The Gatekeepers: Shin Bet Chiefs Air Peace Views In Documentary

Ami Ayalon, appointed to head the Shin Bet after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, as shown in the new documentary. Ami Ayalon/Sony Pictures Classics

In the hierarchy of Israeli intelligence agencies, the Shin Bet is the equivalent of the blue-collar worker. While Mossad handles the dazzling overseas operations—abducting a former Nazi or assassinating nuclear scientists—the Shin Bet for almost a half century has managed the dirty work of Israel’s dominion over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most Palestinians view Israel as a colonial intruder, the way, say, Algerians viewed France. To tamp down Palestinian rebellions and foil attacks on Israelis, Shin Bet operatives have regularly engaged in some unsavory measures—rough interrogations and targeted killings, to name two—all in the service of maintaining Israel’s grip over territories it captured in the 1967 war.

So it comes as something of a surprise to hear not just one but six retired Shin Bet chiefs articulate exceedingly pragmatic views in The Gatekeepers, an Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary being released in the U.S. on Feb. 1. The six, who sat down for interviews with filmmaker Dror Moreh, believe Israel has paid a steep political and moral price for its occupation of the West Bank (Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005). To varying degrees, all six think Israeli leaders should be doing more to advance peace with the Palestinians. “I know about plenty of junctures since 1967 when in my view ... we should have reached an agreement and ran away from there,” Yaakov Peri, who headed the Shin Bet from 1988 to 1994, says in the film. “But ... it’s not part of the mandate of an agency chief to persuade a prime minister [to make peace].”

Through the interviews and archival footage, the film offers a narrative of Israel’s turbulent decades since ’67, a period that included Palestinian terrorism and insurrections, the rise of the Israeli settler movement, and the assassination of a prime minister. In all the events, the Shin Bet (also known in Hebrew as Shabak and in English as the General Security Service) played a key role. Though the details emerge through the story-telling of the retired chiefs, the film somehow manages to paint a nuanced picture of the intelligence service, including its brutalities and cover-ups.

Along the way, the pensioners make some surprisingly candid observations about the agency they worked for. Carmi Gillon, who led the Shin Bet from 1994 to 1996, describes the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, where Palestinians are frequently interrogated, as so old and forbidding “that any normative person who walks in the door would be willing to admit to the murder of Jesus” just to get out of there. Yuval Diskin, the most recently serving chief, tells of the coercive measures required to get Palestinians to snitch on their friends and even family. “[It] involves taking a person who doesn’t really like you and causing him to do things that he never thought he’d be willing to do.”

In one of the more startling moments in The Gatekeepers, Moreh reads to Diskin the comments of the late Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who wrote in 1968 that ruling over the Palestinians would effectively turn Israel into a police state, “with all that this implies for education, freedom of speech and thought, and democracy.” Diskin’s reply: he agrees with every word. (In the Tel Aviv theater where I viewed the film, this response elicited audible gasps from the audience.)

Moreh got the idea for The Gatekeepers from an interview that four retired Shin Bet chiefs gave to an Israeli newspaper almost a decade ago, in which they called on then–prime minister Ariel Sharon to cede land and make peace with the Palestinians. Moreh, who later made a documentary about Sharon, says their remarks had a huge impact on the Israeli leader and persuaded him to withdraw from Gaza. Himself a critic of Israel’s occupation in the West Bank, Moreh set about coaxing the retired chiefs, who tend to be media-shy, to sit down and be filmed. “I knew people would be forced to listen to them because the message comes not from these bleeding-heart liberals but from the core of the defense establishment,” he told Newsweek.

The film has been widely praised in Israel and abroad. It is one of two documentaries dealing with Israeli rule in the West Bank to get an Oscar nomination this year. (The other, 5 Broken Cameras, was made jointly by Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers.) But both documentaries have also drawn criticism, mainly from opponents of the peace camp. Political figures from Israel’s far right described them as “Palestinian propaganda films disguised as Israeli documentaries.” The Jewish Press, an American weekly geared toward the Orthodox Jewish community, wrote: “Both films portray Israelis as primarily violent thugs who are intent on oppressing the Arab Palestinians.” (The Gatekeepers has also been criticized by some on the left for not sufficiently challenging the Shin Bet chiefs over the role they themselves played in the occupation.)

ephron-OM03-gatekeepers-second A Palestinian detained in the West Bank in 2002. Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

Moreh is ready to engage with his critics. He wants to show the film in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and he believes people who come to it honestly and openly will be forced to reexamine their views. He says that’s what happened when his sister, herself a settler, watched The Gatekeepers. But he has little patience for the charge that the film slanders Israel. “People who say that are cowards who do not want to look in the mirror. They live in denial,” he says. About his detractors on the far right, he says: “They are the worst enemies of the state of Israel. If there is someone who poses the gravest and biggest threat to the existence of Israel as a viable state, it’s ... those extreme settlers and extreme right-wingers.”

So how did all those security chiefs come to the conclusion that Israel should compromise? Moreh says it evolved from Israel’s failure to finally suppress Palestinian nationalism, no matter what measures it employed. “These are the people who tortured, who assassinated, who interrogated ... They figured out that power can prevail only to a certain point, and after that you have to be a pragmatist.” Others have posed a broader theory—that the film is somehow the parting shot of an old secular elite in Israel, which is steadily being supplanted by another group, this one more religious and less prone to compromise. (The current Shin Bet head is religious.)

The chiefs have their own explanations. Peri says he grew tired of pulling suspects from their beds in the middle of the night and watching the anguish of their wives and children. “These are not easy moments. They get etched deep [in your psyche]. And when you retire from the agency, you become a bit of a lefty.” Avraham Shalom, the eldest of the group, concluded that Israeli policy had become more about punishing the Palestinians than anything else. “We became cruel ... to the occupied population in the guise of fighting terrorism.”

Ami Ayalon, who spent several years in politics after leaving the Shin Bet, said he started to realize that Israel military triumphs were often exercises in futility or worse—adventures that dragged Israel deeper into the void. “My son, who served three or three and a half years in the paratroopers, took part in invading Nablus [a city in the West Bank] at least two or three times. Did this bring us victory? I don’t think so,” Ayalon says in the final frames of the film. “The tragedy ... [is] that we win every battle, but we lose the war.”