“The Gatekeepers,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security force, comes this weekend to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. A riveting and deeply disturbing primer on state-sanctioned violence in the name of internal security, it is a film that anyone willing to think seriously about the implications of anti-terrorism tactics should see.
Israeli first-time director Dror Moreh interviews the six surviving former heads of Shin Bet: Avraham Shalom (1980-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1994), Carmi Gillon (1994-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-2005), and Yuval Diskin (2005-2011). Mr. Moreh uses a traditional talking-head approach interlaced with archival footage and re-enactments from still photos. Rarely have talking heads proved so powerful.
The movie gives an overview of how Israel’s internal security force, started in 1949 by Israeli’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, evolved after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank.
All six of the former Shin Bet directors speak with startling frankness about the organization. Mr. Shalom, the oldest of the interviewees, describes how terrorism did not really exist prior to the Six-Day War. Shin Bet’s role as a counter-terrorism agency developed quickly after that. In a discussion of the notorious Egged Bus 300 incident in 1984, when two of the Arabs who hijacked the bus died at the hands of Shin Bet, Mr. Shalom says, “In the war on terror, forget about morality.” He resigned in wake of the controversy over the killings.
“The Gatekeepers” looks at the tactics Shin Bet uses, including the cultivation of informers, sometimes-severe interrogation techniques, and targeted assassinations. In one case, viewers see Shin Bet operatives shake a detainee and learn that the man later died from the shaking. In another, a Hamas leader dies when he uses a cell phone secretly packed with explosives and detonated by Shin Bet.
Shin Bet’s leaders do not shy away from discussion of the agency’s failures. It was severely damaged by its inability to prevent the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a right-wing Israeli fanatic, which led to a breakdown of the Oslo Peace Accord. Nor did Shin Bet anticipate the Second Intifada, when thousands of Palestinians in the occupied territories rose up against Israeli forces.
The tension between Israeli political and anti-terrorism goals becomes horrifyingly clear in discussion of an unsuccessful Shin Bet bombing attack in 2003. An earlier counter-terrorist bombing caused enough collateral damage that the prime minister refused to let Shin Bet use a big enough bomb to wipe out the Hamas leadership at a rare time when they all attended the same meeting.
The former leaders are blunt in their criticism of Israel’s prime ministers for their lack of compassion for the Palestinians, in one case even going so far as to compare the Israeli occupation to Germany’s occupation of its neighboring nations during World War II (not to be confused with its genocide of Jews). “When you are retired, you become a bit of a leftist,” says Mr. Peri.
“The Gatekeepers” does not simply present Shin Bet heads as calloused, murderous tacticians. They have serious questions about the effectiveness of anti-terrorism. They complain of government leaders employing tactics but not strategies. Most believe it is crucial for Israel leaders to talk to Palestinians, “so we know they don’t eat glass, and they know we don’t eat petrol.” Mr. Shalom calls Israeli treatment of Palestinians in occupied territory cruel, to ourselves and to the occupied.
What “The Gatekeepers” has to tell us about modern anti-terrorism campaigns reverberates far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When, in the case of Israel, the very men charged with carrying out such campaigns question their efficacy, it seems time for change. In purely cinematic terms, this film should lead viewers to think hard about why so many filmgoers are addicted to fantasies of violence in fiction films.
In a special event on Saturday, March 30, the Vineyard’s Daytrippers will perform classic tunes from The Beatles in “Return to the Summer of Love,” live and accompanied by a light show.
“Quartet,” Thursday, March 28, 7:30 pm.
“Samsara,”Friday, March 29, 4 pm.
“The Gatekeepers,” Friday, March 29, 7:30 pm; Sunday, March 31, 4 pm & 7:30 pm. $10; $7 for M.V. Film Society members.
“Return to the Summer of Love: Daytrippers Concert, Saturday, March 30, 7:30 pm. $15; $12 for M.V. Film Society members.
All events listed at M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. For more information, see mvfilmsociety.com.