Israel’s Greek tragedy

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by David Holzel
Senior Writer

Since the Six Day War in 1967, two invisible webs have covered the West Bank and Gaza. One is the Palestinian population — sometimes quiescent, sometimes violently resistant. The other belongs to the Shin Bet, Israel’s General Security Services, which is charged with doing whatever is necessary to foil Palestinian resistance.


The interplay of these two webs becomes visible in Israeli producer and director Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, a grim and pessimistic tour of Israel’s 45-year rule over the Palestinians through the eyes of six ex-Shin Bet directors — Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin. The film, which opens in the Washington area on Feb. 22, has received an Oscar nomination.

Moreh, 51, intersperses his interview subjects with computer-generated imagery recreations of actual events and archival footage, whose grainy, distancing effect gives The Gatekeepers the feeling of a Greek tragedy that we watch unfold while helpless to intervene.

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We see politician after politician — Shamir, Barak, Sharon, Olmert, Netanyahu — avoid coming to grips with the occupation and respond to a cascading series of Palestinian rebellions and incitements with force only. The exception is Yitzhak Rabin, whom the Shin Bet directors single out as the one prime minister who was determined to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. For that, he was gunned down by a right-wing religious zealot, Yigal Amir, in 1995, after which peace attempts were half-hearted at best.

One disconcerting clip from the 2000 Camp David talks shows then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak trying to push Palestinian President Yasser Arafat through a doorway, as Arafat tries to evade the Israeli. The two look more like clowns than world leaders.


“Yigal Amir changed everything,” says Gillon, who resigned as Shin Bet director for his inability to protect Rabin. “He succeeded big time.”

Moreh spent 70 hours interviewing the Shin Bet heads, and they come off individually and collectively as disciplined, austere and charismatic. These were the first interviews they had given about careers spent largely in the shadows.

To Moreh’s questioning and sometimes prodding, they explain the interrogation methods they used, the targeted assassinations they oversaw, and the solutions they could not pursue because they worked at the behest of the prime minister. They voice frustration and contempt for Israel’s leaders, who were all too ready to use force to control and punish the Palestinians, but too timid to try to end the occupation.

The results, according to Ayalon: “We wanted security and got more terror. [The Palestinians] wanted a state and got more settlements.”

The West Bank was terra incognita when the Shin Bet arrived in 1967 to establish security in the seemingly tranquil territory dotted with olive groves. Then, as now, the Israelis had no strategy for running the territories, just tactics they improvised as each new situation arose.

There was talk in the beginning of creating a Palestinian state, says Shalom. “Then the terror increased and we forgot about a Palestinian state.”

The fact that the Shin Bet was able to successfully keep a lid on terror for decades allowed Israelis to forget about the Palestinians. “We kept terror on a low flame, so the country could do what it wanted,” Gillon says. “But it didn’t solve the problem of the occupation.”

And the problem just kept getting harder to manage. Added to Palestinian restiveness was a growing and radicalizing Jewish settler population. In 1980, two West Bank Palestinian mayors survived an assassination attempt. Four years later, the Shin Bet arrested suspects in what became known as the Jewish Underground as they were about to place explosives under Arab buses in Jerusalem. The group was also planning to blow up the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim holy site. That, an ex-Shin Bet chief says, “could have led to war with all the Islamic states against Israel.”

The underground suspects were not outliers, but members of the Israeli establishment, the Shin Bet leaders say, and they were all released from prison within a few years.

Meanwhile, Israel’s responses to Palestinian violence became more ironfisted. When the number of terrorist acts declined in the West Bank, it was chiefly because of cooperation with the Palestinians, Ayalon says.

With the same unblinking clarity they made their operational decisions, they now call on the politicians to begin talking to the other side, as the Shin Bet has been doing the whole time. “For Israel it’s no luxury not to speak with our enemy. There is no alternative to talking. It’s the job of an intelligence operative to talk to everyone,” Ayalon says.

It’s no secret where Moreh stands here. What is a surprise is that these six hardened security men with blood on their hands have reached the same conclusion as the dovish filmmaker. “When you retire from the agency, you become a bit of a lefty,” says Peri.

Moreh reads to Diskin the words of a famed Israeli dove, the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who predicted in 1968 that the occupation would turn Israel into a “Shin Bet state, with all that this implies for education, freedom of speech and thought, and democracy.”

Leibowitz was only partially prophetic. Israelis are not living in a Shin Bet state. But because of their elected leaders, they’ve condemned Israel to fulfill Leibowitz’s prediction — against the Palestinians. That much The Gatekeepers makes clear.

[email protected]  Twitter: @davidholzel

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