Arts & Events

The Gatekeepers: Looking Back on Israel's Failed 'War on Terror'
Now playing at the Albany Twin and Shattuck theaters

By Gar Smith
Saturday February 23, 2013 - 03:44:00 PM
Ami Avalon today, and as IDF officer.
Ami Avalon today, and as IDF officer.

In Dror Moreh's Oscar-nominated documentary, The Gatekeepers, six former heads of Israel's spy agency speak candidly — and reflect critically — about their clandestine work. To begin to appreciate the magnitude of Moreh's accomplishment, try to imagine a US filmmaker getting all nine of the past CIA directors (from William Casey in 1980 to Leon Panetta) to face a camera and unburden their souls. 

Hard to imagine such a thing ever happening, right? 

Still, the overlaps between the Shin Bet's history and the CIA's legacy are uncanny as they keep echoing throughout The Gatekeepers. Time and again, each Gatekeeper in turn, seems surprised when an order to assassinate a well-known Palestinian target winds up triggering yet more violence. 

The intelligence chiefs refer to Israel's struggle with the Palestinians as a "war on terror." One remembers the excitement that followed the first Palestinian terrorist act directed against Israel. Thanks to a single explosion, one former spy recalls with relish, "We no longer had to focus on the issue of the Palestinian State. Now we had work!" 

Soon, they had more work than expected when Israel's stability was threatened by the eruption of domestic terrorism — spawned by a radical Jewish Underground that grew out of the settlers' movement — that eventually lead to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and doomed growing hope for a peaceful resolution to the conflict over the Occupation. 

Some missteps were simply amateurish and embarrassing. In one case, in an attempt to carry out a census of the Palestinians, Israeli Defense Force (IDF) troops were required to learn some basic Arabic. Soldiers were instructed to knock on doors and explain: "We are here to count you." But, the language training failed to teach the proper pronunciation of the "h" sound in Arabic. As a result, the soldiers went out knocking on Palestinian doors and announcing: "We are here to castrate you." 

Looking back, the former spy chiefs now concur, the shift to "counterterrorism" basically unleashed a chain of increasing barbarities that only escalated the conflict and made the peace process impossible. Every time the Shit Bet singled out a "prime terrorist" for "targeted assassination," the murder triggered even larger and angrier protests and acts of retaliation. 

Still, even while admitting their failure to guide history towards a peaceful resolution, many of these retired spies could not suppress self-satisfied grins as they recounted the clever plots they hatched to murder Palestinian leaders. This creepy glee was particularly evident in descriptions of the death of Yahya Ayyash, a Palestinian terror-master known as "The Engineer." Ayyash was dispatched when he picked up an explosives-laden cell phone to speak with his father -- and the Shin Bet blew his head off. 

But if Ayyash's murder was a publicity coup, another Shin Bet killing turned out to be a public relations disaster. After a small group of Palestinians took a bus hostage in 1984, Shin Bet director Avraham Shalom secretly gave the orders to execute two of the hijackers after they had surrendered. The murders might have gone unnoticed, but a photographer managed to capture a shot of one of the hijackers as he was being hustled away — alive — in the custody two Shin Bet agents. 

(This scene is recreated in a spectacular sequence, thanks to a special effects team that somehow managed to fuse a series of black and white photos of the "Bus 300" incident into what appears to be a continuous 3D reality that morphs from one photo to the next, sweeping viewers through computerized time-and-space.) 

Israel's intelligence leaders generally conclude that, for all their work, the Israel-Palestine situation is no better off today than it was when they first sat down behind the director's chair. And, they admit, their efforts often made the situation worse. Almost unanimously, they now agree that the root of the problem is Israel's illegal, unjust and inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people. 

As "good soldiers," they kept quiet during their days behind the director's desk but now, their collective judgment demands to be heard — not only in Tel Aviv but in Washington, as well. 

At one point, a Shin Bet chief recalls a US official criticizing Israel after an IDF attack killed several Palestinian civilians. The Israeli brusquely dismissed the criticism. After all, he noted, the US "killed 70 innocent civilians at a wedding party in Afghanistan!"
The voices of Washington's "gatekeepers" have yet to be heard. Most likely (if they share a common humanity), their retrospectives would jibe with those of their Shin Bet colleagues, leading them to the same familiar lesson: When violence grows from a sense of injustice, introducing more violence to the equation never leads to a solution.