Oct 17, 2012

NYFF 2012: The Gatekeepers

This intense, intelligent, eye-opening documentary by Israeli cinematographer Dror Moreh is a series of interviews with six ex-heads of the Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Service. The candor with which Yuval Diskin, Avraham Shalom, Avi Dichter, Yaacov Peri, Carmi Gilon and Ami Ayalon speak, may be shocking for those who insist on looking at the occupation as ignorable historic fallout, or worse, as a security buffer or a messianic calling. These men, who have patrolled the occupied territories and spoken with many Palestinians, are as blunt about their unsavory activities, as about their reckoning of the grave mistake of maintaining the occupation. They ensure Israel's survival by recruiting Palestinians to be informers against terrorists, elicit information from prisoners through harassment techniques short of violent torture, and constantly make decisions to kill targets. Their years of tough experience have led them to believe that the current policies of the State of Israel are leading it towards extinction. They should know.
The film is a crash course on Middle East geopolitics, starting from the Six Day War in 1967, in which Israel conquered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, after a concerted attack by neighboring Arab countries. This created a Palestinian refugee problem that has become an untenable thorn on the side of Israel and threatens its survival.
The endless, nauseating cycle of violence on both sides is shown with shocking footage of the bloody aftermath of suicide bombings, Israeli tanks razing homes in Gaza, major riots in the two Intifadas, and even some footage of targeted assassinations. The cumulative effect of the carnage on both sides not only makes one queasy, it makes one question the effectiveness of endless retaliation. It's barbaric.
The heads of the Shin Bet like well executed, clean plans in which they kill their targets without harming anyone else. One of their best efforts involved a remotely controlled cellphone that had explosives inside. How they managed to make it available to an important terrorist leader, they don't specify. But as one of them says (looking like the sweetest grandpa in the world), there's nothing better than a clean hit. Unfortunately, clean hits don't always happen. Things are rarely clean, and even more rarely black and white. One of them criticizes American drone attacks in Afghanistan: you target a wedding, you kill everybody around, and you don't even know if the target was actually there. They talk about issues that currently plague the Obama administration, but that nobody in this country is interested in airing, such as drone attacks, collateral damage in targeted assassinations, the use of torture and the pointless escalation of war.
They offer candid explanations of successful missions as well as of terrible blunders. They go into detail about a complex operation designed to take out several important terrorist leaders in Gaza, an operation that because of political pressure, compromised the amount of tonnage they needed to pulverize the house the targets were meeting in, thus allowing all the targets to walk out of the rubble on their own two feet, as one describes it. But they also had to disarm and neutralize a dangerous religious fringe group known as the Jewish Underground, which intended to blow up the Dome of The Rock, the third holiest place in the Muslim world. They prevented the worst Middle East crisis of all time, if not a global conflict, and sent these maniacs to jail, only to see their sentences shortened by the right-wing Likud government. One of them thinks that the worst threat to Israel's survival is not the enemy without, but the messianic, Biblical fringe groups that are supported by the current Bibi regime, which continues populating religious settlements. 
The Shin Bet leaders are not gung-ho ideological bullies. They have to be great pragmatists and weigh every option, looking for all kinds of political and human fallout. Their experience has made them see the occupation in a different way. They all want out. Since Israel is a democracy with legal institutions, some of them had to resign after terrorists who were captured alive were beaten to death by soldiers, or when they botched operations, harming innocent Palestinian civilians. They concede they were unable to prevent the unprecedented assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of a religious punk. Moreh pointedly shows the horrifying anti-Rabin incitement propaganda created by the far right, which is reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. In fact, Abraham Shalom, one of the most ruthless Shin Bet leaders, even says that the occupation reminds him of the Nazi army. He is careful to distinguish between the extermination of the Jews, to the occupation of Europe by the Germans, which is what the occupation reminds him of. But that these words come out of the mouth of an ex-director of the Shin Bet is unprecedented. In the Q&A after the show, Moreh explained that Shalom was a survivor of the Nazis. Apparently, he was also in charge of the operation that brought Adolf Eichmann to trial in Israel. That Moreh chose not to include this as a justification for Shalom's comment and his ruthlessness defending Israel, shows how tough minded the filmmaker is in his pursuit of changing the status quo. One of the ex-directors says "we have become cruel". It is the unvarnished truth, and it hurts. This is not what Israel was meant to be.
The Gatekeepers shares the political agenda of these men, who have come out publicly to voice their concern about the direction Israel is taking, in which nothing is being done, if not exacerbate an already explosive situation, in order to ease the burden of the occupation for both sides. They all feel contempt for the Israeli political leadership regardless of ideology, which only calculates the collateral damage of public opinion and panders to fear. At the beginning of the film, one of them says that before any operation, the Shin Bet offers the politicians several carefully considered options, but politicians see things in black and white. They only want to know: to do it or not to do it?  As they bear witness, it is much more complicated than that.
What is astounding about this film, beside the candor with which the men speak, unthinkable here in the "land of freedom" that is the US; is that all of them, regardless of their ideology, are unequivocally against more Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, all of them are for a Palestinian state, and all of them are willing to talk to absolutely any enemy, no matter how hateful, brutal and irrational (including Hamas, Ahmadinejad, etc) to inch peace forward. At times, they sound like they almost pine for the likes of Yassir Arafat, now that Israel has to deal with crazier fundamentalist enemies. After all their bloody efforts, they are convinced that talking and listening are the only way.
This taut, gripping, powerful documentary is required viewing for anybody who claims to support Israel as well as for anybody who wants to get a closer look at the complex geopolitical reality of the area. It's not pretty, it's not reassuring, it's shocking and tough as nails, but it is essential.

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