The Israeli government, surrounded by Arab enmity, can rarely dare to admit it has done something wrong. That would be like telling sharks swimming near your lifeboat that youve sprung a leak and expect to find yourself in the water at any moment.
So the fact that Dror Moreh interviewed all six living ex-chiefs of Shin Bet for The Gatekeepers is unusual. That they spoke frankly about successes and failures is more unusual. And behind the confessions and revelations in this Oscar-nominated documentary stands an unspoken warning for all nations: When you rule over a vast number of people who hate you, no good outcome can be found.
Shin Bet combines some of the functions of our own CIA and FBI: It defends Israel against terrorism, espionage and the revelation of state secrets. It was around long before the Six-Day War of 1967, which established Israel as a political power, and it has been on permanent high alert since terrorist bus bombings intensified in the 1980s.
The six men speak frankly about their leaders. But in effect, they speak about politicians everywhere when they talk about promises made but not kept, issues evaded and left for successors, simpletons pondering difficult choices.
They want binary options, says one man sadly, speaking of decision-makers. Do it/dont do it. Three or four options are too many.
Their joint experience goes back to 1980, and director Moreh interweaves historical footage with their recollections and re-creations of events they witnessed. (The technique doesnt seem false or exploitative in this case.)
There are moments of humor: We learn that soldiers who went to refugee camps for an Arab census were told to knock and say, Weve come to count you. A linguistic slip had them saying, Weve come to castrate you.
Most of the topics, though, are grim. In one famous incident, a terrorist in custody was beaten to death during an interrogation. No one doubted his guilt he was taken while kidnapping a bus full of people but how does one apply moral standards to torture? Should they be applied?
In another case, the Israelis blew up a building thought to contain a Hamas leader. It didnt, and innocent people died. So when Hamas held a massive meeting of all its leaders, the government ordered Shin Bet to drop a smaller bomb that would kill everyone on the second floor of the building where the leaders were presumed to be but spare everyone below. Oops! The leaders were downstairs and walked away from the rubble, freshly prepared to protest this outrage.
However we debate the wisdom of these choices, all six agree they would first try peaceful negotiations with any enemy, however heinous. And they agree that the future is bleak: Ruling a million West Bank and Gaza Palestinians who despise you eats away at the Israeli national character. Theres no strategy for dealing with the Palestinians, one man says. Just tactics.
Another makes the ultimate unthinkable comparison for a Jew: He suggests Israelis may become crueler toward the Palestinians, and he compares them to Nazi Germans ruling over Poland and Czechoslovakia. This documentary offers little hope but a great deal of thought.
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