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'The Gatekeepers' Unmasks Israeli Security Apparatus

In the documentary "The Gatekeepers," six former heads of the Shin Bet reveal who is in charge of keeping Israel's security gates, giving viewers a rude awakening, writes Shlomi Eldar.
Yuval Diskin, Israel's domestic security chief, makes a public speech at a homeland security conference in Tel Aviv November 1, 2010. Diskin identified cyber technologies as an ascendant international security threat. REUTERS/Nir Elias (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS SCI TECH)

The film "The Gatekeepers" was over. The credits started running down the screen in Tel Aviv’s Cinemateque to the sound of soft music, and a tense silence filled the theater. The audience was glued to their seats, a look of disbelief spread across its faces. The atmosphere was heavy and tense. Even the lights took their time to go back on, as if they wanted to leave the audience in the dark for just a little longer. When they did go on in the end, the real faces of those very people after whom this film was named — the six former heads of the Shin Bet [Israel National Security Agency] — could be seen seated in the hall. These were the men who appeared on screen for the past 95 minutes, exposing the almost human side of Israel’s political and security apparatus. They had once achieved the rank of public heroes. Now that the film was over, even they seemed stunned.

"The Gatekeepers" is a film about our story, Israel’s story, from the Six Day War until today, as told from a security perspective. Each of the film’s six protagonists — Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin — served successively as the head of Shin Bet from 1980 to 2012. Director Dror Moreh seated them in front of a camera so that they could each describe the main events that marked their tenures. They did so with chilling simplicity, and they had lots to describe: the bus 300 affair, the First and Second Intifadas, the Jewish Underground [militant organization], suicide attacks, targeted assassinations, Rabin’s assassination, etc. And that is just a very partial list.

One of the first images appearing on screen was one of many clips collected from the archives of Israel’s state television channel. It showed the first wave of arrests of Palestinians in Jerusalem. Terrified men and boys were made to sit on the pavement, facing a stone wall, in footage we’ve all seen hundreds of times. Still, there was something unique about this scene. We saw the faces of Israeli soldiers too, and they seemed no less terrified, embarrassed and confused. They didn’t know what they were supposed to do, or to what degree they were supposed to do it. How much force should they use? Against whom? For the first time they were forced to confront, not some army in uniform, but a civilian population.

As this film clearly shows, we’ve mastered the job since then. In fact, we’ve become quite the professionals.

It seemed as even if the audience had kept its eyes shut tightly until now, this film pried them wide open. If until now we all thought, or at least we wanted to think, that there was some responsible adult in charge and that momentous decisions about Israel’s future were being made in the wisest of manners, after deep thought and careful consideration, we suddenly discovered — and from the heads of the security apparatus themselves — that the thought process wasn’t always that deep and that the most dramatic decisions weren’t always made after careful consideration, with a long-term strategy in mind. And we’re not talking about one single government either. The same was true for all of Israel’s governments since 1967.

It really was a rude awakening. The film was over and the audience was still trying to absorb what it had just seen, when suddenly someone turned to Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet (2000–2005), and raged: “How could you collaborate on this ‘thing,’ on this film? How could you do a thing like that? It’s disgraceful. People all over the world will see it. Shame on you! Shame on you, Dichter!”

Only moments earlier, Dichter had appeared on screen describing the mechanics of targeted assassinations. After all, he was one of the people most responsible for advancing that strategy. But now he responded with an uncomfortable smile. This man once led the Shin Bet to some of its most impressive achievements in the field of intelligence. This man was a close confidante and friend of [former Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon. Yet here he was being accused to his face of lowering the public’s morale and, of no less importance, of causing irreparable damage to Israel’s status internationally, no matter how decrepit it already was. He was practically being labeled a collaborator.

What caused this outburst?

In this film Dichter and his five colleagues in the Shin Bet slaughtered almost all the sacred cows of Israel’s security apparatus one after the other. The very people who fought terrorism day after day were unequivocal in their condemnation of the policies that they themselves carried out throughout their long service to the country. For a moment it seemed as if they were about to link arms and join some revolution against Israel’s political establishment across the generations.

Ami Ayalon described growing up on a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee. “I had a wonderful childhood,” he said. “I knew that there's a house in Jerusalem, and on the second floor there’s a long corridor. At the end of the corridor there's a door, and behind the door is a wise man, who makes decisions. He thinks. My parents called him the ‘Old Man,’” he adds, referencing to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Could he have been the last responsible adult? It’s really hard to tell.

Then the camera returned to Ayalon’s worried face as he carried on with his story. Perhaps he didn’t realize what he was actually saying: “Years later, after the Yom Kippur War [1973], I went to Jerusalem, and I went to that same building. I was on the second floor, and found no door at the end of the corridor, and behind the missing door, no one was thinking for me.”

