Movie Review: The Gatekeepers
By Matthew Huntley
January 17, 2013

Where is The Architect?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has waged on for so long that the reasons why the two groups continue to fight have become a bit hazy. To most people, the feud boils down to a vicious cycle of “They hit us, so we hit them back,” and either group could be “they” or “them.” Deep down, of course, we know it’s not that simple and there exists a sad, detailed history for why the violence persists.

The Gatekeepers, an informative and often compelling documentary by Dror Moreh, presents this history solely from an Israeli point-of-view, although it doesn’t necessarily take Israel’s side. In fact, it’s hardly shy about condemning the Israel government for some of its reprehensible actions over the past 50 years. To the film, what’s done is done; it simply argues it should be done no more. Through the testimonies of six men, all of whom served as head of security for Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service, the film presents its case, which, essentially, is that violence begets violence and ultimately leads nowhere. Such a notion seems so practical and easy to comprehend, but if it was like that in reality, documentaries like The Gatekeepers would have no reason to be made.

As the heads of Shin Bet, the six interviewees’ chief job was to oversee Israel’s war-on-terror, a concept that’s so common in this post-9/11 era but was relatively new to Israel when it first became a state in 1948. It gained greater traction following the Six Day War in 1967 when Israel re-took the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and Syria and began its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights, placing nearly one million Palestinian Arabs under direct Israeli control, a responsibility the state was not ready to handle. Naturally, Palestinian revolts and uprisings ensued, sparked not only by the ramifications of the war but also by religious differences. Of course, I’m just skimming the surface for why the two groups found themselves at odds, but the point is that following the war, Israel had an immense burden on its hands: to implement and maintain peace and it was Shin Bet’s job to carry it out. As the documentary shows, the organization did not always choose the best courses of action.

Though the film’s structure is rather traditional, its content is striking. Each man recollects the major points of his career, which he seems to view more as a failure than a success, which is understandable given the overwhelming circumstances and expectations of his duty. What they all express in their candid interviews is a sense of regret and it’s clear if they could go back and do things differently, they would.

Moreh opens the film in appropriate fashion by immediately de-mystifying the idea that a career in security and anti-terrorism is exciting or thrilling like we’ve come to expect from the movies and television. Yuval Diskin is the youngest Gatekeeper and served as Shin Bet’s deputy director from 2005-2011. He emphasizes that planning for a “targeted assassination,” a principle he’s been credited with initiating and perfecting, is very different from actually executing it. From this point on, we realize the stories of violence we’re about to hear are indeed very real and frightening.

More frightening, perhaps, is the idea that those who order or carry out such attacks become desensitized to them and no longer question their own morals or methods. It’s not until after they retired do they realize what they did. That’s the impression we get from Avraham Shalom (1980-1986), the eldest of the group who began his career in a paramilitary unit that formed the basis of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and later joined Shin Bet just as it was being formed in the early 1960s. He became head of the organization in 1980 and recalls fighting terrorism instigated by both Palestinians and fundamentalist Jews.

One of Shalom's notable achievements was thwarting a group known as the “Jewish Underground,” who plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock - the Islamic shrine built atop a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Shalom’s discovery of the attack likely prevented an avalanche of Arab violence and uproar. Less popular, however, was his ordering of the execution of two surrendered terrorists who hijacked the 300 bus on its way from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon. Even today, he remains dour about the incident, despite having the support of Prime Minister Yizhak Shamir and Shimon Peres.

Shalom’s successor, Yaakov Peri (1988-1995), would go on to face an Intifada, which, at the time, was unheard of in Israel. He also faced criticism for Shin Bet’s interrogation practices at their facility in Gaza City. Similar censorship came to Carmi Gillon (1994-1996), who previously served as head of Shin Bet’s Northern Command. He specialized in Jewish terrorism, designing a surveillance system that monitored Israelis capable of carrying out deadly attacks. Peri long argued that Jewish extremists would one day attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a plan that turned out to be true and unfortunately successful in November of 1995.

Though Gillon would find brief redemption with the assassination of Yahya Ayyash, a Palestinian terrorist nicknamed “The Engineer,” he never forgave himself for Rabin’s death. It naturally led to an increase in security for Israel’s leaders and it was Ami Ayalon’s (1996-2000) job to enforce it. Lean, outspoken and brutally direct, Ayalon was one of the most left-winged members of Shin Bet. Even today, he vehemently criticizes Israel’s prime ministers for not being more proactive toward peaceful resolutions, suggesting that as long as support of violent actions continues, Israel may win battles, but they’ll never win the war. It’d be interesting to see Ayalon go head-to-head with Avi Dichter (2000-2005), who, after a long military career, still defends targeted assassinations and preemptive attacks. One must figure the extreme violence of the Second Intifada that Dichter faced played a large part in shaping his stern and forceful perspective.

Although Moreh lets these men talk freely and openly, he’s not afraid to question their methods or put them on the spot. He presents the film like a classic argumentative essay. And while his message with The Gatekeepers is obvious and straightforward, especially to those who agree with it - that discourse and dialogue should always come before violence - it’s still essential and must be heard, because it’s not necessarily obvious to those in charge of implementing and maintaining peace. Functionally-speaking, The Gatekeepers reminds us violence should, ideally, never be considered a resolution to a problem.

But the film goes beyond its serviceable value because Moreh also allows us to see these men as human beings. It would have been easy to simply blame them and suggest they were part of the problem, but Moreh isn’t out to chastise them. Rather, he wants us to empathize and realize just how dangerous and overwhelming their tasks must have been. Underneath the history, facts and statistics, The Gatekeepers is a human story about how we’re all fragile and susceptible to emotions and regrets based on our previous actions. We realize this through the men’s solemn voices and expressions, which leads to a somewhat hopeful conclusion: If those in similar or greater positions of power truly listen to and understand what these six men are saying, it’s possible that the testimonies of future Shin Bet heads could be different and more positive.

Moreh has said he wants The Gatekeepers to promote talk, and now that we’ve heard from members of Shin Bet, I’d like to hear from their Palestinian counterparts. After all, Palestinians are humans too, and I’m willing to bet their testimonies and ideas for peace would mirror the Israelis’.