Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: "The Gatekeepers"

The experience of watching “The Gatekeepers” is simultaneously disturbing, illuminating and uplifting.

This extraordinary documentary by director Dror Moreh gathers all six surviving heads of Shin Bet, the highly secretive Israeli internal security agency. In exploring the history of their nation over the last 35 years, they speak openly about the terrorists they hunted, the politicians they served -- sometimes grudgingly -- and the frequent mistakes they made.

The effect is like lifting a veil over the turmoil between the Israelis and Palestinians to reveal how those in charge of the defense of Israel really felt about what they were doing -- the morality of it, the military effectiveness of it, and the political repercussions.

Imagine every CIA director going back to the Cold War suddenly deciding to give up all their most guarded secrets. It’s astonishing that Moreh convinced these men to speak so candidly, and that Israel allowed them to do so.

The men, who range in age from middle years to elderly, start from very different perspectives. Some are not disturbed by assassinations of terrorists or insurgents, saying that when you are dealing with unscrupulous people, morality must be taken out of the equation.

Others talk about how operations they ordered or took part in haunt them each and every day. In the age of satellite surveillance and pinpoint missiles, one says, the power to take life with a few words is a profoundly unnatural thing.

What’s interesting is that despite their different political and operational philosophies, they all arrive at the same conclusion: Israel has been so focused on maintaining its own security that it stopped thinking seriously about the Palestinian question. “No strategy, all tactics” is how one describes it.

In the lull after the utter defeat of its Arabic enemies in the Six Day War, one Shin Bet director utters these chilling words: “Luckily for us, terrorism increased.” What does he mean by this, a shocked Moreh asks. The security chief answers that it gave them a purpose and something to do.

The film goes on to explore other notable events, including the erratic peace process that began with the Oslo Accords nearly two decades ago. The Shin Bet men talk about the feeling of possibility in Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s rapprochement with his PLO counterparts, and how that immediately dissipated after his assassination by an Israeli hardliner.

The film, which mixes the interviews with news footage, computer-generated recreations and other clever methods, is most edifying in its description of how Shin Bet collects and uses intelligence – on terrorists, the non-combatants who support them and even Israelis who would seek to destabilize the situation.

In its constant surveillance of those who would threaten the security of Israeli, the directors conclude, Shin Bet was so focused on the trees that it was rarely able to discern the forest. “The Gatekeepers” is a powerful cautionary tale about the concept of security, and how illusory it really is.

3.5 stars out of four

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