People tend to hold on to their truths, or lies, to the bitter end, and a new
documentary about Israel’s domestic security service shows its former director
Avraham Shalom doing just that about a particularly scandalous incident in the
history of the service.
The one-time head of the Israel Security Agency,
or Shin Bet, is 85 years old and confined to a wheelchair; he is the “elder of
the tribe” of the agency’s surviving former leaders, and was director from 1981
to 1985.On the last Thursday in December, Shalom arrived at the Tel Aviv
Cinémathèque accompanied by five other former Shin Bet chiefs: Jacob Perry, now
running as a candidate for the Knesset on the Yesh Atid list; Carmi Gillon, on
whose watch Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995; Ami Ayalon, a
former Knesset Member and minister for the Labor party; Avi Dichter, a Likud
Cabinet minister; and Yuval Diskin, who might also enter politics when his
“cooling off” period expires in 2014.
They had come for the premiere of
director Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers,” of which they are the stars. This film is a documentary in
the talking heads genre – interviews and monologues by the six are interspersed
with footage and illustrations relating to the events they discuss. They reveal
to us the doubts they had and the decisions they made during their own stint as
head of the agency.
The film has been well-received at festivals and by
critics in the US and Europe. International audiences are likely impressed by
the apparent honesty of the six as they share with the public the often
agonizing decisions they were forced to make during their service. But the
documentary does not add anything to the knowledge of those familiar with the
reality of the last 45 years of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian
territories – an occupation whose end is still not on the horizon.
film focuses on the questions that have haunted Israelis since the Six Day War
in June 1967, when then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol tasked the Shin Bet with
countering terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. How can we resolve the
contradiction between democratic values and occupation? Can this be
contradiction be resolved at all? What is permissible and legal in the battle
against terrorism? All six emerge from the documentary as “peaceniks” for, as
Perry remarks, “When you retire, you become a lefty.”
And that is exactly
the problem. If this is their attitude why didn’t they try, while in office, to
influence the political decision-making process? Why were they simply
“technicians” in the struggle to prevent terrorism and not engineers and
strategists who aspired to change reality? Shalom towers above the others as the
film’s hero. But he is a tragic hero, one who does not express remorse or pangs
of conscience. For him there is no room for morality in the war against
Yet he is astonishingly candid about the Israeli occupation –
he compares it and the actions of Israeli troops in the territories to those of
the Nazis in occupied Europe during World War II. If such remarks had been
uttered by a spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, or Palestinian
representatives, or Israeli leftwing radicals, no one would have been surprised.
But it is a shock to hear it from such a source. After all, Shalom knows better
than anyone what happened in the Shin Bet’s dark interrogation chambers and was
privy to the measures, operations and ploys used by the agency in the dingy
alleys of Palestinian refugee camps and the major, heavily populated towns in
No wonder that such a man did not hesitate to order the
murder in cold blood by Shin Bet agents of the two Palestinian terrorists who were captured alive in the infamous “Bus 300” hijacking in 1984. However,
what is surprising is Shalom’s claim that he acted on orders from his boss,
then- Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who died last year.
In its 64-year
history, the Shin Bet has been involved in many thousands of operations
involving surveillance, phonetapping, break-ins, counterespionage, and
assassination of terrorists. But two incidents are engraved in the nation’s
memory and traumatized the agency: “Bus 300” and the failure to prevent Rabin’s
Avraham Shalom Ben-Dor was born in 1928 in Austria and
escaped with his parents to Palestine in 1939, after Nazi Germany annexed his
homeland. He fought in the 1948 War of Independence and later joined the Shin
Bet. He served in the operational sections of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, the
external intelligence agency. Among his major feats is his being a member of the
team that captured leading Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in
Two decades later, in 1980, he was appointed by then-Prime Minister
Menachem Begin to lead the Shin Bet. Shalom was considered to be a tough,
uncompromising and opinionated director. And all of these traits came into play
on the night of April 12, 1984.
