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'Gatekeepers' Let Us Inside Israeli Security

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The Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers centers on Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but from an unusual vantage — not the Palestinians or Israelis on the ground, but six men at the pinnacle of the country's security apparatus: the former heads of the security agency Shin Bet.

The opening scroll of The Gatekeepers identifies the Shin Bet as the agency charged with defending Israel against terrorism, espionage and the release of state secrets and asserts that its heads have never been interviewed about their work. That's actually not true — some of them have.

But it's certainly a momentous occasion when all six leaders of the agency since 1980 appear on-screen to narrate a sort of intelligence history of Israel and the occupied territories since 1967's Six-Day War. Director Dror Moreh never tells you why they've agreed to appear on camera.

What I inferred from the first few minutes — without knowing where the film was going — was that they were there to answer charges of human-rights violations, illegal occupations, torture and political assassination. I inferred that Shin Bet agents were tired of staying silent and thought it was time to justify what they do to a skeptical world for the sake of Israel's very existence.

I inferred wrong. The Gatekeepers turns out to be not a defense of Israeli military policy. It is, believe it or not, a critique. It's a film in which your jaw drops lower and lower as you realize that these spooks, these professional paranoiacs, sound like peaceniks compared with much of the right-wing government. They believe in the tactics they devised. It's the overall strategy they think is blind.

The Gatekeepers doesn't play like peacenik propaganda. It's made with cunning, with suspense techniques not much different from Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Moreh edits footage of riots and the intifada for shocking immediacy. The ambient score works on your nerves. And while you could call this, broadly, a "talking heads" documentary, the six heads in question — there are no other interview subjects — are amazingly vivid.

The oldest is Avraham Shalom, scary even in his dotage. For some years after the Six-Day War, he and his colleagues didn't have much to do, he says, aside from learn Arabic and study the Palestinians village by village. It was almost a relief, he says, when the terrorism began.

He was in charge in 1984, when a Palestinian hijacker taken off a bus was beaten to death by security forces. And he has no problem with that. "Forget about morality" when you're dealing with terrorists, he says. Other Shin Bet heads praise targeted killings, using words like "clean" and "elegant."

But The Gatekeepers takes a sharp turn when it reaches Yitzhak Rabin's second term as president, when the Oslo Peace Accords are signed — and when Shin Bet is blindsided by right-wing Jewish extremists who plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock. These were prominent Israelis, say the Shin Bet, caught attempting to incite a global war — and politicians intervened to get them quickly sprung from prison, to be greeted in their communities as heroes. One Shin Bet head, Carmi Gillon, says he tried in vain to get Rabin to wear a bulletproof vest. He would resign that same week when a punk named Yigal Amir killed Rabin and changed the course of history.

After Rabin, they say, came the deluge of ultra-Orthodox settlers moving illegally into the occupied territories while craven politicians did little. The gatekeepers speak sadly of teenage Israeli soldiers thrown into situations that would challenge those with decades of experience. Shalom, the scary man with no problem summarily executing prisoners, says, "We have become ... cruel." And can you imagine an American hawk saying, as ex-Shin Bet head Avi Dichter does, "You can't make peace using military means"? Perhaps the most philosophical leader, Ami Ayalon, quotes Karl von Clausewitz: "Victory," he says, "is the creation of a better political reality."

The Gatekeepers hits with the force of a bomb — and for once in the bloody and terrible history of its region, a smart bomb.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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