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Filmmaker Holds Up 'A Mirror' In Interviews With Israel's 'Gatekeepers'

Jan 24, 2013
Originally published on February 20, 2013 3:36 pm

The Gatekeepers is an Israeli documentary based on long interviews with the six surviving heads of the Shin Bet — that's Israel's domestic security service. These six "gatekeepers" were in charge for more than 30 years.

All of these men made life and death decisions over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They arrested and interrogated thousands. They also tried to contain the radical Jewish underground. In the film, they describe what they did and why — and they come out sounding more like advocates of an Israeli peace movement than veterans spoiling for another fight.

Filmmaker Dror Moreh joins NPR's Robert Siegel to talk about his film, which is one of five nominees in the Best Documentary Feature category at the 85th Annual Academy Awards.


Interview Highlights

On gaining access to the six 'gatekeepers'

"I wanted to tell a story which will be told for the first time from the heads of the Israeli secret service. It wasn't an easy task ... it's a secret service ... they are in the shadows. I think like everything else in life, timing is the best thing. ... When I approached one of them, [former Shin Bet director] Ami Ayalon, I found out that he is ... very worried ... about the outcome of where Israel is heading towards and he was willing to come aboard this film. And then I asked him very shyly, 'Can you give me the numbers of the rest ... ?' and he said, 'I will give you whoever I have, and I will recommend them to participate.' And this is how this amazing journey started."

On the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict

"What does it mean, victory? Defeat Palestinians by force, yes we can. We did that a long time, we did that many times, but at the end of the day, what do we want? [The six Shin Bet leaders] accuse the leadership of Israel of acting tactically and not strategically — and this is a very core issue in the movie — where do we take those numerous victories to a better future for the Israeli people?"

On moments of reflection, doubt and remorse

"Those people headed operations which at the end of ... people died. Terrorists [and] sometimes innocent people died. I'm very keen on psychology — how does [a] person deal with that kind of moments when you know that you have ordered a targeted assassination and while you did that innocent people died in that event? ...

"Any defense officer ... has one job: That's to maintain security, and to reach better security for the state of Israel — or for Americans, for all it matters. And by doing that you are using force, using intelligence, you are using all the tools that are in front of you to maintain security, and at the end of the day when you reach home you ask yourself, 'Did it lead our country to a better place or not?' And I think they feel that it didn't.

"I can only say to you now that when you look at the last five years, the security forces have managed to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority to a place where the leaders can sit and talk without the threat of terror, but nothing happened. Those five years shouldn't have been lost; it's a crime that they were lost like that."

On why he thinks Israel is losing

"I think that when you look at the last 45 years, the situation in Israel is only deteriorating. ... I don't think the Israeli citizens feel more secure now, on the contrary. ... Unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be solved, I think Israel will [have] found itself isolated. ... I wanted, in a way, to create a mirror in front of the Israeli public, told by those people most responsible for the security. The words they say cannot be washed away like, 'They don't understand' or 'They're leftists.' This is the center of the defense establishment of Israel who are saying those clear and very, very harsh words to the Israeli public and I think the people should listen to that."

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

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

"The Gatekeepers" is an Israeli documentary that's up for an Academy Award. It's based on long and very rare interviews with the six surviving heads of the Shin Bet. That's Israel's domestic security service, it's their FBI. The Mossad would be Israel's CIA. These six gatekeepers were in charge for over 30 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "THE GATEKEEPERS")

AVRAHAM SHALOM: (Foreign language spoken)

SIEGEL: That's the eldest of the group, Avraham Shalom, who quit during a scandal. He'd ordered the killings without trial of two Palestinians who'd hijacked a bus.

All of these six men made life-and-death decisions over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They arrested and interrogated thousands. They also tried to contain the radical Jewish underground. In the film, they describe what they did and why, and they come out sounding more like advocates of an Israeli peace movement than veterans spoiling for another fight.

Dror Moreh made this film and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

DROR MOREH: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: This entire film is built around the confessions and ruminations of these six heads. I want you to walk us through the process by which you got these interviews.

MOREH: I wanted to tell a story which will be told for the first time from the heads of the Israeli secret service. So it wasn't an easy task because, as you said, it's a secret service, which secret is very, very apparent word in that they're in the shadows. But I think that, you know, like everything else in life, timing is the best thing. And I think that when I approached one of them, Ami Ayalon, I found out that he is a very worried person about the outcome of where Israel is heading towards and he was willing to come aboard this film.

