AS the Israelis and Palestinians return to the negotiating table after a three-year break, Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh believes his controversial 2012 Academy Award-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers helped move the political centre of gravity in Israel from the hard right to centre-left.
“Both the film and the five-part television series [which screened recently on Israel television] have been discussed from the Prime Minister down to other ministers to the people,” Moreh says by phone from Germany.
“What the heads of the Shin Bet have to say about the impact of government policy on both Israelis and Palestinians has affected many, many Israelis”
The Gatekeepers is an honest, startling documentary that provides an insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the moral dilemmas facing the internal arm of Israel’s secret service agency, the Shin Bet, in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War.
Victory left Israel in control of a hostile population living under occupation, and Shin Bet’s work over the decades safeguarding internal state security, exposing terrorist rings and interrogating terror suspects, has brought it face to face not only with Palestinians as terrorists and individuals, but with the moral quandaries and contradictions inherent in maintaining Israel’s defence.
The Gatekeepers will be screened at the AICE Israeli Film Festival, which is being held around Australia this month. Moreh will be in Australia to introduce the film and join in Q&A sessions after the screening in Sydney (August 14), Melbourne (August 15) and Canberra (August 16).
The Gatekeepers will also be released in cinemas in Australia on September 5.
Moreh was moved to make The Gatekeepers after filming a documentary on Ariel Sharon in 2008.
“I wanted to know what led to Ariel Sharon, the father of the settlements, becoming Israel’s most enlightened prime minister,” Moreh says.
“While making the film I interviewed his chief of staff [Dov Weissglass]. He told me there is a big difference between what you say to a friend, and what you say publicly to the world.
“He said that Sharon had been advised by the Shin Bet that if he pursued his policy of continuing to build settlements on the West Bank, disaster would follow. And this view had a huge impact on Sharon.
“These were people he worked with, understood and liked. He listened to them, other things happened as well, but what followed was the Disengagement Plan [from Gaza and the West Bank].
“I thought that if Sharon can be moved by this argument by the Shin Bet, then I may be able to move Israeli public opinion by bringing together six heads of Shin Bet and by interviewing them, get them to say the same things to the Israeli public.”
What these six former heads of Shin Bet reveal in Moreh’s illuminating and fascinating film is astonishing in both its candour and content.
Interviewed in the Shin Bet headquarters in Tel Aviv, Avraham Shalom (1980-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1995), Carmi Gillon (1994-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-2005) and Yuval Diskin (2005-2011) all speak with disarming and shocking honesty about the brutal realities of their work, including interrogations, assassinations and torture, and its impact on themselves and the nation.
Shalom, who left the Shin Bet under a cloud in 1986 after ordering the execution of two terrorists captured alive after the hijacking of Bus 300 from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon, is perhaps the least likely of the six heads to endear himself to viewers, yet for this reason it is his pensive reflection on the policies pursued during successive Israeli governments that is the most sobering.
“Israel has become a brutal occupation force similar to the Germans in World War II, similar but not identical,” Shalom says in The Gatekeepers, by which he means in the way the Germans behaved in Belgium, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
Similarly unexpected is Peri’s reflection on his term as one of Israel’s “gatekeepers”: “When you leave being head of Shin Bet, all these things add up and you end up becoming a bit of a leftist.” (At the last Israeli election Peri was elected to the Knesset as a member of the new centrist party Yesh Atid).
The Gatekeepers begins with a grainy aerial view through a lens of a Shin Bet target, a van carrying suspected terrorists, while one of the interviewees explains in voice-over his dilemma whether to bomb the van or not: “As head of the Shin Bet you learn that politicians prefer binary options. They don’t like having three or four options. They want you to tell them 0 or 1, do it/don’t do it. As a commander I find myself in situations that are in different shades of grey.”
Moreh says the willingness of the Shin Bet chiefs to reveal to Israelis and the world the grave crisis the nation is facing comes from the make-up of both Israeli society and their intelligence services.
“I know that many people say their coming forward is the sign of a strong democracy. People are open to speak their minds. But there is more to it than this,” he says.
“I don’t think the Shin Bet can be seen as a partisan, one-sided organisation. My film allows us to see how they think, how much they debate with themselves. In my experience, they are more open than politicians, and see the world in more complex ways.
“I think the world sees the IDF, Mossad and the Shin Bet as war-mongers who are always ready to push Israel towards war. But sometimes it is the Shin Bet or Mossad who are more moderate. And the reason for this is that they are in the frontline.
“An example is the situation last year when the Prime Minister, politicians and others wanted to organise an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. And who stopped this? The heads of Mossad and Shin Bet who said: ‘You cannot do that’.”
Before making the documentary Moreh knew nothing about the views of the former Shin Bet heads, who all attended the world premiere screening of The Gatekeepers at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July 2012.
“These men are not ‘left-wingers’ or ‘bleeding hearts’ speaking about reconciliation with the Palestinians and the need for a two-state solution,” says Moreh.
“They have devoted the best years of their lives to defending the state. They know what is happening on the ground. The reason I made the film is for people to listen to what the former Shin Bet heads are telling us, and to understand.”
One of the film’s most disturbing revelations is the Shin Bet’s uncovering of the plot by settlers and others from the religious right to blow up the Dome of the Rock, which according to former head Carmi Gillon would have resulted in total war.
Has this and other concerns voiced by the Shin Bet encouraged Israelis to rebel against the dominance of far-right views?
“In my view, since 1973-4, the settler movement is the most dominant group ever in Israeli discussions about the occupation. Of all the voices, they are the most powerful and probably the most dangerous, although they wouldn’t agree to that,” he says.
“They are not all the same. My sister lives in a settlement. There are lots of moderate people. But the majority of ultra-Orthodox religious are joined with the settler movement and are dangerous.
“They believe their rabbis who support the destruction of the Dome (for the eventual rebuilding of the Temple) and will not yield to any democratic solution.
“They cannot be forced out of the West Bank. These people are willing to shed blood.”
What does Moreh believe about the power of cinema?
“When the film was released in art-house cinemas it was seen by more than 80,000 people, and more than a million Israelis watched the series on television,” he says.
“In the last Israeli election, people didn’t vote for the right. They were mainly centre-left.
“So the film has moved and changed people, how many I cannot say. But that has made me very happy.”
The AICE Israeli Film Festival is in Sydney at Palace cinemas from August 13-27 and in Melbourne from August 14-27. Bookings: www.palacecinemas.com.au.
REPORT by Jan Epstein
PHOTO of Yaakov Peri, who was head of Shin Bet from 1988 to 1995.