'The Gatekeepers' is an eye-opening look at Israel's past – and possibly its future

'The Gatekeepers' focuses on six of the surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic counterterrorism agency, and their memories of dark days.

By , Film critic

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    From left to right: Avraham Shalom, Ami Ayalon, Yaakov Peri, Yuval Diskin, Avi Dichter, Carmi Gillon, six former heads of Israel's secret service Shin Bet, reflect on their decisions in 'The Gatekeepers.'
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In the documentary “The Gatekeepers,” six surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the highly secretive Israeli domestic counterterrorism agency, are interviewed about their histories, which, inevitably, also encompass Israel’s history in the wake of the 1967 war, when the agency was put in charge of counterintelligence in the West Bank and Gaza.

Although many of these men, who variously ran the agency from 1980 through 2011, have spoken out prior to being interviewed here, “The Gatekeepers,” directed by Dror Moreh, represents the first full-scale documentation of their political lives. It’s an eye-opener.

Contrary to what one might be led to believe, the men are for the most part highly conflicted about their pasts.

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“We all have our moments,” says Yuval Diskin. “Maybe you’re shaving and you think, ‘I make a decision and X number of people are killed.’ ” He goes on: “The power to take lives in an instant, there’s something unnatural about it.”

All of the men interviewed – Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, and Diskin – come across as ruminative and, in varying degrees, remorseful. They share a belief in the curtailment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the granting of Palestinian statehood. They believe Israeli politicians have not done enough to make this happen. Peri, who ran Shin Bet from 1988 to 1994, during the first intifada leading to the Oslo peace accords, says: “You knock on doors in the middle of the night – these moments end up etched deep inside you. I think, after retiring from this job, you become a leftist.”

But their attitudes are much more complicated than this. Shalom, for example, in his 80s, is characterized by some in the film as a tyrant despite the fact that, with his cuddly jowls and red suspenders, he might have stepped out of an Israeli Pepperidge Farm commercial.

About the aftermath of the Six Day War, in which more than a million Palestinians suddenly came under military rule, he says, dryly: “When the Arabs surrendered, we had no enemy. It was lucky for us. We had work.”

His Waterloo was the 1984 Bus 300 incident, in which two Palestinians hijacked a bus from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon, were captured, interrogated, and then executed, leading to a national uproar. “With terrorists, there are no morals,” he says. “In the war against terror, forget about morality.”

Ayalon has contempt for that attitude, saying “We killed them with their hands tied.”

The terrorism described in the film is not exclusively the province of Palestinians. We also hear of the West Bank Settlers group known as the Jewish Underground, who were caught placing bombs on Palestinian buses in Jerusalem and planned to obliterate the Dome of the Rock. The light prison sentences these men received is a source of anger to the gatekeepers. Another lingering source of rage and woe is the 1995 assassination by an Orthodox Jew of Yitzhak Rabin, the only prime minister who, according to the gatekeepers, genuinely wanted Palestinian statehood.

The pessimism pervading this film is summed up by Shalom, who says, speaking of the decades of occupation: “The future is very dark.”

Moreh told me at the Sundance Film Festival this year that he is planning to turn the movie into a five-part Israeli television series and a book. Although the film is shortlisted for an Oscar for best documentary, he has not heard from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, according to a spokesman quoted in The New York Times Jan. 27, has no plans to see the film.

But perhaps if enough Israelis see the film, the grave issues brought forward by these former Shin Bet leaders will resonate in ways that will make the future a little less dark. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for violent content including disturbing images.)

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