And then I asked him very shyly, can you give me the numbers of the rest of those group? And he said, I will give you whoever I have and I will recommend them to participate. And this is how this amazing journey started.

SIEGEL: We should say, Ami Ayalon had become a Labor member of the Israeli Parliament, of the Knesset. He was very public figure. And another of these six, Yaakov Peri, was just elected this week to parliament on the new party There is a Future. So these are people who also have a public life in Israel.

MOREH: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Not all of them but some of them have a public life, yeah.

SIEGEL: To a man, they seem to say, there's no way that Israel can simply defeat the Palestinians by force. You've got to negotiate with these people.

MOREH: What does it mean, victory? I mean, defeat Palestinians by force? Yes, we can. We did that a long time. We did that many times. But at the end of the day, what do we want? And this is something that they accuse the leadership of Israel that the leadership of Israel was acting tactically and not strategically. And this is a very core issue in the movie. Where do we take those victories - numerous victories - to a better future for the Israeli people?

SIEGEL: This is a clip I want to play of Yuval Diskin, who was head of the agency from 2005 until 2011. I'll read the subtitles. He was talking about making a decision. A car is spotted believed to be carrying terrorists. He orders it to be blown up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GATEKEEPERS")

YUVAL DISKIN: (Foreign language spoken)

SIEGEL: He says, sometimes it's a super clean operation. No one was hurt except the terrorists. And then, later, life stops - at night, in the day, when you're shaving. We all have our moments; on vacation.

He's talking about moments of doubt, moments of perhaps even remorse.

MOREH: Yeah, absolutely. Look, those people headed operations, which at the end of that, people died. Terrorists, sometimes innocent people died. And I'm very keen on psychology, how does a person deal with that kind of moments when you know that you have ordered a targeted assassination and while you did that, innocent people died in that event. And this is what he spoke about, that it doesn't come to them very easy - on the contrary.

SIEGEL: Although I think he was actually still serving when you interviewed him.

MOREH: Yeah, he was still. The interview was in the headquarter of the Shin Bet in Tel Aviv.

SIEGEL: The other men are all reflecting in retirement on what they did and the decisions they made. And did you come away from this project convinced that they were reflective and feeling some doubt and some ambivalence in the days when they were making the decisions, or that came with hindsight?

MOREH: Look, any defense officer - whatever it is, intelligence or whatever - has one job and that's to maintain security. And to reach better security for the state of Israel or for the Americans, for all it matters. And while doing that you are using force. You are using intelligence. You are using all the tools that are in front of you to maintain security.

And at the end of the day, when you reach home, you ask yourself: Did it lead our country to a better place or not? And I think they feel that it didn't. And I can only say to you now that when you look at the last five years, the security forces has managed to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority to a place where the leaders can sit and talk without the threat of terror, but nothing happened.

And those five years shouldn't have been lost. It's a crime that they were lost like that.

SIEGEL: Yeah, there's a moment in your film when the head of the Shin Bet - this is in the period after the Oslo Accords - talks about the very real effective cooperation he was getting from Palestinian security people on the West Bank. And he recalls one of those Palestinians telling him, we're not doing this for Israel's good; we're doing this to get a state.

MOREH: Exactly, and I am so sad to tell you this is exactly, exactly what happened in the last four years. The security forces has managed to create a bridge of silence or a bridge without terror, from Judea and Samaria, from the West Bank and the leaders didn't do anything with that.

Barack Obama pushed as much as he could. But at the end of the day, he's the leader of America. He's not the leader of the Palestinian and the Israelis. They have to do that themselves.

SIEGEL: You've said that you wanted to make this film because, in your words, Israel is losing. What do you mean by that?

MOREH: Look, I think that when you look at the last 45 years, the situation in Israel is only deteriorating. I don't think the Israeli citizens feel more secure now, on the contrary. And I feel that if unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be solved, Israel will found itself isolated - not talking about the ramification of this conflict on the Israeli society now. So leaders has to lead. This is their job. They have to do that.

And I wanted, in a way, to create a mirror in front of the Israeli public, told by those people most responsible for the security. And that, the words they say cannot be washed way like they don't understand or they are leftists. This is the center of the defense establishment of Israel who are saying those clear and very, very harsh words to the Israeli public. And I think the people should listen to that.

SIEGEL: Dror Moreh, thank you very much for talking with us.

MOREH: It's been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Dror Moreh is a filmmaker. His documentary featuring six former heads of the Israeli security service, the Shin Bet, is called "The Gatekeepers." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.