The Gatekeepers

Dror Moreh

Singapore 2013, 1h 41min.

It has long been a truism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it is easier to speak honestly about Israeli repression in Hebrew and in Israel than it is to speak about it in any other language or anywhere else. In recent years, this has become more difficult, as the Israeli Government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has attempted to suppress domestic opposition. Still, the internal criticism has not gone away.

When it is spoken, the truth about the use and abuse of Israeli power in ruling over the Palestinians has tended to draw on two main sources: Palestinian victims, in particular through documentation and campaigning by human rights organisations (both Palestinian and Israeli), and critical, free-thinking writers and journalists in the Israeli media, at times drawing on whistleblowers from within the security establishment.

Dror Moreh’s new film The Gatekeepers is very much in the latter tradition. The film is based on interviews with six former heads of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet. For different reasons, most will find this a difficult film to watch: Moreh lets these unrepentant and ruthless pensioners reminisce about the decades-long intelligence wars fought against Palestinian resistance and terrorists – and Israeli terrorists as well – and complain openly about the failures of Israel’s political elites, most notably the Netanyahu governments.

The result is that the only good news in this film is also the bad news: the interviews with these architects of occupation confirm that the scope and quality of Israel’s rule over the Palestinians is pretty much as has been described by the human rights organisations and the critical Israeli media for decades.

The brutal reality of occupation will not be news to Palestinians of course, nor to the minority of Israelis who have long struggled against their state’s failure to get out of the business of ruling over another people. Neither will the film’s overall message about the conflict surprise anyone: violent conflict with the Palestinians will remain a fact of life until there is an end to occupation. The answer, as it has always been, is to talk. All of those interviewed in one way or another support the idea of a negotiated solution with the Palestinians.

For observers of the conflict, The Gatekeepers will be a familiar ritual: top-level current or former Israeli security professionals speaking out about the folly of government policy vis a vis the Palestinians. For the uninitiated, this may seem more than a little bit discouraging: if the critical voices in Israel consist of security establishment stalwarts, one might be forgiven for wondering about the state of the Israeli democratic opposition. But in Israel’s militarized politics, these voices matter.

The Gatekeepers

Their main message is that there is no Israeli political leadership willing or able to deliver Israel’s part in Palestinian self-determination, the inevitable key to any solution to the conflict. The Gatekeepers attempts to explain why. It self-consciously positions these Shin Bet veterans as the latest evidence of the corrupting effects of occupation on Israeli society and politics. Those effects have been ringing alarm bells in Israel for years and they constitute the principle message of the film.

By interviewing six former heads of the Shin Bet, Moreh strives to take this debate to a new level. Not only has he wheeled out some big guns, but he is prepared to use some loaded language as well: Avraham Shalom (career Shin Bet man, head of the agency from 1980 to 1986, pardoned by his political masters for ordering the extra-judicial execution of two Palestinian bus hijackers in 1983) tells Moreh that Israel’s military has become “a brutal occupation force” and that Israel is treating the Palestinians in a manner similar to how the Germans treated the Dutch, Poles and others they occupied in World War II.

For many viewers the comparison will shock, and that is the point. It has to be said that throwing the ‘Nazi’ label around is not an uncommon tactic of Israeli political rhetoric, albeit an extreme one. Still, I suspect fewer will be shocked by the comparison to German occupation than one might expect, simply because The Gatekeepers prepares us almost too well for this conclusion. Using the interviews, extensive archival and drone footage, re-enactments, and still-photo diorama techniques, Moreh portrays a Shin Bet intelligence system so comprehensive, so intrusive and so long-lasting that by the time we reached the Shalom comparison to German occupation I was already reminded of a more recent Germany, an authoritarian one founded on Stasi secret service control (constant surveillance, pervasive use of informants, hundreds of thousands of arrests, targeted killing, etc).

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