Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Gatekeepers - a 'confessional' film still evading the truth

The Gatekeepers, a film by Israeli director Dror Moreh, provides some fascinating insights into the dark working of Israel's internal intelligence agency, the Shin Bet.

It's also a disturbingly deluded exercise in rationalising Israel's military prowess and the brutal occupation of an always subserviently-portrayed Palestinian people.  

Six former Shin Bet heads - Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin - speak for the first time about their experiences, expressing cold self-recognition of their considerable powers and where they believe the state of Israel has 'gone wrong'.

The seeming concern is to help expedite an end to the Occupation, but the base motive behind all these reflections and revelations is more specifically to save Israel, rather than liberate Palestine. 

Despite the inclusion of some fine archival footage, the film's historical sequences provide little honest, searching explanation of Palestinian displacement and suffering, focusing, rather, on the ex-leaders' comprehensions of the 'Palestinian problem'. 

Thus, Diskin describes his formative fears and motivations after reading a Zionist-prescribed book, and his dreaded possibility of Israel being 'taken over' by Arabs. 

Peri also relates how he and other dedicated Shin Bet agents made it their early business to understand common Arabic language and text, in order, as they saw it, to be 'inside' the Palestinian mindset.

One can see here some genuine sense these figures may have had in witnessing and 'being part' of that 'integral' landscape, even as occupying soldiers.

But the predominant motivation was always to serve the Israeli state, and, in that endeavour, to fight 'terrorism', a term and task which resonates throughout the entire film. 

Never is there any serious acknowledgement that this is, primarily, a process of legitimate resistance, a basic struggle for human liberation and justice.

The gatekeepers' defining context, and that of the film, deals in the symptoms of the 'conflict' - from suicide bombings to Palestinians' incarceration - rather than the principal causes, namely the illegality of the Occupation and an all-consuming state-militarism that's been developed to enforce it.

At no point is there any authentic discussion of Palestinians as, first and foremost, a people, a population, a set of equal human beings.

We hear candid recollections from Gillon and others on the brutal arrests, systematic torture, enforced collaborations and other coercive techniques, all, in itself, considerable testament to understanding the deviant extent of state actions and dark psychology of these directors.

Some also reflect openly on the 'grey area' between seeking high political approval for extra-judicial killing of Arabs and the 'strategic' process of making that decision on their own. 

When Shalom is questioned on the morality of such unlawful killing he replies: "With terrorism there is no morals."

Having 'done their dirty work', there's also a sense of discontent within the Shin Bet at being 'abandoned' at certain points by expedient politicians - part of the repeated sentiment about the organisation's 'duty', 'integrity' and 'esprit de corps'.

Charting the 'peace process', we hear of a certain faith and hope in the Rabin leadership, the seeming inevitability of his execution amid the heightened Oslo dealings, and the 'lowest depths' within the Shin Bet over its 'failure' to prevent suicide bombings and Rabin's assassination.

The aftermath of bus bombings in Israel features consistently, with the directors recalling their resolve for harsh 'responses'. Yet, nowhere are Palestinian voices permitted proper contextual comment over the attacks. Repeated, menacing footage of armed and masked Hamas fighters reinforces the central concern of the film: how to confront the 'perennial threat to Israel's security'.       

An account of Shin Bet intelligence leading to the apprehension of Zionist bomb plotters is offered as additional 'evidence' of the organisation's 'noble' bona fides in maintaining public security.

We hear revelations that such zealots were preparing a crazed attack on Temple Mount, that the plotters had key access to top figures in the Israeli establishment, and that most were granted paltry sentences and gracious rewards after being caught and convicted.

We're also told how the Shin Bet intervened to temper zealot settlers and rabbis as the political temperature rose in lieu of the attack on Rabin. The incendiary roles of Sharon and Netanyahu in promoting this and other key violence is critically intimated.    

Yet, such 'worried vigilance' and the deep loss some of these intelligence heads felt over Rabin's killing merely confirms their view of Israel itself as a 'benign' state, and how that 'legitimate' entity has now been 'infested' by rightist forces.

Rabin's assassin, in this view, is castigated as a "punk" who has wrecked the peace process, while the state, the Zionist project itself, is somehow beyond any such critical examination or fundamental blame.

In essence, it's an inward-looking narrative on 'what we have become', rather than what illicit monster 'we actually created' in stealing another people's land.

More accounts follow of the proud intel crafted to murder revered Palestinian leaders - again, always posed as a virulent threat. Asked about the overall effects of such acts, there's admission that Israeli state violence may only induce greater hatred and violent resistance, but the imperative of maintaining a higher capacity for violent control must still prevail.

Dichter, thus, talks in proud, smirking terms about the 'logistics' of dropping an enormous bomb on the populous middle of Gaza in order to decimate the Hamas leadership, and the 'collateral damage' resulting, as though it were primarily a technical task rather than a murderous annihilation.

One can but imagine any similar film commentary from Hamas figures on planning such attacks on the Israeli leadership.

Some other Shin Bet leaders deliberate, finally, on Hannah Arendt's concept "the banality of evil", and the perceived irrationality of Israel killing so many civilians in pursuit of 'selected terrorists'.

Yet, even this criticism helps cement the false discourse of 'mistaken tactics'. For, as seen during the mass bombing of Gaza in 2008/9, Israel's modus operandi has been to kill as many civilians as possible in deliberate shows of terror and strength. 

Ultimately, there's broad consensus amongst the film's participants that Israel must end the Occupation and talk to the Palestinians, even engage its deepest foes.

There's even firm agreement from one director that, as forecast long ago by Professor Liebowitz, an esteemed opponent of the Occupation, Israel has, in fact, become a "Shin Bet state" due to its cruel oppressions.

Showing images of Israeli forces raiding a Palestinian home in the middle of the night, there's further admission of the brutality and fear: "It's not easy. You see the family suffering", Ayalon says, adding, "and when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist".

Gillon admits that "we" are making the lives of millions of Palestinians "unbearable" - "It kills me".
Comparing, in certain ways, the treatment of Palestinians to that suffered by various European states at the hands of the Nazis, Shalom more boldly concludes: "We've become cruel...mainly to the occupied population."

It all seems like a collective admission of failure and guilt, the 'great Zionist goal' deeply compromised.

Yet, what's never truly addressed by any of these men is the primary crime of Palestinian expulsion and persecution - not just from 1967 or 1973, but from 1948.

The Nakba is never actually mentioned, nor the crucial words 'ethnic cleansing'. The systematic imprisonment of Gaza and colonisation of the West Bank are treated, rather, as a 'problem of containment', a 'game-theory' discussion on the case for or against violent supremacy. 

Ultimately, while shedding considerable insight, this movie leaves one feeling a sense of bleak despair over the 'regretful' yet still calculating mindset of such figures. Their apparently open admissions still negate any deeper search for catharsis or redemption.

The Gatekeepers remains a fascinating, clinical and chilling portrayal of what people in positions of military and political power can do to the powerless.

But, as with much other Zionist 'docu-self-examination', it's an inward-gazing exercise in self-denial, serving the convenient establishment image of Israel as an 'open, soul-searching and accountable society'.

Indeed, for some Israeli diplomats, Moreh's production is "proof of the highest order of Israeli democracy", and "a powerful film that brings viewers into confrontation with the political-security dilemmas Israel faces". [My emphasis.]

That's the deeply-loaded context and ersatz discussion this film is most likely to elicit. 

As with the sham politics that's continually pitched as a 'peace process', so much of this 'brave engagement' and 'tortured dilemma' permits just another system-serving layer of diversion, evasion and normalization.

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