Impressive as much for its access as for its execution, “The Gatekeepers” features six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, talking about how they’ve tried to keep their country safe over the years. Imagine an American filmmaker gathering together a half a dozen former heads of the CIA to discuss their work. You can’t. Which is why Dror Moreh’s documentary is such an achievement.
Although you may not agree with what they have to say, all six men are uniformly articulate, highly professional and concerned about the future of the Jewish state – in surprising ways. They discuss everything from the ethics of ‘targeted assassinations’ by dropping bombs on houses or using exploding cell phones to their concern that most of what they do is tactical, not strategic, and what they perceive as a lack of direction from a succession of Israeli governments.
They are also totally forthcoming about the morality, or lack of same, of the work they do. “With terrorism there are no morals,” says Avraham Shalom, the toughest of the bunch. “Find morals in terrorists first.”
Using newsreel footage, a handful of re-creations and talking heads, “The Gatekeepers,” an Oscar nominee this year, covers the era post-1967, when the Six Day War caused the West Bank, Gaza and part of Syria to fall into Israeli hands. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) became an occupying army, and security concerns changed accordingly. Because of this, the Shin Bet had to deal with everything from suicide bombings and two separate Palestinian uprisings known as the Intifada, to defeating a violent right-wing Jewish underground that targeted Arabs and planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites.
Here is where “The Gatekeepers” is at its most revealing. As the film goes on, it becomes obvious these men are apolitical servants of the state, determined to protect Israel from all enemies, whether Jewish or Arab. And the disgust they feel as their country slowly but surely becomes a militaristic society in which reactionary politicians and their West Bank settler allies drive the conversation, is palpable. “You can’t make peace using military means,” says one of the men. “Peace must be built on a system of trust.”
Adds another: “When you retire [from Shin Bet] you become something of a leftist.”
Coming from men like these, this is fascinating, even unexpected, talk. But ultimately, Dror Moreh’s film is a real downer, because none of the men he interviews has a positive view of Israel’s future. One says the country has become “a brutal occupying force,” and that “we’ve become cruel.”
And another acknowledges that even though the security forces appear to be doing a good job, Israel has nevertheless become more and more isolated on the world stage. “We win every battle,” he says, “but we lose the war.”