulness, fallibility and frequent self-criticism of the interview subjects. It was precisely that post-retirement soul-searching that inspired Moreh to make this film: as he was working on a documentary about Ariel Sharon, he learned that one of the reasons Sharon, a key architect of the settlement project, decided to withdraw settlers from Gaza was the unprecedented 2003 public protest by four of these former Shin Bet heads, who denounced his government's single-minded focus on repression during the second intifada.
As Ami Ayalon (1996–2000) put it at the time, "We are taking very sure and measured steps to a point where the State of Israel will not be a democracy or a home for the Jewish people."
A key theme of The Gatekeepers is the irresponsibility of Israel's politicians, who have avoided hard decisions and have abetted the most dangerous elements in society. As Shalom puts it, any talk of a political solution to the occupation disappeared soon after it began, to be replaced only by a tactical focus on fighting terror.
"No Israeli prime minister," he says, "took the Palestinians into consideration." Peri observes that every Israeli government either accepted or came to accept the settlements. This gave extremists the feeling they were "becoming the
masters" and could do whatever they wanted.
A particularly egregious case was that of the Jewish Underground, which plotted in the 1980s to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Islam's third-holiest site, in the hope of triggering Armageddon and the coming of the Messiah. The Shin Bet foiled the plot at an advanced stage and the conspirators were duly tried and sentenced to prison, but because they had connections to powerful leaders in the cabinet and Knesset, they were released early.
Several Shin Bet directors deplore the far right's incitement against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin preceding his 1995 assassination. Moreh himself, echoing the criticism of Carmi Gillon (1994–96) in the film, denounced Israel's current prime minister in a February CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour, saying, "Benjamin Netanyahu took his big share in that."
Avraham Shalom presents the most striking contrasts. The oldest of the six, he looks, in his suspenders and checked shirt, like a harmless old grandfather, chuckling frequently at his own jokes. Yet Diskin says he was an uncompromising bully.
And when asked about the scandal that ended his career-the Bus 300 incident of 1984, in which Palestinian hijackers who were captured unharmed were murdered by the Shin Bet on his orders-Shalom is at first evasive, then admits it was "a lynching," then bristles defensively, insisting that "with terrorism there are no morals. Find morals in terrorists first."
Near the end of the film, though, Shalom registers one of the strongest criticisms of Israel, saying, "We've become cruel…to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population." Even more astounding, he likens the Israeli occupation to that of the Nazis (making a careful exception for the Holocaust itself).
His fierce condemnations are echoed by the others; Ayalon refers to the "banality of evil" in warning against the speeded-up "conveyor belt" of assassinations, when "200, 300 people die because of the idea of 'targeted assassinations.'"
All these Shin Bet heads seem to have become humbled, both by what they have done (Diskin, reflecting on the assassination of terrorists, says, "What's unnatural is the power you have" to "take their lives in an instant") and by what Israel has become: Gillon says, "We are making the lives of millions unbearable."
One of the most important lessons imparted by The Gatekeepers is that no matter how well trained the Shin Bet's agents, no matter how ruthlessly these guardians carry out their tasks, without wise leadership by politicians, their mission may be fruitless in the long run.
As Avi Dichter (2000–05) observes, "You can't make peace using military means." Ayalon closes the film with a prophetic warning: "The tragedy of Israel's public security debate is that we don't realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle, but we lose the war."
The Gatekeepers: Looking Back on Israel's Failed 'War on Terror'
By Gar Smith / The Berkeley Daily Planet
(February 23, 2013) -- In Dror Moreh's Oscar-nominated documentary, The Gatekeepers, six former heads of Israel's spy agency speak candidly -- and reflect critically -- about their clandestine work. To begin to appreciate the magnitude of Moreh's accomplishment, try to imagine a US filmmaker getting all nine of the past CIA directors (from William Casey in 1980 to Leon Panetta) to face a camera and unburden their souls.
Hard to imagine such a thing ever happening, right?
Still, the overlaps between the Shin Bet's history and the CIA's legacy are uncanny as they keep echoing throughout The Gatekeepers. Time and again, each Gatekeeper in turn, seems surprised when an order to assassinate a well-known Palestinian target winds up triggering yet more violence.
The intelligence chiefs refer to Israel's struggle with the Palestinians as a "war on terror." One remembers the excitement that followed the first Palestinian terrorist act directed against Israel. Thanks to a single explosion, one former spy recalls with relish, "We no longer had to focus on the issue of the Palestinian State. Now we had work!"
Soon, they had more work than expected when Israel's stability was threatened by the eruption of domestic terrorism -- spawned by a radical Jewish Underground that grew out of the settlers' movement -- that eventually lead to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and doomed growing hope for a peaceful resolution to the conflict over the Occupation.
Some missteps were simply amateurish and embarrassing. In one case, in an attempt to carry out a census of the Palestinians, Israeli Defense Force (IDF) troops were required to learn some basic Arabic. Soldiers were instructed to knock on doors and explain: "We are here to count you." But, the language training failed to teach the proper pronunciation of the "h" sound in Arabic. As a result, the soldiers went out knocking on Palestinian doors and announcing: "We are here to castrate you."
Looking back, the former spy chiefs now concur, the shift to "counterterrorism" basically unleashed a chain of increasing barbarities that only escalated the conflict and made the peace process impossible. Every time the Shit Bet singled out a "prime terrorist" for "targeted assassination," the murder triggered even larger and angrier protests and acts of retaliation.
Still, even while admitting their failure to guide history towards a peaceful resolution, many of these retired spies could not suppress self-satisfied grins as they recounted the clever plots they hatched to murder Palestinian leaders.
This creepy glee was particularly evident in descriptions of the death of Yahya Ayyash, a Palestinian terror-master known as "The Engineer." Ayyash was dispatched when he picked up an explosives-laden cell phone to speak with his father -- and the Shin Bet blew his head off.
But if Ayyash's murder was a publicity coup, another Shin Bet killing turned out to be a public relations disaster. After a small group of Palestinians took a bus hostage in 1984, Shin Bet director Avraham Shalom secretly gave the orders to execute two of the hijackers after they had surrendered.
The murders might have gone unnoticed, but a photographer managed to capture a shot of one of the hijackers as he was being hustled away -- alive -- in the custody two Shin Bet agents.
(This scene is recreated in a spectacular sequence, thanks to a special effects team that somehow managed to fuse a series of black and white photos of the "Bus 300" incident into what appears to be a continuous 3D reality that morphs from one photo to the next, sweeping viewers through computerized time-and-space.)
Israel's intelligence leaders generally conclude that, for all their work, the Israel-Palestine situation is no better off today than it was when they first sat down behind the director's chair. And, they admit, their efforts often made the situation worse. Almost unanimously, they now agree that the root of the problem is Israel's illegal, unjust and inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people.
As "good soldiers," they kept quiet during their days behind the director's desk but now, their collective judgment demands to be heard -- not only in Tel Aviv but in Washington, as well.
At one point, a Shin Bet chief recalls a US official criticizing Israel after an IDF attack killed several Palestinian civilians. The Israeli brusquely dismissed the criticism. After all, he noted, the US "killed 70 innocent civilians at a wedding party in Afghanistan!"
The voices of Washington's "gatekeepers" have yet to be heard. Most likely (if they share a common humanity), their retrospectives would jibe with those of their Shin Bet colleagues, leading them to the same familiar lesson: When violence grows from a sense of injustice, introducing more violence to the equation never leads to a solution.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.