Last week, I watched the current documentary film “The Gatekeepers.” It is an impressive, powerful movie about the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it tells that story by focusing on the Shin Bet, Israel’s version of our FBI (and also partly analogous to our CIA).
The film’s fairness and sensitivities are remarkable and judicious. The conflict has become a complicated, much-debated marathon — full of rights and wrongs and accusations and blames — yet the movie succeeds well in illuminating and explaining the war’s history and present without parceling out responsibilities or declaring verdicts. It is left to the moviegoer to weigh the past and to consider what could — or should — occur next.
The heart of the film consists of incredibly frank and reflective testimony by six former directors of the Shin Bet. These are the men who have had to look closely at the consequences — on both Israeli and Palestinian lives — of violence, reprisal, terrorism, and political action and inaction.
Carmi Gillon, director from 1994 to 1996, describes how close he got to many Palestinians. In efforts to recruit Palestinian informers, and in efforts to understand Palestinian lives, he learned that they are no different from him. The vast majority of them want to live in their villages, be mothers and fathers, tend to their land or jobs, care for their olive trees, and live in quiet and routine.
He says that they are ordinary, their families are like yours and they are trying — despite all — to just live their lives. As he says this, his voice is full of sorrow and regret — aware of how easily he could live peacefully next to these people.
Avraham Shalom, director from 1981 to 1986, discusses the difficulty of considering morality in the context of fighting terrorism. The Shin Bet is responsible for providing safety to Israeli society and for thwarting Palestinian terror attacks. It often uses its intelligence to identify and kill suicide bombers before they have a chance to act.
To assassinate a suspect, as Shin Bet does, is to wield enormous power, and to raise terrible questions. Based on suspicions alone, can we kill a potential terrorist? How many innocent family members can we acceptably kill? Can we torture Palestinian prisoners to make them reveal plans for violence?
Shalom — and all the directors — are haunted by these questions and the inadequacies of any answer. Shalom concludes that there is a limit to how much morality can be involved in these cases.
He asks, is there morality in the terrorists? He is well aware that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
The film shows footage of blown-up Israeli buses — just shredded carcasses of steel and the dismembered bodies of women and children.
At the same time, the film shows footage of the first intifada when, as one director puts it, a nation (the Palestinians) rose up in desperation and cried out. Thousands of men — and notably, women — poured into the streets to protest and throw rocks at Israeli soldiers. The director says that only live fire — scenes of which we see — could have stopped the crowd.
Ami Ayalon, director from 1996 to 2000, describes the plots of the fanatical, Israeli religious right, who have murdered Palestinians, uprooted their olive groves, imposed new settlements on their lands and nearly blew up the iconic Islamic Dome of the Rock. Ayalon says that was the first time he saw clearly the hatred and division within Israeli society.
He is hard on the Israeli government. Although he acknowledges all of the Palestinian contributions to violence, he says that Israeli prime ministers over the years could have done far more — taken more initiative — to push for conflict resolution.
He states that there is simply no alternative to talking and trying, and talking again. He sees Israel as the more empowered of the two actors, and thus more able, and more required, to challenge the status quo.
Ayalon is not naive or idealistic. Even though he calls for more Israeli imagination and more Israeli overtures, he tells us that it cannot be him who will talk with the Palestinians — it must be someone else. He is too burned and too traumatized, and he has for too long been both the target and perpetrator of violence and savagery.
Is Israel going to annex the West Bank? Will Hamas and Fatah ever unite? Will there eventually be 1 million West Bank settlers? Will the Palestinians not ever rise up — as in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria — and refuse the status quo?
This movie portrays the irresponsibilities of the last 45 years. For an ordinary Jew or an ordinary Palestinian — and not ignoring any circumstance — how deeply wrong and unfair it has been that the men with power have been so derelict in their duty to create better political realities.
Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.