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Review of `The Gatekeepers’: `We Became Cruel’

March 12, 2013
W. Bank Protester Arrested

Palestinian youth being arrested by Israeli military in West Bank, circa 2013

This also appeared at Foreign Policy In Focus



A good place to start this review is at the end, the very end of The Gatekeepers, the Israeli documentary by Droh Moreh that was nominated for best documentary feature at the 85th Academy Awards .

Just before the film stops rolling, `they’ –  the six interviewees – all come to the same conclusion: they’ve had it with the occupation, that further repression against the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – that includes extensive torture to create and army of informers, targeted high tech assassination, daily harassment and humiliation of the Palestinian population simply won’t work. And `they’ should know, as they perpetrated much of it.

`We’ve become cruel’ one of them says, himself one of the cruelest Shin Bet chiefs of them all, as if the Occupation was ever `kind’ in its earlier days?

Despite all their efforts to crush Palestinian resistance and aspirations for an independent Palestinian state, all of them, these former directors of Israeli’s Shin Bet agree that continued repression is useless and that Israel should – like France with the Algerian rebels in the late 1950s, early 1960s – seriously negotiate with the Palestinians, cut some deal with them, and get out. They understand – these technicians of Occupation – that Israel’s future in the region, nothing short of that, depends on withdrawing the Israeli military and the settlers from the Occupited Territories as soon as possible.

`We’ve become cruel’ one of them says, himself one of the cruelest as Shin Bet chief, as if the Occupation was ever `kind’ in its earlier days?

Theirs is something of a cautionary message as they make their case at a time when Israeli society has moved dramatically to the right, and its willingness to even address the prospect of ending the Occupation and moving towards a two state solution have all but evaporated.

The last sentence of the film really says it all, something along the lines of `winning the battles’ but `losing the war’. And Israel has lost the war – not the war on the battlefield or in the Shin Bet’s torture chamber, but the war to win the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people. It’s over. The military giant – that can assassinate Palestinians by exploding cell phones directed from satellites – comes to the realization that for all of its military and technical prowess, long ago, Israel lost the only war that counts – for political legitimacy. In fact, its public relations machine in the USA aside, it never had it.

I found the film mostly disturbing, but not without interest.

I kept waiting to hear Palestinian voices…but there were none. This is in keeping with a long held practice/tradition that the narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian relationship be told entirely by one side – those in power.  What was presented is essentially an intra-Israeli view of the Occupation, albeit by former supporters of the Occupation now turned opponents, not for ethical reasons, something of which they are not capable to be frank, but for `pragmatic’ reasons. It is not that the Occupation is oppressive, repressive, a fundamental denial of the human and national rights of one people by another; instead theirs is a functional argument: repression doesn’t work, so after decades of it, let’s try something else. Is this the best that Israel has to offer on the ethical plane?

I kept waiting to hear Palestinian voices…but there were none. This is in keeping with a long held practice/tradition that the narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian relationship be told entirely by one side – those in power

The idea that six former Shin Bet heads all call for an end to the occupation can be interpreted optimistically: cool, after crushing two Intifadas, cracked so many heads and other body parts, they have finally gotten in touch with their inner selves, become animal rights advocates  and now, in retirement, want to work for peace. . None. Something akin to Al Capone deciding he wants to join the American Friends Service Committee?

Aren’t we all happy – cool, calculating killers have found the light and become pacifists? While not impossible, this is still hard to believe.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that those speaking so calmly orchestrated what are defined by much of the world and international law as war crimes. But if you like to hear the words of professional torturers and killers now morphed into `professional torturers and killers for peace’ it might be worth seeing the film. All six are frank about the importance of informers, overwhelmingly brought into the Israeli intelligence network through `enhanced interrogation’ – otherwise known as torture.Yet they spoke of what amounts to torture, assassination with not the slightest bit of remorse. 

There is an inverse relationship between their refusal to use `the word’ torture and its extensive practical application by all of them. Indeed, this is a film about 45 years (it starts in 1967, avoids the earlier period) of the impact of Israeli torture to extract information, to neutralize Palestinian political activity, armed or peaceful. On the one hand it does work. Israeli intelligence is very well informed concerning Palestinian political activity, far less so, as evidenced by the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzkak Rabin, where it concerns the activities, the racist hysteria of the Israeli religious right.

The film illustrates well how Israeli targeted assassinations are among the precursors to the growing U.S. drone assassinations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia  and who knows where else. What the U.S. is now doing with unmanned drones, the Israelis did mostly with attack helicopters. Some of the most disturbing parts of the film show the targeting and killing of Palestinian militants with so-called precision bombs, many of which, of course, weren’t so precise.

I was struck about something else: that the Israeli policies of counter-insurgency, meant to paralyze the Palestinian national movement in its tracks are based largely on the same counter-insurgency strategies and tactics developed first in Vietnam and Algerian by a profoundly racist French military trying desperately to maintain its control over colonies.

Keep in mind that before the 1967 War, Israel’s maintained particularly close ties with France and that many of the veterans of torturing Algerians, lent Israel a helping hand, to help train the Israeli security apparatus in its early days. It is also France that gave Israel’s nuclear weapons program a big boost through training Israeli atomic scientists and information sharing.

French torture methods, euphemistically called `counter-insurgency’   were then passed on to the U.S. in its losing effort in Vietnam in the 1960s, to the Argentine junta in its `dirty war’ of the 1970s against anything that moved and was slightly left of center. The Argentinean military was largely trained and influenced by former French officers who had tortured Algerians in `The Battle of Algiers’. They took `spiritual  guidance’ from extreme right wing Catholic priests, also many of the French who blessed torture and encouraged the inhumane and bloody methods used.