Even more than any self-flagellation over the sins of the past, every one of the speakers in this film expresses deep concern about the country’s future.

In an interview with Al-Monitor’s Mairav Zonszein last week, the film’s director Dror Moreh explained: “I wanted to put a mirror in front of Israeli society, forcing it to confront the situation we are in.”

And he did. Moreh takes us on a fascinating journey back in time, all the way back to the Six Day War [1967]. In his first-ever interview, Avraham Shalom offers a chilling description of the days immediately after that war: “As soon as we stopped dealing with the Palestinian state and started dealing with terrorism, terror became more sophisticated. So did we. Suddenly we had a lot of work in Gaza and the West Bank … and overseas too, so we forgot about the Palestinian issue.”

All these heads of the Shin Bet expressed deep frustration over the Jewish Underground and its plans to blow up the Temple Mount in the 1980s. “The consequence of blowing up the Dome of the Rock, even today, is that it could lead to total war by all the Islamic states, not just the Arab states, not just Iran, Indonesia too, against the State of Israel. I'm not [even] talking about the risk to the Jewish minority around the world.”

Their plans were thwarted. The Jewish Underground was exposed. Then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided to pardon them all.

Commenting on all of these experiences, Yaakov Peri – former head of the Shin Bet (1988-1995), named on the Facebook page of the film [the Israeli] “George Smiley”, after John le Carré's mythological master spy - stuns the audience with what he considers to be an inevitable conclusion: “These moments end up etched deep inside you, and when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.”

And so, for over an hour and a half, the heads of the Shin Bet peeled back the masks, leaving them — and us — exposed to the insanity.

The person who seemed most tense throughout the entire screening was Carmi Gillon, who headed the Shin Bet from 1994 to 1996. Gillon was the architect responsible for the targeted assassination of “The Engineer,” Yahya Ayyash, in Gaza [1996]. An explosive device hidden in his cell phone took out the man responsible for a series of elaborate terrorist attacks by Hamas in Israel, but it led to an equally devastating response. Hamas went on to launch a new wave of suicide attacks unlike anything the country had ever seen. It is no exaggeration to say that if there ever was even the slightest chance to resuscitate the overly encumbered relationship between Israel and the Palestinians after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, this new wave of attacks came and buried it in a pauper’s grave.

Carmi Gillon can take credit for many important achievements, but it is a single, devastating failure for which he will never be forgotten (and for which he will not forgive himself): Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination (Nov. 4, 1995). He immediately assumed responsibility and submitted his resignation.

Carmi Gillon expands on this, saying, “We are making the lives of millions unbearable — into prolonged human suffering.”

Another especially unsettling moment comes when Dror Moreh reads Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s near prophetic vision for Israel’s future to Yuval Diskin (2005–2011). It was these very words that led to the great scientist and philosopher’s removal from the “acceptable (national) consensus.” They practically got him stoned.

“A state ruling over a hostile population of 1 million foreigners will necessarily become a Shin Bet state, with all that this implies for education, freedom of speech and thought, and democracy. The corruption found in every colonial regime will affix itself to the State of Israel."

Last year Diskin almost saw himself shunned too by that same political establishment, after he dared to publicly voice his opposition to a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He nodded as the quote was read to him. “I agree with every word he wrote, he said. “I wouldn't say that it became a Shin Bet state, but no doubt, our current situation with the Palestinians undoubtedly created a reality that is very similar to what Leibowitz wrote.”

The theater was left tongue-tied once the screening was over. Almost automatically, however, everyone turned their silent eyes to those six men, who once stood at the head of the system, but have since become its harshest critics. “Where were you all these years?” everyone seemed to be asking. “Why are you only waking up now, when the clock is about to strike twelve? Why didn’t you start screaming about this earlier?”

All that was left for the former heads of the Shin Bet was to maintain a thunderous silence as they stepped out into the cold Tel Aviv night. They already said what they had to say in the past hour and a half.

The bad news of this film is that despite what so many of us had hoped, there is no responsible adult watching over us, in our security forces or our government. The good news is that now that we know this, we can no longer ignore it.

Besides, "The Gatekeepers" now appears on the short list of documentary features from which the final five nominees for the Oscar will be selected. Maybe we will finally win that little gold statue we’ve been craving for so long.

Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. He has published two books: Eyeless in Gaza (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and Getting to Know Hamas (2012). In 2010 Eldar directed the documentary film "Precious Life," official selection of the 2010 Telluride and Toronto International film festivals, which won the Ophir Award (the Israeli Oscar for documentary filmmaking). He has an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and lives in Ness Tsiona.

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