The brutal recent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rivetingly recounted by some of its most prominent players in “The Gatekeepers.” Granted an extraordinary level of access to six former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet counterterrorism agency, first-time documaker Dror Moreh achieves a powerful and remarkably clear-eyed assessment of how state-sanctioned violence, whether pre-emptive or retaliatory, has exacted a crippling moral toll on the region and its pursuit of peace. Critical attention and high-profile festival berths should conspire to make the Sony Classics pickup a provocative must-see for the discerning and topically inclined.
Moreh’s coup lies in not only lining up the six men who oversaw Israel’s internal intelligence-gathering operations at various intervals from 1980 to the present, but in getting them to speak with such unprecedented and seemingly unguarded candor about their activities. While some of their responses can be dodgy and defensive, overall there’s a raw, confessional ruthlessness to the testimony here, a sense that these retired officials have few qualms about acknowledging their miscalculations in a war whose human costs have been incalculable. The potentially controversial consequences of their speaking out, particularly their frank acknowledgment of Shin Bet participation in selective assassinations, remain to be seen.
Former agency heads Avraham Shalom (in charge from 1980-86) and Avi Dichter (2000-06) describe how, in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel’s efforts to establish military authority over some 1 million Palestinians went almost immediately awry. Mutual mistrust, hostility and language barriers set off a vicious cycle of attacks and counterattacks, corroborated here by fascinating black-and-white archival footage of Israeli soldiers moving through Arab refugee camps. As noted by Yaakov Peri (agency head from 1988-94), the escalation of violence hindered the possibility of peaceful negotiations and resulted in numerous arrests and interrogations by Shin Bet.
While the agency eventually became a well-oiled intelligence machine, it became clear to all involved that gaining a measure of control over the frequency and intensity of terrorist activity didn’t solve the essential problem of the occupation. One former head blasts various Israeli prime ministers, from Golda Meir to Menachem Begin, claiming none of them bothered to truly consider the Palestinian half of the equation. Another notes the ineffectual nature of the agency’s attempted crackdown, as the onset of the first Intifada in 1987 and arrival of Hamas and Islamic Jihad merely supplanted one form of terrorism with another.
Various interviewees here stress the importance of listening to and cooperating with Palestinian intelligence. To that end, the film’s most heart-rending passage addresses the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which effectively undermined the peace process despite the signing of the Oslo Accords three years earlier. (A bitterly funny moment features TV footage of Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat and Israel prime minister Ehud Bakar going through showily deferential “after you” motions at the 2000 Camp David summit.)
While no film from the narrow perspective of Israeli intelligence could purport to offer a thorough view of the conflict, what makes “The Gatekeepers” ultimately so compelling is its pervasive sense of moral ambiguity. Its subjects don’t shy away from the troubling implications of counterterrorism, and they’re frank in acknowledging the sense of power that accompanies the decision to take enemy lives. The film reinforces this notion with muscular, computer-generated simulations of Shin Bet bombing operations, offering a bird’s-eye view of a moving target, which at times lend it the thrust and excitement of a geopolitical thriller.
The audience’s moral revulsion is complicated at every turn by the satisfaction these superior tacticians take in a job well done, even the aggressive and widely criticized interrogation techniques employed by former head Carmi Gillon (holding the briefest tenure here, from 1994-96). One of the film’s more cold-blooded sequences recalls Shin Bet’s 1996 assassination of Hamas engineer Yahya Ayyash, using a cell phone rigged with explosives. Less laudable, logistically if not ethically, was a failed 2003 airstrike on Gaza that could have wiped out Hamas’ top leadership, an episode that occasions considerable discussion of collateral damage.
Although the men were interviewed separately, their voices ultimately coalesce into a sustained chorus of despair, decrying the futility of violence as a political imperative and the cruelty and corruption of Israel since the late ’60s. At one point, the docu invokes the title of Philip C. Winslow’s 2007 book on the conflict, “Victory for Us Is to See You Suffer” — a chilling reminder that, for all the Israeli forces’ superior military resources, the fact that the conflict persists demonstrates the Pyrrhic nature of any victories.
The high-quality archival footage and operation simulations help the talking-head assembly play well on the bigscreen, and a brooding score rounds out the solid tech package.