‘We are making millions of people’s lives unbearable’. Sign of hope?
‘The country is more focused on living than on fighting, perhaps,’ says former premier Ehud Olmert
By Simon Kuper, Financial Times
February 01, 2013
I arrived in Israel thinking that when the earth collides with a meteorite 500 million years from now, Israelis and Palestinians will still be fighting. I came home more optimistic. There may actually be reason to hope.
Let’s start with the bad stuff. The other day I stood on a hill overlooking the Palestinian West Bank. It’s not a “bank” any more – it’s more like a patchwork quilt. Little islands of Palestine are surrounded by Israeli settlements that just keep growing. It’s easy to tell the Palestinian homes: they have black water tanks on the roof, because Israel doesn’t assign them enough water.
Most of these Israeli settlers aren’t religious extremists from Brooklyn with rifles. They are ordinary Israelis – teachers and computer programmers who want cheap homes. Even a few Israeli peace activists live in settlements.
For Palestinians in the West Bank, isolation keeps worsening. Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian writer and human rights lawyer who won Britain’s Orwell Prize for his book Palestinian Walks, told me, “You cannot have a proper walk now, because on a proper walk you don’t have to think about anything. Now you have to think about settlers, armies, wild boars.”
Shehadeh lives in Ramallah, capital of the Palestinian Authority. It’s 15 miles from Jerusalem, but walls and checkpoints make the trip almost impossible. Life in Gaza is much worse.
If you don’t believe me, listen to six former chiefs of Israel’s domestic intelligence service Shin Bet. They speak in the new Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers, rightly nominated for an Oscar. I watched it in a packed cinema in Tel Aviv. “We are making millions of people’s lives unbearable,” says one ex-chief. “We have become cruel,” says another. “When you retire,” a third says of his job, “you become a bit of a leftie.” No doubt American conservatives will dismiss them as “self-hating Jews”.
Now for the optimism: peace may just be breaking out. Israel spent its early years fighting for its survival, with the Holocaust fresh in Israeli minds. But no Arab state has launched a war against Israel for 40 years.
Terror groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah have attacked, but as the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert told me, “We know how to fight terror.”
Israel’s current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps warning about future aggressors: Iran, perhaps the new Egypt, Syria post-Assad, etc. Netanyahu is a classic Israeli hawk, as defined by writer Amos Oz: “The hawks are convinced that the Jews are liable to some mysterious primeval curse, bound to remain forever isolated, hated and persecuted … doves maintain there is no such mystical verdict.”
The trend of history may be with the doves. War is in decline worldwide, as the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker points out in his magnificent book The Better Angels of Our Nature. In part, states have learnt that war rarely achieves its goals. In part, mass media and international pressure put the brakes on prolonged bloodshed. Israel now gets only brief windows to fight wars (“to cut the grass” as its army says) before the world intervenes. Hence its “mini-wars” of recent years in Gaza and Lebanon.
For now, there’s near-peace at home too: the occupied Palestinian territories are almost unprecedentedly quiet. Shin Bet says that last year, for the first time since 1973, no Israelis died in violence on the West Bank.
B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, calculates that from the end of the war in Gaza in January 2009 through October 2012, 422 people (mainly Palestinians) were killed in Israeli-Palestinian violence. That’s horrible – but it’s a far lower death rate than the homicide rate in a safer than ever New York City over the same period.
. . .
Israelis may never have lived so peacefully. True, that could end. Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka, of Israel’s joint Jewish-Arab socialist Da’am party, cautions: “The violence is waiting in a corner to explode. Many people are talking about the third intifada as something that will be.”
Yet for now anyway, relative peace is changing Israel. This was always a military state led by military heroes. But in last month’s elections, Netanyahu’s warnings about Iran found little resonance, and the big winner was television presenter Yair Lapid. Meanwhile former army chief Shaul Mofaz barely scraped into parliament with his Kadima party.
The election was fought largely on the cost of living. Partly that’s because few Israelis believe peace can be made with the Palestinians, but partly it’s because they are getting comfortable. Tel Aviv really has become a hip Mediterranean beach town with an IT boom. Military leaders worry that civilians are becoming less willing to sacrifice. “The country is more focused on living than on fighting, perhaps,” says Olmert. Israel’s top television programmes, he marvels, are now reality shows like MasterChef.
Israel’s appetite for using violence may just be diminishing.
If the current peace holds a while, trust with Palestinians might grow. Optimism about this region may not be completely crazy.
Former leaders open up as never before to director Dror Moreh, whose ‘Gatekeepers’ delivers a harsh appraisal of the agency’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
February 1, 2013
Israel’s Shin Bet — think of it as a combination of the CIA and the FBI — prides itself on secrecy. So when documentary filmmaker Dror Moreh approached one of its past leaders some three years ago to discuss the agency’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he expected silence.
But as in so much of life, timing is everything. When Moreh contacted Ami Ayalon, who headed the domestic counterterrorism agency from 1996-2000, the left-leaning Ayalon was ready to talk — and to help Moreh secure interviews with the other five living former Shin Bet leaders.
