Forget about morality

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Forget about morality

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Yaakov Peri, one of the former heads of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet interviewed in the “The Gatekeepers.” All of them are amazingly candid about their experiences

The Gatekeepers, a film by the Israeli director Dror Moreh, is a formidable achievement. For the first time ever, not one but six former heads of the Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence organisation roughly equivalent to Britain’s MI5, have spoken at length on camera about operations and the internal workings of the agency. Together, they make an extraordinary collection of individuals—and this is an extraordinary film.

Most astounding is their candour. Avraham Shalom, the head of Shin Bet from 1980-1986, was one of the agents who brought Adolf Eichmann back from Argentina to stand trial in Jerusalem. When talking about the threats faced by Israel, Shalom recounts the immediate aftermath of the 1984 hijacking of the number 300 bus by a Palestinian group in Tel Aviv. The bus was eventually stormed by the Israeli army and the attackers were captured, arrested and taken away. Shalom, an old man with a passing resemblance to Warren Buffett who up to this point has appeared almost avuncular, then recounts how the soldiers beat the men nearly to death and then handed them over to Shin Bet operatives who finished them off by stoving their heads in with rocks. At this, Shalom fixes the camera with the stare of a quite different man. The interviewer presses Shalom on the episode. The old man becomes increasingly uncomfortable. What does he think of the morality of what was done that night by the spy service that he ran? “In the war on terror,” replies Shalom, “forget about morality.”

The Gatekeepers traces Israeli history since the 1967 war, when the country captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and the modern borders of the country were effectively set. The film amounts to an examination of the relationship between Israel’s politics and its security, and the results of this examination are as fascinating as they are dispiriting. This is especially so in the section of the film that deals with the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, an event initially greeted with jubilation. But in signing the agreement, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, which had until that time been Israel’s main opponent, effectively removed itself from the fight. Into the gap left by the PLO stepped Islamic Jihad and Hamas, organisations that brought with them a whole new arsenal of tactics.

The wave of bus bombings that followed the Oslo agreement is explained in the film as a direct attempt by Hamas to scupper the peace process—the aftermath of the first bombing, which came in 1994 on a bus in Tel Aviv, is shown in hideous detail. Shin Bet was thrown into confusion by the use of suicide bombing and part of the agency’s reaction was to develop more robust methods in dealing with the enemy. More doors were kicked in, more arrests made. Interrogations became harsher. But so too did the political climate. Israel’s right wing was incensed by Rabin’s actions at Oslo, accusing him of having sold out to Arafat—of naively promising peace and getting suicide bombers instead. This rightist protest movement grew and intensified in its hatred of the Oslo agreement and of Rabin in particular. The film suggests that Hamas anticipated this political reaction and also, more damagingly, that leaders including Benjamin Netanyahu were complicit in stoking right-wing animosity. The spies interviewed here admit that they failed to contain this growing discontent—although it is suggested that warnings were given to Rabin about his safety—but despite advice, he refused to wear a bullet-proof vest. When the assassination came, in 1995, he was shot not by Hamas, or Islamic Jihad, but by an unknown Israeli, Yigal Amir, described by Yaakov Peri (1988-1995) as “a punk,” who was not on any of the intelligence agency’s lists. Carmi Gillon, who succeeded Peri as head of the Shin Bet and who was en poste during Rabin’s assassination, was overawed by the responsibility and magnitude of these events. It was he who had suggested the bullet-proof vest, and he admits that his first reaction on learning the news of Rabin’s death was to offer his resignation. “I believe,” says Gillon, “that we will see another political assassination over the withdrawal from the West Bank.”

The second intifada, which the film depicts in a collage of news footage reminiscent of Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, was a hellish turmoil of street battles, bullets and rocks. Ami Ayalon (1996-2000) was stunned by the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who took to the streets. Shin Bet had not foreseen this general uprising and Israel struggled to contain it. Secret talks were called between the two sides and Ayalon recounts how, during a meeting in London between Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, he asked a Palestinian representative why such an uprising was necessary. The reply, “victory for us is to see you suffer,” is perhaps the film’s most troubling line.

Shin Bet made efforts to change its tactics, from strong-arm boots on the ground work to more considered strikes against its enemies, and developments in technology helped this transition. There is much footage apparently shot from either drones or satellites, showing vehicles destroyed by remote missile strikes, buildings flattened by one-ton bombs. But with this technique came the horror of collateral damage, and the inevitable political consequences. Ayalon reveals grave doubts at these attempts to kill not the bombers or the gunmen, but rather the ideologues, the preachers who encourage the violence and who form the upper hierarchy of Hamas. This method, he says, is ethically and legally dubious as well as being “ineffective,” an analysis that might give pause to those deploying drone strikes in other theatres.

How much of what these spies say can be taken at face value? Certainly much of it has the ring of truth and the personal confessional tone of some of the contributors adds to this. But Shin Bet has a certain reputation and the simultaneous agreement of so many former heads to speak is striking and surprising. No explanation is given in the film for this sudden coordinated openness.

A further question raised by the film is the precise nature of Shin Bet itself. There is a good deal of reminiscing by Yuval Diskin (2005-2011) about the field work that he did in Nablus back in the 1970s, of the traditional tradecraft of cultivating agents and building networks. But much of the rest of the activity described in the film feels military or paramilitary in character. This is perhaps inevitable considering the unique challenges faced by Israel’s security services, but with the talk of targeted killings and bombings Shin Bet begins to sound more like the army’s military intelligence arm than a traditional intelligence agency.

“We all have our moments,” says Diskin, reflecting on this work. “Maybe you’re shaving and you think, ‘I made a decision and x number of people are killed.’ The power to take lives in an instant—there’s something unnatural about it.” It is hard to imagine a senior British intelligence officer saying anything even close to this.

These former leaders of Shin Bet, engaging characters, relaxed, shirts open at the neck, offer an analysis that leads to one conclusion. Israel cannot kill its way to peace. It must talk. To Hamas, Islamic Jihad: to all of the elements that hate it most virulently. “Even to Ahmadinejad,” says Shalom. As such, this puts the film ideologically in line with mainstream Israeli opinion—the January election showed strong gains for Yesh Atid, the centre-left party that wants to restart the peace process. The politicians have succeeded only in delivering a state of constant war and the fighting has gone on too long. Too many young recruits, fresh out of high school, are drafted into the army and sent to knock on doors in the middle of the night, ending up brutalised by the experience. Peri in particular makes this point and as he does so the strain on his face is evident. “When you retire,” he says, “you become a bit of a leftist,” he says, with a wan smile. In the January elections, Peri also became a member of the Israeli parliament for Yesh Atid.

In his concluding remarks, Avraham Shalom sets out what he sees as the “military paradox” of Israel. The army, in which all citizens serve, is often referred to as the “people’s army” and as such it stands as a strong statement of Israel’s core democratic principles. But Shalom points out that a soldier entering this people’s army will soon realise that it is nothing of the sort. It is really an army of occupation. This is also the conundrum faced by members of the Shin Bet, whose intelligence officers are faced with that same paradox, only in a more complex form. So far, in Shalom’s analysis, the country has been damaged by an inability to eradicate this paradox. “We have become,” says Shalom, who pauses, seeming to search for the worst word he can find, “cruel.”

The Gatekeepers is in UK cinemas from 12th April

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Jay Elwes
Jay Elwes is deputy editor of Prospect 

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