Tag Archives: torture

The Gatekeepers

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 six participants are Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Avi Dichter and  Yuval Diskin.

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.

Collateral Damage:

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.

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Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the successful US attempt to find and kill Osama bin Laden; I am using the most common spelling of his first name, but there are different ways of transliterating Arabic names into English. The US intelligence services called him Usama bin Laden or Ladin , and he is referred to as UBL throughout the film.

The film starts with the last messages left by some of the victims of 9/11. It then shows the CIA’s attempts to track down bin Laden, culminating in his death at the hands of US Navy SEALs at Abbotabad on 2 May 2011.

The main protagonist is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst who is obsessed with the hunt for bin Laden. She is a fictional character, although it is unclear whether she is based on a single CIA agent, as The New York Review of Books states, or is a composite of several, as the makers of Manhunt, a documentary treatment of the story, claim.

Unlike many fictional characters with an obsession (eg Agent Mulder in The X-Files), Maya does not appear to have a personal stake in the case. Rather, she appears to be simply utterly absorbed in her job, which is to find bin Laden. She does not seem to have any life outside of her work. Even Carrie Mathison, the obsessive and bi-polar CIA agent from the TV series Homeland, with whom Maya has been compared,  visited her father, sister and nieces and had a sex life.

Zero Dark Thirty is an entertaining film, which deserved its five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Chastain, but it was fair that even better films and performances beat it in these categories, leaving it with only a joint win for Sound Editing.

The film has caused a number of controversies. It begins with one: the film-makers did not ask permission from the families of the dead to use the recordings of the last phone calls made by victims of 9/11 that are played over the opening credits.

Another is that shows the CIA obtaining vital information from torture. It has been claimed, most notably in a letter from Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), that this intelligence actually came from other sources. Sen. McCain, captured in the Vietnam War, can give advocates of the use of torture the unanswerable reply that it did not work on him.

Michael Morell, the Acting CIA Director, distanced his agency from claims that it had co-operated closely with the film-makers in a statement that said that:

Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts. CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has just decided to drop its inquiry into how much help the CIA gave the film-makers.

The release of the film was delayed until after the US Presidential Election because it was feared that it might boost support for President Obama, since he ordered the mission that killed bin Laden. However, the film asserted that waterboarding, introduced by the Bush Administration, but banned by Obama, was a key element in finding bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Neither President nor any members of their Cabinets are portrayed by an actor in the film. The most senior officials to appear are the CIA Director (James Gandolfini) and the National Security Adviser (Stephen Dillane). Each is described by his job title rather than name in the film; the incumbents were Leon Panetta and Tom Donilon.

Overall, this is a good film, but it is marred by the rudeness shown to the families of the 9/11 victims whose last messages are broadcast without permission, and by its ambiguous attitude to torture. Not showing it would have been a whitewash, but the film shows it producing useful intelligence. The Guardian quotes Bigelow as telling the New York Film Critics Circle, who had just given her their Best Director award that:

I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no film-maker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.

The trouble is that the difference between depiction and endorsement will be lost on some, who will see torture producing the evidence that led the good guys to get the bad guy, when in reality it did not.

Incidentally, the zero dark is US military code for midnight, so zero dark thirty means 0030 am, the time at which the SEALs attacked bin Laden’s compound.

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