In Israel its motto is "Defends and Shall Not Be Seen". Like secret services all over the world, Israel's is an entity associated with anonymity and invisibility. Yet in a new film that featured at the Toronto Film Festival last week, "The Gatekeepers", six ex-directors of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security service, talk on camera for the first time. With unique access, Israeli director Dror Moreh reveals the challenges, successes and failures of their careers, their views on torture, grooming informants and whether killing innocent civilians is justified if a "terrorist" can be captured.
It is strange to see the interviewees talk so openly to the camera with the knowledge that each of these men oversaw such a controversial part of Israel's history. Take Avraham Shalom (in charge 1981 – 1986), for example, who administered the torture and killing of two Arabs after they were arrested for hijacking bus 300 in April 1984. Shalom allegedly ordered their execution and later covered it up by falsifying evidence.
Yet they do not simply talk about their own legacies. Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms the ex Shin Bet officials have is of political leaders in Israel, each holding a deep mistrust for them. "I don't take politicians seriously any more," says one. They are appalled, and suggest that it is largely these politicians who are blocking peace in the region.
What they also have in common is the idea that peace with Palestine is necessary and for it to succeed negotiation, not fighting, is the way forward. Shalom insists that Israel should talk to anyone, including Hamas, to make progress and change. But do the ex-directors support the Palestinian cause, or do they see peace as a strategic advantage to Israel?
It's not just the leaders of Shin Bet who are openly rebuking the system. In a recent article in The New Yorker, editor David Remnick spoke with Meir Dagan who was head of Mossad (Israel's overseas intelligence agency) from 2002 to 2011. Dagan went from being a "Satanic" figure in the Arab media to being "celebrated" by Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, who praised him for his "responsible and courageous act" after he publicly criticised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he believed "needlessly abandoned negotiations with the Palestinians".
So can Moreh's film change anything? According to a review in Indiewire, the director said that following a screening of "Gatekeepers" in Jerusalem, three settlers told him that they would go away and reflect on how their beliefs might be inflaming the situation as it is now. Speaking about the seizing of Palestinian "terrorists", with mothers crying in the background, Yaakov Peri (Shin Bet head 1988 – 1994) claimed, "When you leave the service, you become… a bit of a leftist."
The decisions, justifications and consequences of events undertaken by officials in Israel are often in the media. The public are left to guess from the outside, or despair, at the actions of a government which is rarely held to account for working above the law. "Gatekeepers" is a glimpse of attitudes from within the system from people prepared to speak out against it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.