Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Gatekeepers (Shomerei Ha'saf)

Ami Ayalon (1996 – 2000), center

Yaakov Peri (1988 – 1995)

Avi Dichter (2000 – 2005)

THE GATEKEEPERS (Shomerei Ha'saf)         B+                  
Israel  France  Germany  Belgium  (95 mi)  2012  d:  Dror Moreh   
Official site                  

When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.       —Yaakov Peri, former Shin Bet chief

Loosely inspired by the Errol Morris film THE FOG OF WAR (2003), as the film interviews 6 former heads of Israel's Security Agency Shin Bet, responsible for the nation’s internal security including the Israeli-occupied territories, an agency so secretive that until recently the names of the operation chiefs were known only by their initials, men with unique roles in the newly developing history of Israel and men whose opinions matter, though the director, a former Israeli soldier himself, hardly merits comparison with Morris, who is one of the great journalists of our era who also happens to excel in making exceptional documentary films.  While the film should be considered mandatory viewing, as it offers a brilliantly concise overview of events in the Middle East since the 1967 Six-Day War, analyzed and recalled by articulate and powerful men who sat at the head of their nation’s security, one of the overall achievements of the film is simply bringing these former security chiefs together to discuss their role in the war on terrorism, Palestinians and the occupied territories, settlements, the peace accord, and their views of the future.  It’s interesting that the men largely reflect upon their own failures, not the morally questionable and oftentimes abhorrent tactics used, but in the overall outcome, suggesting Israel is no safer now despite all the drastic security measures taken, including targeted assassinations of known terrorists.  The film suggests the event that forever changed Israeli history was the fanatical act of a rabidly right-wing, extremist Israeli law student named Yigal Amir who opposed the Oslo Peace Accords (Oslo Accords) and assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, as that put an end to continuing the peace process and shifted the focus of terrorists abroad to terrorists within.  The agency had to completely reorganize its targets and priorities, eventually catching Jewish right-wing extremists in the act of plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock, offended that an ancient Arab shrine would overlook sacred places of Jewish worship.  It turns out these religious fanatics were backed by prominent Israelis, men connected to the democratic mainstream of Israeli politics, and despite efforts that may have incited a Holy War, which was actually their most fervent religious intent, believing the ensuing chaotic apocalypse would bring about the return of the Messiah, they were tried and convicted, but quickly released from prison due to their close political connections, returning back to their neighborhoods as anointed heroes.  The quick shift from Intifada Palestinian protests against the Israeli government to large rallies of right-wing Israelis protesting against the same Israeli government advocating peace with the Palestinians was a bit stunning, especially when current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at that time one of the most defiantly outspoken leaders of the Likud party against peace, parading coffins of the embattled Prime Minister Rabin as part of their protest, literally inciting the violence that lead to Rabin’s assassination.  That is easily the most remarkable insinuation of the movie, but it comes from the filmmaker, not any of the agency heads. 

While each of the men has a unique style and different personality, all profiled on the movie website The Gatekeepers, Avraham Shalom (1980 – 1986) is the oldest, and despite his gentle, grandfatherly look, sitting there in red suspenders, he had no problem whatsoever with Israeli security forces hauling a Palestinian hijacker off a bus and beating him to death under his watch in 1984, suggesting one has to “forget about morality” when dealing with terrorists.  With that sly look in his eye, he insisted no one would have known if there wasn’t a journalist onboard the bus exposing the incident.  One of the more provocative techniques was using grainy security footage, often with a targeted scope, showing how cars driving down the streets could quickly be eliminated by missile fire, causing Yuval Diskin (2005 – 2011) to reflect upon the awesome power to decide who lives and who dies, suggesting there’s something unnatural about holding that amount of power in your hands.  There are, of course, negative repercussions to firing rockets in heavily congested urban areas, as there is collateral damage, including the potential deaths of innocents.  Part of the problem was the choice of weaponry, dropping 1-ton bombs, which was the technique of the times and something of overkill, becoming much more sophisticated and accurate today, though one was reminded of an American missile that killed 70 people at an Afghan wedding.  Though it was never mentioned in the film, this raises the question of the use of drones by the American military, which are the most accurate, yet collateral damage remains if the intelligence isn’t as precise as the missiles.  The question becomes, does the use of the weapon deteriorate the effectiveness of the enemy?  In the case of al Qaeda, this is the only effective means of eliminating their leadership, as capturing them, preparation and cost-wise, not to mention the potential loss of lives involved, is simply out of the question.  Israel faced these exact same security questions about what to do with terrorists long before the Americans came into the picture.  Unlike the rather apathetic American public, which remains isolated, thousands of miles away from where the terrorists actually reside, the Israeli public only became more outraged at becoming such easy targets for retaliation, as they were the first victims of suicide bombers, where there was plenty of accumulated bloodshed on both sides. 