Eventually, Moreh recorded more than 70 hours of interviews with the six men who served as heads of Shin Bet from 1980 to 2011. They not only walked the filmmaker through Israel’s intelligence operations but also opened their hearts to him.
“I knew I had dynamite in my hands,” Moreh said of completing the interviews.
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The resulting film, “The Gatekeepers,” delivers an extraordinarily frank assessment of both the agency’s tactics (there’s no morality in war) and a harsh appraisal of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (nothing short of a two-state solution will fix the problem).
Toward the film’s end, one Shin Bet leader even concludes that Israel’s occupation of territories claimed by Palestinians is not that different from what the Germans did during World War II.
One of five feature-length documentaries vying for an Oscar and opening in limited theatrical release this weekend, “The Gatekeepers” is far from a talking-heads assembly. Instead, Moreh injects the film with kinetic cinematography, including satellite imagery, stylized photo-driven reenactments and archival footage that takes “The Gatekeepers” into a nearly narrative direction.
“Film is not just about content but what you show cinematically, how you affect the audience with what you show,” Moreh said. “I knew my biggest task was to make sure the look of the movie was as good as what was said in the film.”
But it is what the Shin Bet leaders admit, rather than the way in which Moreh films them, that gives “The Gatekeepers” its true impact.
While the six leaders are dissimilar politically, personally and professionally — “I don’t think they like each other so much,” the director said — they ultimately come to say slightly different versions of the very same thing: Even if Israel is winning most of the battles it is losing the war, and the moral price of the occupation is incalculable and unacceptable.
“It’s a very negative trait we acquired,” said Avraham Shalom, who ran Shin Bet from 1980 to ’86. “We became cruel.”
Shin Bet was born in the wake of the Six Day War of 1967, when 1 million Palestinians were placed under Israeli military rule essentially overnight. When terrorism started, as Shalom almost fondly recalls, “It was lucky for us. We had work.”
That work included espionage, torture and an array of controversial decisions. In the rearview mirror, it all looks worse. “When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist,” Yaakov Peri, Shin Bet’s leader from 1988 to 1995, says in the film.
The film focuses closely on a 1984 event known as the Bus 300 incident in which two Palestinians who had hijacked a bus were caught, beaten and executed before being tried, with Shalom’s blessing. And it revisits one of Shin Bet’s biggest intelligence failures, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, perhaps the last best hope for lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, was killed in 1995 by a radical, right-wing Orthodox Jew.
One of the more straight-speaking Shin Bet leaders, Carmi Gillon, who ran the organization from 1994 to ’96 and quit after Rabin’s assassination, said he was initially reluctant to answer some of Moreh’s questions, particularly about the targeted killing of Hamas bomb maker Yahya Ayyash by Shin Bet in 1996. But he changed his mind after seeing how well-informed the filmmaker was.
“I never spoke about the details” before, Gillon said in an email interview. “After I understood how much information Dror already had, I decided to cooperate.”
A cinematographer by training, the 51-year-old Moreh has directed several documentaries previously. The most prominent was his 2008 film “Sharon,” a profile of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Moreh said he was compelled to make “The Gatekeepers” by Errol Morris’ documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” That film, about the U.S. secretary of defense from 1961 to ’68 who oversaw America’s plunge into Vietnam, won the Oscar in 2004. “When I saw the movie for the first time, I was amazed, first and foremost, by the access — that Morris found people who could testify as to what really happened.”
As it turned out, Ayalon was a fan of “The Fog of War” too, which helped open the Shin Bet doors.
Moreh said he also was motivated by what he was taught (and doubted) growing up in Israel: that the only impediment to peace were Arabs, who only wanted to “annihilate the state of Israel” and that “we are fighting because there is no choice.” Moreh had been frustrated that “so many missed opportunities” for peace had slipped away, and believed that no one other than the Shin Bet leaders could explain what was really happening on the ground.
“I don’t know if it’s started a dialogue yet, but I know the audience is listening,” Moreh said of the early reaction to “The Gatekeepers,” adding that he is presently adding Arabic subtitles to the film so that it can be shown to everyone who has a stake in the crisis. He is also planning on expanding the movie into a five-hour television series in Israel.
Moreh says the film has been performing strongly at the Israeli box office; it’s been showing in about 15 cinemas around the country. “It’s done as well as some Israeli narrative films,” the director said. But he is eager for it to be seen more broadly.
“Any decision-maker in America I hope will see the film. I think [Secretary of Defense nominee] Chuck Hagel and [Secretary of State] John Kerry should see it. And I dare say that President Obama should see it too.”
Gillon echoed the sentiment.
“The importance for me is the message the film gives to the Israeli public. The message is that occupation is bad for the future of Israeli society from all aspects — humanistic, economic, moral, etc…I can assure you that all six former heads and some 95% of my colleagues and workers from the Shin Bet from over three decades all agree with the overall conclusions of the film.”