x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Israeli spy documentary exposes cruel heart of the occupation

The film The Gatekeepers is an apocalyptic warning from the top echelons of Israel's military establishment. But it may be too late for ordinary Israelis to hear the message

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

Apocalyptic warnings that Israel must be saved from itself have become almost commonplace in discourse concerning the future of the Middle East.

Twenty years after the signing of the Oslo peace accords, Israel's occupation has reached levels of entrenchment previously unimaginable. This bitter reality has unfolded as Israelis significantly cut back their direct contact with Palestinians, in large part a result of the work of the Palestinian Authority and the severing of Gaza from the West Bank.

Before the Oslo years, Israel had to administer multiple aspects of Palestinian life directly and large segments of the Israeli population knew - through experience - the burdens of occupation.

Today, that is not the case. With the help of the Palestinian Authority, separation barriers and advancements in military technology, Israelis now have the ability to enjoy the fruits of occupation, whether in cheap housing in Israeli settlements or the mining of raw materials in the West Bank, without the need to see what controlling a people looks like on the ground. Recent protests over the cost of living in Tel Aviv, which made no mention of the occupation despite the rallying cry of social justice, drive home this point.

The foundations in place for this continued status quo don't appear to be changing anytime soon. Israel has invested more resources, both intellectual and economic, into controlling the Palestinians than into any other project in the country's history.

With continued American backing and a potential source of cash from recently found natural gas deposits, Israel is poised to refine its web of control over Palestinian life, while Israelis attempt to live a normal life free from the moral consequences of controlling another people.

Yet the majority of Israelis would be shocked to read these sentiments. If recent Israeli election results are any barometer, most would argue that, while Israel finds itself in a unique security situation, it is not really that different from most European countries. People want to pursue happiness and economic stability instead of dealing with the pesky occupation.

Perhaps it is this bleak contour of Israeli society that spurred an Israeli director, Dror Moreh, to make The Gatekeepers, an acclaimed new documentary about Israel's Shin Bet security agency.

While space for honest discussion about the country's policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians continues to shrink, there remains a faction of Israelis who hold on to the belief that democratic ideals and ethnocracy can exist symbiotically between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. For these individuals, Oslo's promise of two states for two peoples was a defining one, despite its impossibility. This coterie of liberals warn vociferously that Israel can't remain on its course. As The Gatekeepers demonstrates, members of this group reached the highest echelons of Israel's security establishment.

One of three Israeli intelligence gathering agencies, the Shin Bet is one of the only state institutions that answers solely to the prime minister's office and is not a part of Israel's Ministry of Defence.

Tasked primarily with handling security in the occupied Palestinian territories, the Shabak, as it is know by its Hebrew acronym, has come to be a cornerstone of Israel's occupation. Shin Bet intelligence gathering, which according to Israel's daily newspaper Haaretz occasionally includes torture, has sought to give Israel the ability to analyse, understand and ultimately dismantle every form of Palestinian resistance.

Moreh's film is a journey into this secretive organisation. Through interviews with six former directors of the Shin Bet, he unravels a complex matrix of Israeli control over Palestinians which seemingly has no driving end goal other than dominance.

By recounting historic events in the Israeli historical canon from the vantage point of the Shabak, Moreh is able to deliver a fresh take on Israel's occupation and the events that shaped the Oslo years.

His interviewees are openly critical of how the occupation disregards the rights of Palestinians and the immorality which it sows in Israeli society. One is stuck by the extreme power that the organisation has over individual Palestinians. Is the Shin Bet responsible for the security of Israelis or the absolute control over Palestinians?

One would assume that Israelis would be turned off by such harsh rhetoric, but the reverence of Moreh's interviewees remains a foundational aspect of Israeli society. Few are held in higher esteem than those at the helm of the security agencies and the military.

Further driving home the relevance of his film, Moreh retells events such as Yitzah Rabin's murder through dramatic and emotional recreations. In fact, Rabin's death is used in the film to demonstrate how Israeli society refused to reject the violent Jewish extremism that killed him, and embraced it by choosing leaders such as Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon.

Underlying this sober look into the Shin Bet is the simple observation that violence against the Palestinian people has become institutionalised in the Israeli system.

It is the violence necessary to maintain a system of control and status quo, not the cyclical outbreaks of violence that typified the Second Intifada.

The first scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. The former Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin, narrates a dramatic scene. An unmarked car, presumably driving through the narrow streets of Gaza, is seen through the crosshairs of a fighter jet as Mr Diskin explains the strange feeling of being able to take lives at a moment's notice. As he finishes explaining this unsettling power, the car is destroyed in an air raid. The message is clear: someone needs to take responsibility for these actions. Israelis can't continue to believe that they are living in Europe while these scenes unfold on a weekly, sometimes daily basis.

The Gatekeepers has been understood as a strong indictment of the current Israeli prime minister, Mr Netanyahu. But this is only the surface. Moreh painstakingly shows that Israel's security apparatus has become so attuned to controlling Palestinians that there are few options for resistance that Israel cannot crush.

However, Israeli leaders lack vision for the future. Ami Ayalon, who served as the head of the Shin Bet after Rabin's assassination in 1995 until 2000, poignantly recalls a childhood memory where he felt that no matter what, there was a prime minister sitting at the end of an office corridor in Jerusalem with the ability to make sure that everything would be OK.

Today, Mr Ayalon notes, there is no one at the end of the corridor.

Like Five Broken Cameras, the Palestinian documentary exploring a West Bank village's struggle against the Separation Barrier, The Gatekeepers was nominated for an Academy Award this year.

The status quo with Palestinians that Israelis have come to enjoy has opened a space for serious debate about the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West. Thanks to the explosion of social media and the Arab revolutions, the traditional narrative is transforming as people around the world are realising the exact nature of Israel's control over Palestinians. While this film is clearly part of the change, that is not its focus.

The Gatekeepers is saying to Israeli society that the situation which has been created by Israel with the help of the United States and the European Union is not sustainable. At the very least, the former Shin Bet directors seem to say, Israelis have to begin to take responsibility for the occupation and its grave moral toll.

Given the gains of the settlement movement along with revenue streams from the recently discovered natural gas deposits, it appears that The Gatekeepers might be too little too late.


Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah

On Twitter: @ibnezra