Forget About Morality
Terror is a barrel with a bottom.
—Avi Dichter, Head of Shin Bet 2000-2005
“I don’t remember,” says Avraham Shalom on being asked about the 300 Bus incident of 1984. “I was in Haifa.” But a moment later, in the documentary, The Gatekeepers (Shomerei Ha’saf), the head of the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet at the time, indicates that he does in fact, remember. As the film recounts, the incident began on 12 April, when four Palestinians from the Gaza Strip hijacked a bus en route from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon. When the bus was stopped by Israeli soldiers some 10 miles from the Egyptian border, members of the Israeli media also arrived on the scene, and images emerging from the standoff have since become haunting reminders of Shin Bet’s cover-up of what happened next.
Dror Moreh’s documentary doesn’t reveal new information about the incident, in which two terrorists were killed on scene (documented by photos of their bloody bodies slumped on the bus), and two were captured and then ordered killed by Shalom. The film shows photos taken by reporters, shifting and animated, or stark and still, hinting at the changing of stories and the ways that history is constructed. Shalom describes here, in disturbing detail, that the prisoners were beaten nearly to death by his officers; on hearing this, he says, he told one of them to “finish it.” “What did he do?” asks Moreh from off-screen. “I think he took a rock and smashed their heads in,” comes the answer.
As Shalom now sits for his interview, wearing plaid shirt and red suspenders, he looks like someone’s grandfather, smiling occasionally, and blaming the “politicians” for the cover up and decision to frame Brigadier General Yitzhak Mordechai for the executions: he was tried and acquitted, and questions raised during the case led to Shalom’s resignation as head of Shin Bet in 1986. Shalom is visibly, if gently, impatient when Moreh asks whether the presence of the reporters at the bus incident affected it, or whether Shalom today has reconsidered the morality of his order. “With terrorism, there is no morality,” he insists. When dealing day to day with an occupied population, “It’s a tactical problem, not strategic.”
This distinction—nuanced and brutal at the same time—becomes something of a theme during the film’s interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet. If Shalom is among the most notorious, owing to the bus incident, he’s hardly unusual, as he recalls the shifting terms of Shin Bet’s mission. Founded with Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, Shin Bet became increasingly focused on gathering information on terrorist activities in 1967.
The film is focused on this period, following the Six Day War. As threats and incidents of violence increased, Shin Bet was expected to fight back: the film shows a reimagined surveillance room, with tapes recording, television monitors, and computers. Over the decades, technologies advanced, and, as Yuval Diskin (head from 2005 to 2011) puts it, the decisions seemed increasingly costly. It’s troubling to contemplate the dread power he wielded, he says as you watch smart-missile footage tracking a car in the street. “I made a decision and X number of people died.”
This decision might be whether to use a one-ton or a quarter-ton bomb on a target, whether to destroy a city block or just the third floor of a building, or whether to imprison suspects because of what they might do, or to include a man’s wife and child in the calculation. Even if you assume you’re acting on your mandate, securing the state of Israel, preventing future acts of terror and Israeli deaths, he says, you deal with questions of collateral damage, sometimes in the form of images—of bodies and faces that will be burned into your memory forever, affecting your daily life, your sleep and your sense of self. After all, he notes, those individuals he arrests or confronts as terrorists, see him as a terrorist as well. This as he also notes how decades of settlements, poverty, and restrictions create more resentment, less hope. “We wanted more security,” says one interviewee, and “we got more terrorism.”
Such effects, Diskin and other former heads suggest here, don’t always color decisions at the time: “ticking bombs” scenarios might allow for enhanced interrogations. As the film shows maps animated with grids showing risks, or footage of Prime Ministers, signing papers or visiting with Israeli troops (they make a point not to visit the occupied territories); at one point the film literally turns them into figureheads, shooting a collection of framed portraits, from a low and skewed angle, from David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir to Yitzhak Rabin to Shimon Peres to Barak and Netanyahu. Here again, the film insinuates a difficult, sophisticated, and horrifying distinction, between those who make one kind of decision to those charged with making others.
Carmi Gillon (head of Shin Bet from 1994-1996) laments that—as in most every battle zone—decisions on the ground, when soldiers are “knocking on doors” of suspects and families, are left to boys who may have just left high school. Making these decisions “changes people’s character,” Shalom says, illustrated as he and other former heads remember their own childhoods, their fears, their faiths, and often, the influences of their fathers. In this, the film recalls Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Law in these Parts, another recent documentary examining the effects of inflicting violence, by legal as well as political or material means.
This look at sources and cycles becomes another theme in The Gatekeepers. Even as men with guns and technologies might debate details of their campaigns, this film reveals—utterly effectively—they are as much products of what they do as they are authors. That’s not to say they shirk responsibility or see themselves as victims. It is to say that everyone who commits offenses, no matter the reasoning, is forever affected.