The dealings of Israel's Shin Bet explored in new documentary

The Gatekeepers

Directed by Dror Moreh

Opens at the Charles Theatre March 22

The prison in Jerusalem is old, dark, and unforgiving. Inside, agents of Israel's Shin Bet have interrogated hundreds of Palestinians and Arabs suspected of planning or perpetrating terrorist attacks against Israeli political, military, and civilian targets. As chief of the Shin Bet from 1994 to 1996, Carmi Gillon was responsible for the death of Abdel-Samad Hassan Harizat-a 3-foot-tall suspected Hamas militant killed in 1995 when his brain collided with the back of his skull while being shaken by a Shin Bet operative. That fact, however, is probably unsurprising for a prison Gillon describes as "the worst that I know."

"A normal person walks through the door [of Jerusalem's prison], and he's ready to admit to killing Jesus," he says.

Gillon is one of the six living, former chiefs of the Shin Bet interviewed in The Gatekeepers, Israeli director Dror Moreh's inspection of the Israeli domestic intelligence agency created in 1949.

Combining archival news footage and those six interviews, Moreh's documentary picks up after the Six-Day War of 1967, when a victorious Israel occupied the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. (Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005.) After the occupation, the Shin Bet served on the front lines in what would become a decades-old beef marked by Palestinian terror attacks, insurrections, targeted killings, and brutal interrogations by Israeli military personnel.

Gatekeepers are precisely what these former Shin Bet chiefs were: men responsible for overseeing an agency charged with protecting Israel from spies, enemies, and Palestinian nationalists bent on chasing an invader from their lands.

But as Avraham Shalom suggests, carrying out operations after the Six-Day War was a confused mandate that was more cocksure than concerted in its initial stages. Indeed, Shalom, who headed the Shin Bet from 1980 through 1986, admits the Shin Bet was lucky once Palestinians started attacking Israeli occupying forces-after all, it provided his men in the field with a definition for its counter-terrorism work. Over time, the attacks would evolve in their sophistication, as Palestinian aggression toward Israeli forces morphed into aggression against Israel and its citizens.

Where Moreh's documentary shines is in juxtaposing the historical timeline against the candid observations he manages to elicit from the Shin Bet commanders. Yuval Diskin, who led the Shin Bet from 2005 through 2011, describes in robotic dispassion a perfect operation as one that targets and kills terrorists exclusively, just before deeming his ability to order the deaths of men, irrespective of their political stance, "unnatural."

Even after the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993 and the Palestinian Liberation Organization agreed to renounce all violence toward Israel, provocations continued as Hamas and Islamic jihadist groups became new aggressors toward Israel and the Shin Bet responded accordingly.

"There was no such thing as an illegal order," Ami Ayalon tells Moreh. The head of the group from 1996 through 2000, he recounts memories of Palestinian terrorists with hands tied behind their backs being killed. This is not a documentary where any man begs for forgiveness. They don't cry. They don't wince. One might expect Moreh to goad them into saying sorry, but no one utters an apology-it's debatable whether they think they owe one.

Ungrudgingly evident is the sense in which these commanders feel used by a political class that approached the Shin Bet's secretive operations as nothing more than an elaborate game of chess. To them, winning was the single suitable outcome, even though "situations are shades of gray," as Diskin says at the film's beginning.

That thought sets the tone for the hour-and-a-half-long documentary. As Moreh dives deeper into each man's introspection, they vacillate more and more between detached explanations of their leadership duties and sincere criticisms of how Israel has approached its relationship with the Palestinian people. They uniformly decry the mid-'90s rise of the religious right-a wing of the Israeli populace that condemned Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as a sellout to his own nation-despite an increase in attacks against Israeli citizens that intensified after Rabin signed the Oslo Accords. (Yaakov Peri, Shin Bet chief from 1988 through 1994, even calls Yigal Amir, the Israeli who shot and killed Rabin in November 1995, as "some punk of an assassin" who managed to "eliminate the entire peace process.")

Yet a collective feeling of retrospective righteousness cannot shield the six former Shin Bet commanders from Diskin's charge that situations are more convoluted than tidy. It's not as if these six men can absolve themselves now, no matter how freely they speak about former operational protocol.

Consider a scene at the film's end when Avraham Shalom, the oldest of the former Shin Bet, says that dropping one-ton bombs on buildings where terrorist leaders are meeting inside "can't be moral." He says "it's not humane," and therefore "it's not just."

Earlier in the documentary, however, Shalom admits ordering Shin Bet security forces to kill two of the hijackers captured in connection with the Bus 300 incident. In 1984, a group of Palestinian hijackers commandeered Bus 300 in Ashdod, Israel, with the intention to drive it and its passengers across the Egyptian border. Israeli military forces eventually stopped the bus in a town in Gaza just 10 miles north of Egypt, took hold of the two hijackers who were still alive, and "beat the daylights out of them," Shalom says.

Moreh presses Shalom, asking him if it's moral to order the on-the-spot killings of two arrested men.

Shalom, after cavalierly mentioning that he told his men to hit the hijackers again and "finish it," offers a response that's cool, quick, and anything but a shade of gray: "In the war against terror, forget about morality."

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