The Gatekeepers is a documentary film about Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service, made by Dror Moreh. It consisted of interviews with the six living former heads of Shin Bet, interspersed with archive film and some CGI graphics, and told the organisation’s story since 1967. Until then the main threats to Israel were external, so Mossad, the foreign intelligence service was more important than Shin Bet.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the 6 Day War in 1967 meant that it faced a security threat from territory that it controlled, so Shin Bet became the more important of the two intelligence services.
The film is divided into seven segments, which give it a roughly chronological order, but also discuss various themes and moral issues that have arisen since 1967, including political direction, torture, targeted assassinations and collateral damage.
The seven segments are:
No Strategy, Just Tactics:
This covers the initial stages of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel had no strategy for the future of the occupied territories; everything revolved round short-term tactics aimed at reducing terrorism.
These succeeded in cutting the number of attacks hugely, but did nothing to produce a long-term solution, although some Israelis, including Avraham Shalom, wanted a Palestinian state even then.
In order to carry out a census of the occupied territories, Israeli soldiers were taught a small number of relevant Arabic phrases, including ‘We want to count you.’ Unfortunately, a pronunciation error mean that many Israelis actually said that ‘We want to castrate you.’ Shin Bet subsequently set up a very rigorous programme of Arabic lessons for its personnel.
Forget About Morality:
This deals with the hijacking of the 300 bus in 1984. The four hijackers were killed, but it subsequently emerged that two had been captured alive, badly beaten and then killed. The film attributed this to the Israeli Army, but the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has published documents that blame Shalom and Shin Bet.
One Man’s Terrorist is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter:
This covers the peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO that culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accords. Opposition to them in both Palestine and Israel resulted in the growth of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and terrorist acts by Israelis.
Our Own Flesh and Blood:
This dealt with terrorism by Israelis who opposed the Oslo Accords. Shin Bet investigations resulted in the arrest and conviction of many of them, but most were released after serving only part of their sentences. On 4 November 1995 Israeli Prime Minister Yithak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, an Israeli.
Victory is to See You Suffer:
The title of this segment comes from a comment made by a Palestinian to Ami Ayalon during Israeli-Palestinian talks during the Second Intifada. It means that the Palestinians would regard it as a victory if they could make life for the Israelis as bad as it was for themselves.
This covered the targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, and the risk that innocent civilians would also be killed. At one point Shin Bet discovered that the senior command of Hamas would be meeting in a particular building. The Israeli Air Force could have dropped a one ton bomb on it, killing all of them, but also some innocent civilians. The politicians insisted that only a quarter ton bomb should be dropped. This reduced the risk of killing innocents, but meant that the Hamas leaders would be killed only if they were in the upper floor of the two storey building; they were not and survived.
The Old Man at the End of the Corridor:
This came from a belief held by Ami Ayalon when he was a child on a kibbutz that Israel was run by a wise man (David Ben-Gurion) who sat in an office behind at the end of a long corridor and made decisions after thinking things through carefully. When he entered the government, he found the corridor, but there was no door at the end of it.
In this segment the six men reflected on Shin Bet, its activities and the implications for Israel. They all thought that it was necessary for Israel to talk to its enemies, and did not seem to have been impressed by the politicians that they had worked for, apart from Rabin; he was described as understanding security issues so well that they did not have to be explained to him.
A fear was expressed that Israel may end up winning all the battles but losing the war because of stubbornness. The occupation has embittered the occupied and brutalised the occupiers. Avraham Shalom suggested that Israel is treating the Palestinians as the Germans treated the non-Jewish subjects of the countries that they occupied in WWII.
A very powerful film. All six men came across well, speaking openly and honestly. They were aware of the problems that Israel’s actions had created, and feared that its strategy was flawed, but had been in positions where they could only carry out the strategy laid down from above.