Inside Israel’s killing machine

By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH

“The Gatekeepers,” a film directed by Dror Moreh, who also conducted the interviews.

“The Gatekeepers” is a riveting documentary film that reveals the behind-the-scenes actions of one of Israel’s key tools for maintaining its repressive rule over the Palestinians—the Shin Bet (appellation for Israel Security Agency or ISA, formerly Mossad). The film tells its story through candid interviews with ex-leaders of Shin Bet, and includes archival black and white film clips.

The film opens with footage of Israel’s six-day war with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in June 5-10, 1967. One result was that one million additional Palestinians were put under Israeli rule. A former member, Avi Dichter, shown being interviewed, was only 11 years old during the war. He had to ask, “What is war?”

Dror Moreh was inspired by Errol Morris’s documentary, “The Fog of War,” where Morris interviewed Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. Moreh’s interviewees either retired or resigned from Shin Bet, supposedly having gained a conscience regarding their actions.

The film contains many memorable yet unsettling images. Some seem right out of a Bond or Bourne film, such as a successful bomb in a cell phone triggered to explode in the user’s ear, and the inhumane conditions of prisons where Palestinian suspects are tortured and held without trial.

Acting under Shin Bet orders, Israeli soldiers’ actions were not unlike those of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Taught simple Arabic commands, they went to Palestinian homes to count how many lived in each. Those who didn’t comply got their doors kicked down. Soldiers grabbed men, bound and corraled them into trucks, and hauled them off, leaving wailing women and children behind.

Moreh interviews one ex-leader who spoke of the beauty of the Palestinian olive groves. Here, he includes grainy black and white shots of soldiers driving through them. Yet soon the land was confiscated and people were sent to refugee camps. A Shin Bet leader, curious about the camps, paid a visit and was sickened by the conditions.

Illustrated by archival film clips, we see people who once lived freely on their land relegated to rows of one-room concrete blocks. Demeaned, Palestinians protested with rudimentary acts of resistance against Israelis they saw as occupiers. As these acts increased, a curfew was instigated and as many as a hundred people a night were arrested and tortured. One Shin Bet member laughingly brags that some of the methods were such that a victim would confess to killing Jesus.

Shin Bet also relied on human intelligence (HUMINT). We witness films of warehouses filled with rows of file cabinets containing dossiers on hundreds of thousands of alleged suspects. Clerks sat at Microfiche machines running countless records from which Shin Bet recruited people to betray friends and family.

One of the most unsettling interviewees is Avram Shalom. In 1982, after the Israeli war with Lebanon, the organization recruited him to head it. He tells Moreh that he felt he could do whatever he wanted, and if you didn’t go along, heads would roll. Sitting for the camera with his glasses and argyle sweater, Shalom looks more like someone’s grandfather than a leader of a ruthless killing machine.

One incident was the blowing up of a bus transporting suspected “terrorists,” killing most. Moreh asks him about it; Shalom cannot remember. When asked if he thinks the attack was illegal, Shalom replies that there was no such thing as an illegal action. Moreh presses on, “Not even shooting people with their hands behind their backs?” He says he ordered killings instead of trials because he didn’t want the chance of an armed terrorist in court. (Ironically, this sounds like a sound-bite from today’s U.S. administration speaking about the “war on terror,” especially how it dealt with Osama bin Laden.)

Impassively and coldly, he answers Moreh’s questions: “In a war against terrorists, there is no morality.” One of their mottos is, “Victory is to see you suffer.” Their matter-of-fact attitude, calmness, and lack of emotion (except for Shalom’s giggles), make them appear as pathological killers. Still, they verbalize their remorse. Whether or not they mean it, only they would know.

Photo: Palestinian refugees after June 1967 war.