gatekeepersImage via Timeout

You’re probably not supposed to know much about the Shin Bet. Its motto, “the unseen shield,” supplies a literal cloak for the agency and its business. Whatever its business is exactly.

The Shin Bet is commonly understood to be Israel’s internal security service.¬† It’s kinda analogous to the FBI. Or maybe it’s a combination of the FBI and CIA. It does some really high level shit. A lot of which is secret. And a lot of which takes place in the dirty grayness where morality isn’t as important as legality and legality isn’t necessarily all that important itself.

Five former chiefs of the Shin Bet get The Fog of War treatment in a recent documentary called The Gatekeepers. It’s a dry film. It’s intense. It’s a supremely interesting history recalled by some of the most privileged people who lived it. (Indeed, who created it.) The film exists, in part, because Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning interrogation/memoir of Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, inspired director Dror Moreh to consider the monumental task of securing unprecedented interviews with not one, but five traditionally secretive former Shin Bet chiefs.

In The Gatekeepers, the chiefs, whose tenures cover the years from 1980 through 2011, speak frankly and introspectively about their agency. What we learn about them—and about it—is that Shin Bet is essentially tasked with managing the settlement/occupation/clusterfuck that lives, dies and suffers–really suffers—in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

If you know the 20th and 21st Century histories of that place on earth, then certain phrases and names will trigger memories of a violent history unlike any other: the Six-Day War, the 300 Bus, Intifada, the Oslo Accords, Jewish Underground, the Second Intifada, Yitzhak Rabin, Yahya Ayyash, Hamas. If you’re among the lucky who lack those memories, Moreh’s documentary unpacks them pretty well from an exceptionally unique vantage point. It’s a vantage point that is intentionally biased, and in that bias exists a rare kind of honesty.


Image via TheGatekeepersFilm.com

While Moreh draws obvious narrative influence from The Fog of War, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are not Hanoi. The Vietnam War eventually ended only to linger as an existential crisis for the superpower who intervened there. However you describe what has been happening in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, there is nothing existential about it, and it appears to be a war without hope for an end.

As the film exposes us to the dire severity that sustains itself in the tiniest, most volatile part of the Middle East, two moments in the recent history of that place open the film’s story to suggest a grave lesson about the limits of power.

In 1996, a Shin Bet operation resulted in the death of Yahya Ayyash. To be more accurate, Shin Bet assassinated the man known as “The Engineer.” He was known as such for his proclivity at making the bombs used in Hamas operations where one human being strapped a bomb to his chest so he could simultaneously kill himself and other human beings. To be more accurate, Ayyash was the guy who equipped suicide bombers. Ayyash’s life ended when Shin Bet rigged a cell phone with a precision explosive then detonated it while he was talking to his father.

Based on that success, Shin Bet would go on to run an operation where it gathered intelligence so one of its chiefs—one of the guys featured in The Gatekeepers—could order a 1-ton bomb be dropped on the home of a Hamas leader. That one wasn’t quite as precise as it also killed a human being or two who weren’t necessarily enemies of the Israeli state.

Following each of these operations, the film tells us, the other side unleashed a variety of revenges that resulted in the deaths of lots of people the Shin Bet were, in large part, responsible both to and for.

When a man can order a 1-ton bomb to be dropped on one of his enemies’ homes, he occupies a position of power far above the ordinary malevolence that drives the great masses of true believers. Yelling in the streets and throwing rocks at tanks may be passionate and daring, but it ain’t powerful. It’s all rage. It’s almost impotent. And it certainly lacks the strategy, resources and tactical competency required to blink a building, neighborhood or city out of existence.

The exercise of that level of power exposes those who do the exercising to such destruction that, at some point, a person might achieve a deep and particularly objective kind of awareness. The destruction doesn’t soften. It neutralizes. It dims as reciprocity–whether mild or massive–washes over the truly powerful man in wave after wave. If he is the contemplative type who measures the various consequences of his actions, eventually he no longer sees his enemy. He does not even see the conflict. He sees only the destruction, and he grows bored of it. He would choose anything other than it. If only he had the power to choose such a thing.