Monday 19 August 2019

At the gates of Israel

The Gatekeepers (No Cert, IFI, 95 minutes) Director: Dror Moreh Stars: Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuvai Diskin, Yaakov Peri

Forces: Old men talking about security is surprisingly fascinating
Forces: Old men talking about security is surprisingly fascinating
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

On the face of it, Dror Moreh's earnest and painstaking documentary The Gatekeepers sounds a little worthy, even dull.

Six men, most of them bald, all of them elderly and one over 80, chat to camera about their time in charge of Shin Bet, Israel's shadowy and sinister internal security service.

Though these interviews are intercut with bits of surveillance footage and some archive film, The Gatekeepers is not exactly visually riveting, and a documentary made by an Israeli that talks only to Israelis sounds like a potentially unsound and self-aggrandising whitewash.

And yet, it's anything but. AO Scott of the New York Times, a gentleman not given to hyperbole, described it as "essential, eye-opening viewing if you think you understand the Middle East", and Scott is spot on, as usual.

Unsurprisingly, Moreh had huge difficulty persuading these cold-eyed professional spies to discuss their sensitive and often hugely controversial work, but when former Shin Bet boss Ami Ayalon agreed to appear in the film, he persuaded five other former Shin Bet chiefs to do likewise.

Established in 1949 by the government of David Ben-Gurion, Shin Bet was originally mandated to deal with internal matters in a young country riven by ideological and religious divisions.

After Israel expanded its borders during the Six-Day War, the West Bank and Gaza became Shin Bet's primary areas of concern.

The organisation reports to no one but the prime minister, and has sometimes been used as a convenient scapegoat by politicians when things go wrong. But all six Shin Bet leaders make clear their absolutely unflinching commitment to defend their country by all means necessary.

Once the Palestinians began to rise up against the state they saw as their oppressor, Shin Bet became very adept at penetrating organisations like the PLO and later Hamas, buying informers and dealing most harshly with terrorists they caught.

When the bus bombing campaign started in the mid-1990s, Shin Bet and the Israeli army began taking out terrorists from the air, often incurring devastating 'collateral damage'. And Shin Bet's bosses are a lot less coy about the pros and cons of torture than their friends in Washington.

The men's candour in describing appalling missions is shocking, and in one particularly gripping sequence a Shin Bet boss cannot conceal his pleasure while describing how they planted a tiny bomb inside a mobile phone which blew off the head of a leading Hamas operative.

What's most surprising, however, is that almost to a man, these sinister functionaries who've toiled at the coalface of a singularly vicious conflict believe that a two-state solution is the only hope for the future, and that successive generations of Israeli politicians have shamefully let their people – and the Palestinians – down.

Irish Independent

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