This year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary were some of the hardest-hitting in memory, including, oddly enough, two on the issue of Palestinean statehood. The Gatekeepers, by Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, concerns Shin Bet, Israel’s ultra-clandestine anti-terrorism organization. The agency was entrusted with internal security in 1967 after the Six-Day War, when Israel was suddenly responsible for a million Palestinian refugees. Among them were terrorists who murdered Israeli soldiers in the refugee camps. The film consists of startlingly candid interviews with six former Shin Bet directors. From the kindly, cuddly-looking Avraham Shalom, who admits to utter ruthlessness—“There’s no time, these situations last seconds,” he says, explaining the terrible pressure on agents to execute or not execute—to the ferocious looking Ami Ayalon, who seems almost broken by the failure of the Oslo Accords, what’s most surprising about these very different men is that all six believe in an independent state for Palestine. (The other nominated statehood documentary is 5 Broken Cameras by Emat Burnett, a Palestinian from the West Bank.)
The Gatekeepers narrates the need for covert tactics throughout Israel’s history. From the euphoria of the capture of Jerusalem and other Jewish sacred sites to despair over the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the directors are sure of their cause but ambivalent about the tactics required. “When there’s a one-ton bomb, there’s no morality,” says Shalom, but as the years pass, the agency’s methods change, and most of them have regret about the brutality that became routine procedure, especially after the Palestine Liberation Organization was superseded by Hamas.
One of the most successful and thorough intelligence-gathering entities in the world, Shin Bet failed to foresee the extremism of the radical Orthodox underground that was ultimately responsible for the death of Rabin, and which greatly diminished the agency’s governmental support. But it’s the director’s stringent objectivity that makes this retelling an uneasy viewing experience; it forces the audience to contemplate the multiplying quandaries of extreme physical coercion instead of taking sides.
Moreh’s use of archival footage is masterful, especially when he seamlessly combines it with reenactments. This technique is most harrowing when re-creating the infamous beating death of two terrorists captured from a planned bus bombing. Some of it is hard to watch, and some of it has the same pulse-racing suspense as Zero Dark Thirty. And as that movie made clear, the moral quagmires of the war on terror are not unique to Israel.