After expressing an interest in hearing from the Shin Bet chiefs, Ami Ayalon (1996 – 2000) was the first one approached, a highly decorated military officer brought in at the worst time, after the agency failed to protect the nation’s Prime Minister.  His no nonsense approach offers a clue into the psychology of these men, as on the job one must be steady and sure-handed, making decisions exuding leadership qualities, as you’re literally setting an example for an entire security force.  But afterwards, when one has had time to reflect, you can pull out quotes from old soldiers like Karl von Clausewitz, a German-Prussian soldier and military theorist who claimed “Victory is the creation of a better political reality.”  His argument is one does not have to kill every last man in order to declare victory, as Israel has won literally every military confrontation and successfully assassinated nearly all those most responsible for acting upon the destruction and annihilation of Israel, yet in the same breath Yuval Diskin declares “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.  We wanted security and got more terrorism.”  For every attack Israel initiated, the Palestinians counterattacked, drawing blood for blood, making sure the seemingly stronger military power paid a huge price for their actions, resulting in an escalating war of revenge that only accumulated more and more casualties on each side.  If anything, other than the mistakes made in allowing Rabin’s assassination, these men aren’t questioning their own actions, but critiquing their government, where Shalom acknowledges that in the accumulating bloodlust, “We have become cruel,” suggesting they continue to brutally treat their neighbors as potentially deadly enemies, as after Rabin, there has been no political will for peace.  Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, prohibited in the original peace provisions, have doubled since Rabin’s death, mostly by zealous right-wing religious groups lead by equally fanatical rabbi’s who are willing to risk their lives promoting Zionism.  This kind of stirred up nationalist religious fervor makes no room for peace, and current Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing majority thrives on this much needed rabid support.  Netanyahu, who refused to see this documentary, has called U.S. backed peace talks a waste of time, offering lip service to a side-by-side two-state solution that includes a Palestinian state, while right-wing members of Netanyahu's governing coalition criticize even the mere suggestion of a Palestinian State, believing all of the land should remain under Israeli sovereignty.  So it comes as a bit of a surprise that those once charged with providing for the nation’s security have all grown to regret the hawkish direction of the country afterwards, where according to Avi Dichter (2000 – 2005), "You can't make peace using military means.  Enough of the occupation.  We cannot win this battle.  We have to try to compromise.  If we try to eat the whole cake and not share it we will lose.” 

According to an interview with the Huffington Post, the director believes American Jews look to Israel as a post-Holocaust “safe haven,” suggesting they are drawing “the wrong conclusion…that they have to support Israel no matter what,” a view the director believes is “damaging the state of Israel.”  According to Moreh, “They don't understand that we are going towards an apartheid country.  By not criticizing it, by accepting everything Israel does politically and especially towards the conflict, they are damaging their own goal, to protect the state of Israel as a safe haven for them.”  Accordingly, the film has not been shown on Israeli television, and the subjects of the film, the various former heads of the Shin Bet security service have not been invited to speak before certain “pro-Israel” groups in America, the kind that equate support with blanket approval of Israeli policies.  Any film that critiques the current policies would not be welcomed in those organizations.  The heads of Shin Bet acknowledge they engaged in brutal methods used to detain, interrogate, and stop terrorists, but virtually the only Israeli Prime Minister in the past 30 years who was open to negotiation with the Palestinians was Yitzhak Rabin, who broke the pattern and attempted to develop a lasting peace with Israel’s neighbors.  According to Avraham Shalom, Israel should remain open to talking to anyone, including Hamas, insisting upon negotiating peace and ending its occupation of the West Bank.  It’s the only option that can alter the endless cycle of the threat of terrorism from abroad and the repression of individual rights at home, as otherwise Israel is heading into a modern era police state.  “It completely reflects my views,” said Yaakov Peri (1988 – 1995).  “We discuss these things among ourselves. We all agree,” adding emphatically that every ex-Mossad chief and most former army chiefs feel the same way.  “The six of us reached our opinions from different personal backgrounds and different political outlooks, but we’ve all reached the same conclusion,” Ami Ayalon said. “Many Israelis and American Jews want to deny it, but this is our professional opinion.  We’re at the edge of an abyss, and if Israeli-Palestinian peace doesn’t progress, it’s the end of Zionism.”

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