The Gatekeepers, 101 mins, rated M, opens 5 September 2013


(This is my review as published in the NSW Law Society Journal, September 2013 issue. One additional paragraph included here)

“Victory is simply the creation of a better political reality” wrote Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewicz (1780 - 1831). Clausewicz was a German-Prussian soldier and military theorist. He wrote a classic book on war and military strategy, called On War. Ami Ayalon was the head of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic secret service agency, from 1996-2000. The views of the two come together when Ayalon quotes Clausewicz in The Gatekeepers, a fascinating new documentary feature from Israeli director Dror Moreh.

This extraordinary film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 2013 Academy Awards and is just now getting a theatrical release. Director Moreh’s subject is the Israel-Palestinian conflict since the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel crushed its opposition and seized disputed territory.

In the context of Israeli security, most people would have heard of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency. But the Shin Bet agency is responsible for internal security in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. In other words, if Mossad is Israel’s CIA, then Shin Bet is Israel’s FBI. Moreh has obtained unprecedented access to six former heads of Shin Bet, and has conducted amazingly frank interviews with each of them. The result is an impressive record of the domestic security issues that have plagued Israel since the Six Day War.

Moreh extracts some chilling truths from the Shin Bet's former leaders. For example, there’s Avraham Shalom (head of the agency from 1980-86). He now looks like a kindly grandfather, but he was one of the team that tracked and kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, and was utterly ruthless in his response to acts of terrorism. Here he talks publicly about his involvement in the summary execution of the two terrorists who hijacked the 300 bus from Tel Aviv in 1984. The subsequent media storm led to his resignation. He reveals government involvement at the highest levels.

{Together with Avi Dichter (Shin Bet head from 2000-2006) and Yaakov Peri (head from 1988-94) Shalom also describes Israel’s efforts to bring one million Palestinians to heel after the Six Day War, when attack was followed by counter-attack, hundreds of Palestinians were arrested and interrogated and forced to inform on each other, violence escalated, and all hope of a lasting peace evaporated.}  (This para deleted from published version for space reasons)

Impressive and innovative computer animation of black-and-white still photographs (visual effects are by the “Mac Guff” studio) brings to life some of the most distressing scenes in Israel’s recent history. Moreh is a skilled interviewer and storyteller.

This film echoes the excellent documentary about the US in Vietnam, The Fog of War (2003, Errol Morris), which featured frank admissions by former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. But it also reminded me of one of the most significant documentaries shown at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer). In that film, several former death-squad leaders discuss their misdeeds in the wake of the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government of President Sukarno and the subsequent anti-communist purge. Their willingness to tell the truth approaches bragging, and the director even convinces them to re-enact some of their atrocities for a potential feature film. It’s astonishing.

Here, the frank revelations of the six Shin Bet heads also take us into unexpected territory. One by one, these Israeli spymasters disavow violence as a tactic, testifying to the ultimate ineffectiveness of Shin Bet’s methods. Says Dichter, “You can’t make peace using military means”. It may be that these men have mellowed. As Peri (who lead Shin Bet during the First Palestinian Intifada) says “when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist”. But there’s more to their logic that that. It comes from bitter experience.

The ray of hope here is that these six hard men have come to the conclusion that only a diplomatic solution can break the vicious cycle, and that this film might force reassessments in the right places.

The conclusion applies outside Israel and Palestine as well. No matter that your army is strong and your intelligence is excellent. In these days of suicide bombings, religious fanaticism and improvised explosive devices, it’s not enough to secure peace by “victory”. As Ami Ayalon concludes, “We win every battle, but we lose the war”.