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Over the past year, three documentaries from and about Israel have revealed interrelated but distinct faces of the country. In the Academy Award-nominated Five Broken Cameras, we saw, through the eyes of a Palestinian, Emad Burnat, the brutishness, brutality, and murderousness of the Israeli occupation. In Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Law in These Parts, we saw, through interviews with the legal authorities involved in the process, how easily and cynically the legal structure of the occupation and its oppression and confiscations was developed. And now, with Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers, we see how exceedingly strange and hard to pin down Israel can be, as the six men who since 1980 led the Shin Bet, the nation’s intelligence service, in the course of lengthy, frank, and revealing interviews with the filmmaker, show themselves, or rather define themselves, as ardent workers for peace.
As the director has said in interviews, the Shin Bet heads have, through their elimination of terror, created the possibility for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. It is politicians who, as is said in the film, “have tactics but no strategy,” and have lacked the will and, since Rabin, the interest, to act.
It is common for Israelis of one stripe or another, including those on the far right, to say that they are the ones who truly know and understand the Palestinians. These six men say the same (the director, in his director’s statement, limits this claim to “no one understands the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians better than these six men,” which is more modest and probably more accurate), and they back it up by speaking about how thoroughly their operatives are trained in Arabic, and about the relationships they’ve developed with Palestinian leaders. At the same time, they speak of the importance of "Humint" – Human Intelligence, i.e., the developing of informants, which perhaps bespeaks less a specific knowledge of the Palestinians than of the weakness and venality that lies in the human heart. Yet through their contact with the Palestinians, through their monitoring, studying, and investigations, they all seem to have developed an understanding of, if not a respect for, their opponents. As Yuval Diskin, who led the Shin Bet from 2005-2011 says (in English): “One man’s terrorist is the other man’s freedom fighter.”
This respect and even recognition of the logic of the fighters on the other side doesn’t lead them to be any more tender towards the foe. Avraham Shalom, head of the Shin bet from 1980-1986, is unapologetic and horrifically cynical about the killing of two Palestinians who had hijacked a bus after their capture, and refuses any discussion of morality when discussing the fight against terror. It’s not mentioned in the film, but Shalom lost his post as a result of the killings, which were only uncovered when newspapers published photos of the hijackers — who were beaten to death by their captors — being escorted alive and well from the scene of the act. Yet this same Shalom, whose arrogant personality and style his successors criticize, says at the end of the film that he would have no hesitation about negotiating with Hamas and Islamic Jihad as the only way to obtain peace.
All six of the men have no use for the settlers or the Israeli right, and see them as a clear danger to Israel’s future. In fact, one of the subjects, Carmi Gillon, submitted his resignation because of the Shin Bet’s failure to foresee and prevent the assassination of Yitzkhak Rabin. Much is made in the film of the organization’s campaign against the murderous settler’s movement, and of how the campaign was undermined by the politicians with whom the settlers are so intimately intertwined. In fact, though the men are all quite open about their successes, they are equally open about their failures — the Rabin assassination, the Intifada and, more generally, the failure that any terrorist attack represents.
These men are marvelously ambiguous figures, leaders at the heart of the Israeli establishment who are nevertheless able to view the country, its leaders and its polices with a clear eye. Film director Moreh is able to elicit startling revelations and statements from his subjects, not least Yuval Diskin’s reaction when read a quote from the great religious scholar and opponent of the Occupation, Yeshayhu Leibowitz, that a continuation of the Occupation (which is likened by a subject to that of the Germans in Belgium, Poland, and Czechoslovakia) will result in Israel rotting within and becoming a Shin Bet state. Diskin accepts this characterization as accurate, only rejecting the description of the country as a Shin Bet state. And he’s right: if these portraits of Shin Bet in this film are even half-true, an Israel run by the service would be a vastly better country than the one it is.
But in fact these portraits are only half-true. Though targeted assassinations are discussed at length, no mention is made of Avi Dichter’s role in building the hated separation wall; and though torture is openly discussed, its viciousness during the tenure of Yaakov Peri is passed over in silence.
Nevertheless, these six men feel that their work is both an end in itself — the stopping of terror — and a means of finding a way to peace. The failure to achieve peace, as one of them says, means that when you retire, you become something of a leftist.
Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. He is author of Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.