Terror and the Surveillance State on Film
Zero Dark Thirty and the Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers are up for Academy Awards. Only one should win.
Moreh’s account of Israel’s counter-terrorism history begins with Israel’s victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which brought a million Palestinians under occupation. Avraham Shalom, the eldest of the six former chiefs interviewed, recounts how Israeli intelligence officers learned to fight a new kind of warfare on what was now Israeli land. They learned Arabic; studied Palestinian history and culture; mapped out the casbahs of Nablus; identified family and clan structures to spot potential recruits among the people of the West Bank and Gaza.
But despite such meticulous effort, the Shin Bet would fail to predict the outbreak of the Intifada in 1987, the mass uprising in the occupied territories, just as the CIA would fail to warn of the Arab Spring revolutions decades later. And through it all—the protests, the chaos, bombings, arrests, and interrogations of hundreds and thousands of men—settlement building continued, while Israeli leaders across the political spectrum ignore the fate of the Palestinians. Improbably, it fell to Yitzhak Rabin—described by a former Shin Bet chief as a “security man to his bone”—to break the cycle of “no strategy, just tactics” by authorizing secret talks with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization in Oslo.
Intelligence is no gentleman’s sport, as Moreh’s tough-minded documentary shows. The Shin Bet chiefs discuss Israel’s version of “enhanced interrogation techniques”—sleep deprivation, hooding, being stretched in painful positions, and violent shaking. The death of a Palestinian detainee because of this last technique prompts the ouster of yet another Shin Bet leader. An earlier political casualty of security excesses is Shalom, who was part of the intelligence team that tracked and kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and brought him back to Israel to stand trial for his role in planning and carrying out the Holocaust. Shalom is forced out after two Palestinian hijackers of Bus 300 traveling from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon are captured alive but subsequently beaten to death in Israeli custody. “Forget about morality,” Shalom says, still visibly anxious about the murders almost 30 years later. His obvious distress amplifies the power of his appeal for Israelis to speak to their enemies—Hamas, Islamic Jihad, even Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—however, whenever, and wherever they can. Intelligence professionals welcome interaction, he calmly explains. “I see you don’t eat glass. He sees I don’t drink petrol.”
Halfway through his tightly drawn narrative, Moreh, 51, focuses on perhaps the Shin Bet’s greatest intelligence failure—Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995. Carmi Gillon, then the Shin Bet chief, poignantly recounts his unsuccessful attempt to persuade Rabin to wear a bulletproof vest. Although the Shin Bet disrupts a right-wing Jewish plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock—which Gillon notes would have brought down the fury of the entire Muslim world, not just of Arab Muslims, upon Israel—it cannot decouple the dangerous Jewish fanatics from the radical rabbis and cowardly politicians who make excuses for their fellow Jews.
Rabin is killed by Yigal Amir, whom Gillon calls a “punk” nonentity who never crossed the Shin Bet’s radar. Rabin’s murder changed history “big time,” Gillon admits. But the Shin Bet still keeps the West Bank quiet, working with the very Palestinians it once occupied. The Palestinian Authority’s former security chief Jibril Rajoub, for instance, spent over 15 years in Israeli jails.
These Shin Bet veterans are no spineless dreamers. So, their warnings that, as Avi Dichter says, “you can’t make peace with military means” have added emotional clout. Fateh’s leaders are soon replaced by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the other militant Islamists who hold sway in Gaza, threatening Fateh’s legitimacy on the West Bank. Such religious foes have proven to be a far more disciplined enemy. Quoting Clausewitz, who he jokingly insists must have been at least part Jewish, Ami Ayalon defines victory as “the creation of a better political reality.” Though intelligence has helped keep Israelis safe, it cannot make them secure. Only a political settlement can do that, the veterans agree. Relying on brutality to fight terror—which Shalom compares, shockingly, to “Nazi methods”—has made Israelis “cruel.”
Perhaps as astonishing as what the intelligence elite have said is their having sat down with a documentary filmmaker. In an interview, Moreh told me he used only 2 percent of some 50 hours of interviews he taped with the former heads of the Shin Bet. He is working on a five-hour series for Israeli TV; a book is in process. He hopes to screen the film on the West Bank, where it hasn’t yet been shown; Arabs who have attended film festivals in Europe and America have told him they were deeply moved by it, he told me, when I sat down with him recently in New York. They know such a film could never have been made in any of their own countries.
Moreh’s question about whether Israel is becoming a “Shin Bet” state has prompted some Israeli extremists to threaten him. “You should see my Facebook page,” he told me. “One blogger said I should get cancer.” But Moreh has few illusions about the Palestinians. His overhead shot of the bombing of bus Number 5 is hard to watch. He would never forget, he told me, seeing a young girl blown to pieces in a suicide bus bombing. “Those horrific images are embedded in my memory,” he said. At the same time, he argues that refusing to criticize Israeli policy is a form of betrayal. “A real friend does not encourage the Titanic’s captain to keep heading straight for the iceberg,” he said. “He doesn’t yell—full steam ahead!”
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