It was the era before cellphones, and
Shalom called Shamir, who had replaced Begin eight months earlier, via the
communication equipment of the prime minister’s bodyguards. Shamir, who was
attending a political party gathering in Tel Aviv, was informed that terrorists
had hijacked Bus 300, crowded with passengers, en route from Tel Aviv to the
southern city of Ashkelon. Police roadblocks managed to stop the bus in the
southern part of the Gaza Strip, preventing the terrorists from crossing into
the Sinai Peninsula.
After a short conversation with Shamir, Shalom
rushed to the scene. There he found Defense Minister Moshe Arens, senior
military officers, Shin Bet operatives, reporters, TV crews and
The area had not been cordoned off, and chaos
After the negotiations with the four terrorists to secure the
release of the hostages failed, a team from Sayeret Matkal, an elite military
unit, stormed the bus. One passenger (Irit Portuguese, a 19-year-old woman
soldier) was killed and several others were wounded. Two terrorists were killed
and two captured alive.
The two surviving hijackers were beaten and
interrogated on the spot by military personnel, and then handed over to Ehud
Yatom, the head of the Shin Bet’s operational department. Yatom and his team put
the two terrorists in a van and drove to the nearest Shin Bet detention and
interrogation center. But they never reached their destination. As instructed by
Shalom, Yatom and his men stopped in a field, picked up rocks and smashed in the
skulls of the two young terrorists. It was a brutal, cold-blooded
The following morning, the IDF spokesman announced that all four
terrorists had been killed during the raid on the bus. It was, of course, an
Alex Levac, then a young photographer for the newly
launched daily Hadashot, realized it immediately. He developed his film from the
incident, which clearly showed the two Palestinian terrorists being taken away,
alive, by security forces. Ignoring the state censorship instructions, the new
daily published the photos and caused a storm.
First, Defense Minister
Arens, using emergency powers from the days when Britain ruled Palestine,
ordered the paper shut down for several days. Then the government established
secret commissions of inquiry to determine who had murdered the terrorists, and
who had given the order.
Shalom and his cronies in the Shin Bet lied to
the commissions, and tried to incriminate Brigadier-General Yitzhak Mordechai
(who later became defense minister) as the killer.
Shalom also attempted
to persuade the commissions that the order “not to take prisoners” came from
Arens and Shamir.
Very soon he had to change his version and admit that
Arens had not been involved at all. But he still insisted that in a meeting
months earlier, Shamir had left to Shalom the decision of how to deal with
terrorists who had surrendered.
Shamir flatly denied the
However, since the meetings at that time between prime
ministers and their chiefs of intelligence were totally private, with no
witnesses and no note-taker, it was a case of one version against the other.
(One of the results of the incident was that meetings ever since have always
been held in the presence of the prime minister’s military attaché and/ or his
The commissions and then-Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir
could not verify Shalom’s claim, and backed Shamir’s version that he had not
given the order. It was recommended that Shalom and 10 Shin Bet operatives be
indicted and charged with murder and perjury. But at the last moment the
government circumvented the law and granted the suspects clemency, even before
they were tried.
“You know better,” I told Shalom, as he was waiting in
the lobby for the screening.
“You know that all the commissions found you
guilty and cleared Shamir, so why are you raising the false claim once again?”
“Because this is my truth,” he replied. “Is it fair and honest,” I continued,
“to renew the accusation knowing that Shamir, who passed away last June, cannot
defend himself?” “At the time,” Shalom replied, “I suggested that both of us,
Shamir and I, should take a lie detector test. He refused.”
denied Shalom’s accusation.
“He withdrew his claim against me at the
time,” he told me, “not to mention that I was not his immediate boss. He and the
Shin Bet were subordinate to the prime minister. But I am not angry that he is
repeating his claims in the film.”
But Gilada Diamante, Shamir’s
daughter, who, like her father, served in the Mossad, is furious. “I believe my
father,” she told me. “I and my brother Yair [now No. 4 on the Likud Beytenu
list for the Knesset elections] know that our father was telling the truth. Our
father was an honest man with integrity. If he made a mistake, he was the first
one to admit it. The commissions of inquiry found that our father did not give
the order. I don’t understand why Shalom is raising his false claim once again.
It’s not honest to do so when our father cannot defend himself.”Yossi Melman
is a commentator on security and intelligence matters for Walla, a Hebrew news