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by Alejandro A. Riera February 22, 2013

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If you thought the Mossad was the be-all end-all of Israeli intelligence, think again. The organization might be one of the most visible, celebrated and even reviled of its kind, but it is just one branch of Israel’s intelligence network.

Dror Moreh’s extraordinary Academy Award® nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers” introduces audiences to the second and most secretive wing: the Shin Bet. In charge of that country’s internal security, the Shin Bet’s motto is “Defender that shall not be seen” –the identities of its personnel, from top to bottom, are kept secret by the government until they leave the agency.

That Moreh convinced its six former heads —Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Avalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin— to open up in front of a camera and talk about their experiences is an accomplishment in and of itself. Through these six men, Moreh provides us with an inside look at the last 50 years of Israeli history as well as a brutal assessment of what went wrong, what went right and what could have been.

Founded in 1949 to monitor the young country’s many ideological factions, Shin Bet’s focus shifted dramatically after the Six-Day War of 1967 when Israel took complete control of the West Bank and Gaza as well as the lives of millions of Palestinians. Suddenly, the Shin Bet found itself fighting terrorist attacks against the citizens of Israel with very little experience on the matter. In 1984, they found themselves fighting not just the Palestinians but also members of the Jewish Underground, an extreme right wing organization whose members were caught red-handed planting bombs in Palestinian buses in Israel and planning to blow up the Dome of the Rock, an important symbol of Islam located in the Temple Mount in Old Jerusalem. Had the plan gone through, the impact would have been catastrophic not only for Israel but its allies.

There were failures as well: the aforementioned 1984 execution, Shin Bet’s inability to foresee the 1987 Intifada, the death of dozens of innocent Palestinians as a result of their operations and, more tragically for peace process, their being unable to prevent much less stop the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by an Orthodox Jew, an act whose shockwaves are still being felt to this day, and which cost Shin Bet director Carmi Gillon his job.

“You can see it in his eyes, in his body language: it was one of the most horrible strategic decisions of Shin Bet,” said Dror Moreh during a recent promotional visit to Chicago. “The assassination of Rabin was the most traumatic, the most horrible chapter of Israel’s recent history. We have never come to terms with that assassination. Israel society has not understood the power of the Jewish extreme right wing. The assassin is a tool. A lot of the people that surrounded him were supposed to be sent to jail with him. They gave him their biblical endorsement. Those people continue to spread their poison.”

The idea for “The Gatekeepers” grew out of Moreh’s previous documentary on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who presented a disengagement plan that involved the withdrawal of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 2005. Having heard of Shin Bet’s involvement in the plan and influenced by Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” where former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara candidly spoke about his role in the Vietnam War, Moreh approached Ami Ayalon (head of Shin Bet from 1996-2000) with the idea of candidly discussing on camera his experiences. Not only did Moreh find a man who was willing to reveal all, but Ayalon helped secure the other five interviews. Moreh’s research was extensive: not only did he spend six months talking to each “gatekeeper,” but his researchers came back with “reams of documents bound in big thick books on each of the subjects.”

The documentary also offers a crash course on the technological and methodological changes the intelligence community has faced in the past four decades, from on the ground conversations with Palestinians to the use of drone strikes, torture, wiretapping and satellites.

“[Intelligence] is far from a bureaucratic endeavor,” said Moreh. “It was important to share the history of how intelligence has changed. I had to imagine [through animation] the files of terrorists inside these long rows of cabinets, these enormous factories of information. You were maintaining files on each person then and nowadays those files are inside a computer. I am a geek about secret warfare. It’s fascinating.”

“The Gatekeepers” ends with a bleak assessment on the viability of a peace process given Israel’s political situation at the time of filming, a view that might be tempered a bit by the results of the recent parliamentary elections that delivered a powerful blow to Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line allies. Even so, these men’s candid views were attacked by Israel’s extreme right wing. “[They] accused all six gatekeepers of being leftist anti-Israelis. To say that these men are anti-Israel is ridiculous. This is really a pro-Israeli movie: it comes from a real concern for the future and what is forthcoming,” said Moreh.

In fact, one could argue that, in revealing so much and in being so critical of their own government, these six men are committing the ultimate patriotic act.

“The Gatekeepers” is currently playing in the following theaters: Landmark Century Cinema (2828 N. Clark St., Chicago); CineArts 6 (1715 Maple St., Evanston) and Landmark Renaissance Place, (1850 Second Street, Highland Park).

Alejandro A. Riera writes about culture (Latino and non-Latino alike) in his culture bodega blog (culturebodega.wordpress.com).

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