Israeli film ‘The Gatekeepers’ brings truths about occupation that Palestinians are vilified for saying

Israel/Palestine
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Last week I saw a riveting new Israeli film about moral corruption in the government.  The Gatekeepers features lengthy interviews with six former heads of the security service, Shin Bet, who repudiate the security policy they carried out. The men say that Palestinians committed acts of terror due to political causes Israeli leaders refuse to address, that the Israeli methods of attacking the symptoms are themselves a form of terrorism, and Israel should be talking to Hamas.

In the takeaway moment of the movie, Avraham Shalom, a ruthless former official now old and reflective, tells filmmaker Dror Moreh that the Israelis are really no different from the Nazis in their occupations of Belgium, France and Czechoslovakia.

If a member of Congress or a mainstream columnist said any of this, he or she would be run out of town on a rail. Palestinians have said as much for years and been vilified. Israelis are allowed.

Of course it is great news that this stark and stylish film was featured in the New York Film Festival and that it has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. The film’s prominence, following the earlier success of The Law in These Parts and 5 Broken  Cameras, signals a new discourse in the United States: Our prestige media are going to start talking about the vicious cruelty of the occupation.

And when you consider that this film was essentially authorized by the six former Shin Bet men– “They all approved the movie,” Moreh said at the screening I attended– it is a sign of a fresh political development: The U.S. liberal establishment is beginning to echo Ehud Olmert’s warning of five years ago, that Israel is going to commit national suicide if it does not end the occupation.

Fears of Israel’s demise motivated the Shin Bet men to talk to Moreh. They are trying to save Israel.

“We are making the lives of millions miserable,” says Carmi Gillon, one of the film’s stars. “You become a bit of a leftist,” says the severely-handsome Ami Ayalon, who issued similar warnings at J Street 3 years ago. While a third, Yuval Diskin, says that the prophesy of the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz should be etched in stone: that governing a million “foreigners” in the occupied territories would turn Israel into “a Shin Bet state.”

Our informants are murderers. The Shin Bet men stared crossing the red lines on immoral conduct nearly 30 years ago, when Shalom authorized the killings of Palestinians arrested in a famous bus hijacking case, and the line keeps moving. They may think they’ve redeemed themselves with this film, I don’t.

And the movie says that the moral crisis began in 1967 with the occupation, and suggests that the crisis would go away if the occupation over “foreigners” were at last reversed. The settlers are seen as an alien and grotesque underbelly of Israeli society. A sharp distinction is drawn between the expansionism of 1967 and the expansionism of 1948. As if the messianic settlers who plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock are all that different from the messianic settlers who built Jewish-only communities in the Galilee. 

The settler terrorists who tried to blow up the Temple Mount, by the way, were soon set free, the movie shows, with frightening footage. The religious nuts have deep roots inside the Israeli political establishment. And Gillon, on whose watch Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, warns that if settlers are actually pulled out of the West Bank, “I believe we’ll see another political assassination.”

Netanyahu is shown in this film to be part of the rightwing crowd inciting against Yitzhak Rabin after he signed the Oslo Accords. And Moreh is eager for his film to be released in Israel well ahead of the January elections, so that it might undermine Netanyahu’s approach in public opinion.  But even if Netanyahu goes, the occupation is sure to continue. 

The historical footage of the occupation is very moving. We see older women breaking up stones so that children will have something to throw in the First Intifada. We see a Palestinian tailor trying to mend a jacket as an Israeli soldier with a rifle paces back and forth in front of him; and there is no doubt who has all the humanity in that scene. But casting these people as foreigners is a basic problem with Zionism; and even if the occupation ends, that mindset has to change. 

I embrace the new honesty in the U.S. about Israeli society that this film represents, the film hardly goes far enough. And yes, I find it uncomfortable that I’m getting this information at the behest of the Israelis. When we saw 5 Broken Cameras, Norman Finkelstein said that seeing the movie violates the BDS guidelines as it had the support of an Israeli cultural ministry. Myself I can live with that contradiction, especially because 5 Broken Cameras is told from the Paletinian point of view. But the larger point is well taken. Having Israeli liberal Zionists as messengers to Americans about the conflict is a narrow lens. I kept wondering what Israeli leadership would look like if the government were actually representative of all its citizens– a question Moreh doesn’t care to explore.

At the screening I attended, Moreh was proud of being backed by Sony Pictures Classics, and predicted that Ayalon might come to screenings, as a kind of movie star. Asked whether he will take the film to synagogues, he joked that the New York Film Festival feels like a synagogue to him. I wonder if this film is a kind of atonement. We did horrible things. Now let’s end the occupation and move on!

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