It’s an April morning. There’s a buzz in the air. And it’s not coming from the hearing aids of the mostly elderly crowd seated inside Kibbutz Ein Harod auditorium. I’m seated with my wife in the front rows near the stage. It’s a packed house; some are seated on folded chairs against the walls. It’s the first of two screenings of the documentary film, “The Gatekeepers,” nominated for an Oscar in 2012. After a short introduction by the MC, the director of the film, Dror Moreh, gets on stage. He’s brief, matter-of-fact, throws an occasional smile. He says,” This is not your typical film. It’s hard to watch. I ask that you hold judgment until after the screening, in the Q &A.” He vacates the stage. The lights go out.
If you’ve ever been submerged underwater and felt like your lungs might explode, then you’ll come close to the feeling you’ll get when you watch “Gatekeepers.” And there’s little chance for coming up for air during this 100-minute film, which seems like you’ve spent a decade inside a watery diving bell.
For those of you readers at the edge of your seat, who’re thinking: “YES, BUT WHAT IS THIS MOVIE ABOUT???” then I’ll tell you. It’s a story about six of Israel’s former chiefs of Secret Service, the Shin Bet. They tell their story on camera. They tell how they gathered intelligence behind enemy lines, how they recruited and paid off Arab informants to snitch on their brethren, how they intercepted and foiled scores of terrorist attacks. They speak without embellishment, without drama. Their ages range from 50 to 84, yet it seems their hardened faces were chiseled from the same rock.
The film mixes interviews with animated video, archival footage. In one instance they speak of a decision to take out a terrorist in Gaza.
A pilotless aircraft takes silently to the sky. Information on the terrorist’s whereabouts is gathered. It’s checked and double checked. It’s nighttime. A bird’s-eye view shows a moving car in a shabby neighborhood. The crosshairs of the target hover over the car. An order is given. A missile is launched. Poof! A white puff erupts from the car below. It’s eerily quiet, surgically clean. The score? Israel: 1 Terrorists: 0
There’s also a retelling of the Hamas terrorist Yahya Ayyash, known as the ‘Engineer,” who’d long eluded the Shin Bet. Finally, in 1996, an insider hands the unsuspecting terrorist an explosives-packed cell-phone. Ayyash puts the phone to his ear and answers the call.
Let’s just say he didn’t live to get the phone bill.
The six men take turns in telling of their “day in the office.” They describe their operations in an even tone, as if they’re telling you how to assemble an IKEA bookshelf. Their term in office ranged from 2 years to 6, collectively from 1980 to 2011 — some thirty years of assassinations, of bomb-planting, of finding and paying off informants.
The mission: protect Israel.
As if the Shin Bet wasn’t busy enough, it now had to turn its attention inward, to right-winged Jewish extremists who terrorize Arabs. Luckily, the extremists’ plan to blow up the Moslem Mosque, Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem, was foiled last-minute. Yet the Secret Service men admit they failed miserably to stop Yigal Amir, a Jewish extremist, from killing Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, in 1995.
Then, when you least expect it, while you try to suck in a lungful of air, the six men drop another type of “bomb.” They have second thoughts, doubts; they question the logic behind the whole thing. The men avoid dealing in politics; they agree that they made Mission Impossible — Possible, that they granted Israel with what it wanted most: security. They’ve done a masterful job. But for how long? Their cold assessment is unanimous: There’s no military solution to the conflict. Only diplomacy, negotiations will win the day.
The screen goes dark.
The audience is stunned, claps mechanically. I watch the director Dror Moreh climb the stage. The Q & A begins. It’s not a hostile crowd. On the contrary, he’s convincing the convinced, singing to the choir. In Ein Harod, mere miles from Jordan and from the West Bank, the kibbutniks from far and wide have come to weigh in their opinions, but mostly to agree with the film’s premise.
My wife Pnina asks Dror, “You must have filmed much more than the film’s 100 minutes. Did you bend the material to fit your message?”
“No,” he replies. ”There was plenty of film that was left on the cutting room floor. What you see is the essence of the story. Six more hours will be shown on the government-run Channel 1 this coming June.”
Next question: “How did you come up with the idea for the film?”
Dror says he completed “Sharon,” a documentary about Israel’s former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, before he suffered a coma. It was then that he learned plenty about Israel’s Secret Service .
“How did you convince these secret men to open up?” comes from the back row.
The director smiles. He says he convinced one of the Shin Bet’s former heads, who, in turn, convinced his “buddies” to cooperate.
Time’s up. The audience shuffles out, still shaken by the images and sounds of the film. The crowd for the second showing filters through the doors.
We get in the car and drive off.
Will violence ever cease? Here’s the population scorecard in the West Bank, aka occupied territory, aka Judea and Samaria: Jews – 325,000. Arabs 2,500,000 – a ratio of 8 to 1. For how long will Israel be able to put its finger in the wall, to plug up the hole, to keep the floodwaters from rolling in? If a dimplomatic solution is ever reached and most of the Jewish settlers are ordered to leave, will they?
Why? Because according to Amos Harel, a military commentator and journalist for Haaretz left-wing paper, Israel’s population has shifted its ideology to the right. In a Sept. 2012 story in the New Yorker, by David Remnick, Amos is quoted:
“And the military itself is becoming more and more heavily populated by religious Zionists—soldiers and officers who would be, at best, reluctant to follow orders to dismantle Yitzhar or Givat Ze’ev or Beitar Illit. In 1990, only two per cent of the infantry’s officer training corps was religious; now the figure is forty-two per cent. “People here fail to understand this profound change…They still think of an army of kibbutzniks, the way it used to be.”
I roll down the car window, slow down, take in the Galilee sunshine. In 1967, a solution was easier, in 1973 it became harder, in 2002, harder still, in 2013 almost impossible.
Are we just kicking the can to future generations?
Will no one listen to the Gatekeepers?
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teen-age daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.
He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com or BN.com.