At the same time Israel learned the `Battle of Algiers’ methodology which it has used extensively since 1967 but then it passed it back to the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, post-millennial. Kif-kif – the same stuff

Of what did this shared counter-insurgency methodology consist? A number of key themes emerge:

–       The criminalization of the military and the use thereof to fight `total war’ against civilian populations, on the grounds that it was impossible to tell the rebels from the broader population. In Argentina’s case, it was war against its own people, in Israel’s counter-insurgency targets the Palestinians

–       To establish a double standard legally – defining those who because they are acting outside the law – should not be granted legal rights – opening the way for torture, assassination and other forms of mistreatment. The rebels, labeled terrorists are no longer considered human with human rights. The only way to deal with them is to exterminate them! (or to permanently expel them)

–       The extensive and unbridled use of `methods of coercion’, `innovative interrogation’ both otherwise known as torture to extract `intelligence’ from the population to locate rebel `cells’ or units. There is another important purpose of torture, not always emphasized: it is to create a network of informers. To place torture victims back into the general population to spy on their friends, neighbors and family. It was this particular aspect of the program at which the Shin Bet excelled.

The only things these strategies have produced is an unnecessary ocean of human suffering – of torture victims in West Bank prisons, of `disappeared ones’ in Argentina, of victims of the U.S. Phoenix program in Vietnam, of indignities and torture in the U.S. prisons at Abu Graib and Guantanemo.

May its French architects – Trinquier, Galula, Bernard Fall from France, its `implementers’ – Massu, Aussaresses from France, Videla from Argentina, the entire team of the Bush Administration that implemented torture in Iraq, Petraeus  – be condemned for the fascists that they in fact were, and those  still alive, including these six former Shin Bet heads be tried for war crimes.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. kerim permalink
    March 13, 2013 4:33 am

    The makers of The Gatekeepers had focussed on laying out a number of facts, with an utterly distinctive approach, as rational and as objective as can be, yet also good enough for an Academy Award .
    To me, it delivered a clear message that had all characteristics of a whistleblow vis-a-vis the Occupation and its inhumane nature, right from the start .
    This is not the first time that someone from within israel, blows the whistle . We recall the crackdown on Mordachai Vanunu …. we remember Victor Ostrovsky’s “By way of Deception” which btw was prohibited from being published, and or from being sold in both the USA & Canada for years ( don’t know if the ban was lifted though) .
    Bottomline is that Occupation will always be doomed to fail sooner or later .
    I may add one subtantial argument, around the whole affair, by confirming that as long as the israeli’s keep on voting for right wing parties, we will simply be having more of the same . Only a change in the voters behaviour can make the pendula swing to the other side, without a doubt .

  2. March 15, 2013 11:52 am

    I found it chilling – the “gatekeepers” did not express remorse or even an acknowledgment that what they had done might have been wrong–no discussion of morality. They were cold and calculating, as though reason could justify any behavior. They were detached from what they had done. Reason and Israel’s goals justified any behavior in the past and now reason and Israel’s goals were justification for a change in the plan.

    It made me feel a bit crazy because, while I was very troubled by their demeanor and reasoning, their lack of compassion, I was attracted to their idea that Israel should end the occupation – it pulled me back and forth between hope and despair. Hope that Israel could end the occupation; despair that there would be no moral shift, no humanitarian ideals. The movie haunts me.

  3. kerim permalink
    March 17, 2013 2:50 am

    The making of any Documentary requires a certain “style of presentation” through which a story is told before an audience, regardless how pert or how bold the footage might appear . If the intention was to stick to this somewhat “narrow” approach as a guideline throughout the Documentary, then the criteria must ‘ve been Droh Moreh ‘s “artistic skill” that got him the Academy Award .
    Unlike Melodrama, in Documentaries there is no Method-Acting, so you constantly depend on what the person you’re interviewing says or declares, and subsequently you have to keep the level of objectivity as high as possible . A hard thing to do, when you’re dealing with israeli hawks in retirement, who committed war crimes against palestinians, or used senseless excessive force when they were in charge .
    Naturally, it is easy to express one’s regrets about the Occupation and its fiasco when one is in retirement, and from that perspective I also see it as a cold blooded hypocricy, cheap to make . But that’s what The Gatekeepers is about : The Occupier plays both the Main Character and the Impact Character at once, while the Occupied is bluntly ignored and made almost irrelevant .

  4. Isaac Galili permalink
    April 23, 2013 3:05 am

    You miss the whole point of this disturbing movie, something that non-Israelis would not and could be expected to get. This film was made by Israelis for Israelis. In particular, for Israeli politicians. The impact of six Shin Bet heads, who dedicated their lives to Israel’s security, all calling for an end to the occupation cannot be underestimated.

    I saw the film last night at Kibbutz Ein Harod. The director Dror Moreh was present and he took questions afterwards. He said he made the film because he was aware of how Ariel Sharon came to decide to the withdraw from Gaza only after reading an interview with four former Shin Bet heads saying the same thing: end the occupation. Moreh is hoping his film will have the same impact on Israelis today, leading sooner rather than later to the election of a more flexible government.

    By the way, the film also showed the results of Palestinian suicide bombings carried out by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups. The film showed how Hamas effectively undermined the Oslo peace process by empowering the right in Israel with their series of suicide bombings starting in 1994. The Second Intifada, resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 Israeli non-combatants and the wounding and maiming of thousands more, completely undermined the Left here. There is no understanding Israeli politics without absorbing that reality.

    Are you are aware of any high ranking Palestinian military or political leaders that have admitted the same: We have become cruel. We have failed to see Israelis as human beings?

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