Anyone with a serious interest in Israel should see the extraordinary new documentary The Gatekeepers, directed by Dror Moreh. It consists of extensive and rare interviews with the six surviving former heads of the Shin Bet (the General Security Services) in Israel: Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Ya’acov Peri and Avraham Shalom. The interviews are interspersed with newsreel and archival footage and computerenhanced imagery.
Although when I initially read about the film I feared a dry, talking-heads documentary, this movie is anything but that.
Whatever your political point of view, you will find The Gatekeepers fascinating, tragic, upsetting and even – fleetingly – funny. And yes, a great deal of it does consist of interviews with these six men, but let’s face it, some talking heads have earned the right to speak.
These men’s insights and the masterful organization of the film make this the best Israeli documentary in years, and it may get an Oscar nod.
There is a saying that two things you should never watch being made are sausages and legislation.
But in Israel, after seeing The Gatekeepers, I would add security policy to that list. You may think of these men as heroes or villains, but the truth, as many of them say explicitly in their interviews, is somewhere in between.
Ami Ayalon, a former Knesset member from the Labor Party, is probably the best known of the six, and he has made his views on various issues public in the past. He was reportedly the first to agree to be interviewed and encouraged the others to participate.
The film is divided into seven segments that are loosely chronological. The first segment, “No Strategy, Just Tactics,” covers the changing role of the Shin Bet in the aftermath of the Six Day War. The first of many surprising statements in the film is Avraham Shalom’s comment that he always thought a Palestinian state would have been a great idea. I was also surprised that he admitted that it was lucky for the Shin Bet that terrorism emerged out of the West Bank and Gaza, since it gave his agency a clearly defined role to play.
If there is a villain in this piece, though, it is Shalom, who, in the second segment, becomes vague and evasive when asked about one of the Shin Bet’s most damaging scandals, the Bus 300 incident in the 1980s. Two terrorists who hijacked a bus were captured alive and then killed in captivity. While you may not find much sympathy for Shalom here, Moreh gives him the opportunity to answer all the charges.
The film is almost a capsule history of the entire country, as it examines other issues, including the peace process and the Oslo Accords, the development of a Jewish terror underground and the murder of Yitzhak Rabin (which led Carmi Gillon to resign, out of a feeling of responsibility), the targeted assassinations policy, the attitudes of the Palestinian leadership in the second intifada (this section, revealingly, is called “Our Victory Is to See You Suffer”), and the six men’s general reflections on the country and the future.
I don’t think there are any new facts revealed in the film, but some of the men’s comments are as thought-provoking as any factual revelation could be. When Ya’acov Peri describes personally supervising the arrests of Palestinian suspects in their homes at night, he says, “These moments end up etched deep inside you; and when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.”
And while Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the late left-wing religious philosopher, was well known for comparing settlers to Nazis (his prescient 1968 statement on how holding on to the West Bank and Gaza would change Israel is quoted in the film), you might not expect Avraham Shalom to say more or less the same thing: “On the other hand, it’s a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in World War II. Similar, but not identical.”
This complex and entertaining film will stay with you long after you see it and may change the way you think about current events.
Hebrew title: Shomrei Ha’saf.
Written and directed by Dror Moreh
Running time: 95 minutes
In Hebrew, with English subtitles