‘The Gatekeepers’ raises harsh questions about Israeli security policies

Former Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri speaking in the Israeli documentary ‘The Gatekeepers.’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

“The Gatekeepers,” a gripping and disturbing Israeli documentary directed by Dror Moreh, raises harsh questions about Israeli security methods through the riveting testimonies of six former directors of  the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service.

American audiences may be more familiar with the Mossad, Israel’s equivalent to the Central Intelligence Agency than they are with the no less potent Shin Bet, which is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Originally charged with security matters within Israel proper, the Shin Bet was given the additional and daunting responsibility for maintaining security in former Arab territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

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Israel has faced continuing threats from neighboring Arab states and Iran, and various factions within the Palestinian Authority territories engaged in repeated acts of terrorism against civilian targets within Israel and the territories. Until the recently negotiated truce, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, engaged in a campaign of firing rockets into Israel, which caused deaths, injuries and property damage in Israeli towns and cities like Sderot and Ashkelon.  

During the First and Second Intifadas, the Shin Bet found itself struggling to come up with effective means of curbing the violence. This came to include targeted assassinations of leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

It is striking that all six of the former Shin Bet directors are candid in extensive interviews, even blunt about their strongdoubts as to the effectiveness of the various steps they authorized or helped to carry out against terrorist targets during their tenure.  

Avraham Shalom, who directed Shin Bet from 1980-1986, complained that in counter-terrorist policies in Israel, “There was no strategy, just tactics.”  He noted that no matter how effective targeted killings against leading terrorist suspects have been, there were always replacements ready to take over almost immediately.   Shalom and others among his colleagues complained that all of the prime ministers under whom they worked never developed a sustained strategy to move toward a negotiated settlement based on a two-state solution.  Shalom called the future prospects for a peaceful settlement “very dark.”

Avi Dichter, who led Shin Bet from 1988-2005, reinforced the concerns and doubts expressed by Shalom.  “You cannot make peace using military means.”  Yaakov Peri, who directed the agency from 1988-1994, complained that at several points since 1967 there were missed opportunities to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, but with the expansion of Israeli settlements the opportunity to reach an agreement based on a viable Palestinian state living alongside Israel have greatly diminished.

It is a sign of the robustness of Israel’s democracy and freedom of expression that leading figures can speak out so candidly against the most sensitive policies of their own government, policies which they carried out or ordered.  

If the film has a weakness, it is that its overall tone seems to place most of the blame for the impasse in the peace negotiations on Israeli policies. Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian Authority President, who was offered a Palestinian state covering all of Gaza, 96 percent of the West Bank and even shared administration of East Jerusalem and its holy sites in his meeting with President Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak at Camp David in July 2000, escapes any major criticism for spurning peace and launching the Second Intifada. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, while on record as favoring peace and opposing terrorism, has failed to provide effective leadership in negotiating peace, while expending considerable energy and political capital on gaining recognition from the United Nations General Assembly as a “non-member state.”

It would have been a welcome balancing element for “The Gatekeepers” to have interviewed some former security chiefs among the Palestinian Authority, or leaders of Hamas to see if they have any “second thoughts” about the rocket attacks and suicide bombings that they launched against Israel civilians.

Those concerns aside, “The Gatekeepers” is a chilling study of the lingering effects of policies that involve the targeted killings of people who might be vicious terrorists, but who are also human beings with spouses and children.