Israel's 'Gatekeepers'

By Ephron, Dan | Newsweek, February 1, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Israel's 'Gatekeepers'

Ephron, Dan, Newsweek

Byline: Dan Ephron

Six Shin Bet chiefs air their views on peace with Palestine.

In the hierarchy of Israeli intelligence agencies, the Shin Bet is the equivalent of the blue-collar worker. While Mossad handles the dazzling overseas operations--abducting a former Nazi or assassinating nuclear scientists--the Shin Bet for almost a half century has managed the dirty work of Israel's dominion over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most Palestinians view Israel as a colonial intruder, the way, say, Algerians viewed France. To tamp down Palestinian rebellions and foil attacks on Israelis, Shin Bet operatives have regularly engaged in some unsavory measures--rough interrogations and targeted killings, to name two--all in the service of maintaining Israel's grip over territories it captured in the 1967 war.

So it comes as something of a surprise to hear not just one but six retired Shin Bet chiefs articulate exceedingly pragmatic views in The Gatekeepers, an Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary being released in the U.S. on Feb. 1. The six, who sat down for interviews with filmmaker Dror Moreh, believe Israel has paid a steep political and moral price for its occupation of the West Bank (Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005). To varying degrees, all six think Israeli leaders should be doing more to advance peace with the Palestinians. "I know about plenty of junctures since 1967 when in my view ... we should have reached an agreement and ran away from there," Yaakov Peri, who headed the Shin Bet from 1988 to 1994, says in the film. "But ... it's not part of the mandate of an agency chief to persuade a prime minister [to make peace]."

Through the interviews and archival footage, the film offers a narrative of Israel's turbulent decades since '67, a period that included Palestinian terrorism and insurrections, the rise of the Israeli settler movement, and the assassination of a prime minister. In all the events, the Shin Bet (also known in Hebrew as Shabak and in English as the General Security Service) played a key role. Though the details emerge through the story-telling of the retired chiefs, the film somehow manages to paint a nuanced picture of the intelligence service, including its brutalities and cover-ups.

Along the way, the pensioners make some surprisingly candid observations about the agency they worked for. Carmi Gillon, who led the Shin Bet from 1994 to 1996, describes the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, where Palestinians are frequently interrogated, as so old and forbidding "that any normative person who walks in the door would be willing to admit to the murder of Jesus" just to get out of there. Yuval Diskin, the most recently serving chief, tells of the coercive measures required to get Palestinians to snitch on their friends and even family. "[It] involves taking a person who doesn't really like you and causing him to do things that he never thought he'd be willing to do."

In one of the more startling moments in The Gatekeepers, Moreh reads to Diskin the comments of the late Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who wrote in 1968 that ruling over the Palestinians would effectively turn Israel into a police state, "with all that this implies for education, freedom of speech and thought, and democracy." Diskin's reply: he agrees with every word. (In the Tel Aviv theater where I viewed the film, this response elicited audible gasps from the audience.)

Moreh got the idea for The Gatekeepers from an interview that four retired Shin Bet chiefs gave to an Israeli newspaper almost a decade ago, in which they called on then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to cede land and make peace with the Palestinians. Moreh, who later made a documentary about Sharon, says their remarks had a huge impact on the Israeli leader and persuaded him to withdraw from Gaza.

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