The Gatekeepers a new documentary movie by Dror Moreh, provides haunting one-on-one interviews with each of the six surviving former heads of Shin Bet—who nearly consecutively ran the secretive, counterterrorist Israeli security service from 1980 to 2011.
While these former heads of the Shin Bet all agree that the fight against terrorism is a necessary and righteous one, their interviews in this film are disturbing—yet honest musings. And they shed light on the morality and potential effectiveness regarding the way the war on terrorism was fought in their country—and they by extension share hard won wisdom that might be useful in thinking about how the U.S. war on terrorism is now being fought the world over.
Collectively these men—Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri and Avraham Shalom—are powerful dissenting voices to the current Netanyahu government, convinced that Israel is on the wrong track and that the future is “dark,” as Shalom states. Although disturbed by their country’s responses to terrorism particularly as it broke out in the First and Second Intifadas, they appear to favor a political solution and withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, with dismantling of what they called “illegal” settlements.
The film opened with the statement being made that “Politicians don’t like being presented with many options but prefer black and white binary options,” whereas the security services “operate in shades of grey”. Indeed they spoke of recruiting collaborators and taking “someone who doesn’t like you and making him do things he never could believe he could do,” as well as carrying out hundreds of thousands of interrogations—using harsh methods on those they suspected of terrorism including blindfolding, hooding, shaking, sleep deprivation, etc.
And quoting Clausewitz—that “Victory is creating a better political reality,” these men all appeared to fault their politicians for failing to find a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When asked to comment on the predictions of Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibovitz, who after the 1967 Six-Day War warned that if Israel tried to occupy millions of people it would lead to the decline of Israel’s moral stature and that Israel would become a Shin Bet state—these former security chiefs agreed!
One commented that “making the lives of millions unbearable” and “the prolonged suffering of the Palestinians” had to stop and another saying that serving in the Army changes people’s characters especially when they see they are taking part in a “brutal occupying force”.
Another stated, “You cannot make peace via military means—you must establish trust.” And that “Overkill—to kill families and children is ineffective and inhumane.” Although the comment was also made, “In the war of terrorism—forget morality.”
One even warned that he expects another political assassination (like that of Rabin) if the West Bank settlements are ever dismantled. And on the topic of the settlements, one states, “They [the Palestinians] wanted a state and got more settlements. We wanted security and got more suicide bombers.” One security head commented that the “number of settlements around the time of the Second Intifada doubled from 100,000 to 220,000 settlements in a period of six to seven years”
What were referred to as the “Totally illegal settlements” were also credited with having encouraged settlers to other illegal activities—including bomb attacks on Palestinians, thwarted placement of bombs on busses that Palestinians would have boarded and even the know well known plan to blow up the Dome of the Rock with Semtex explosives strategically placed on the Temple Mount. And the security chiefs were disgusted that after being convicted, the settler underground were shortly thereafter released based on political patronage.
One of the men also went on to explain that during the Second Intifada, after talking in London to Eyud Sarraj, a psychiatrist who heads the Gaza Mental Health Clinic, that he had the sudden awakening—“that the suicide bomber wants revenge”—and he realized that after terror attacks “the same was true on both sides”.
And already understanding that both see the other as a terrorist—his side viewed that way because of the collateral damage caused in their counter terrorism attacks—this security chief was amazed when Dr. Sarraj explained to him that the Palestinians understood overwhelming force and didn’t expect to win, but that as Sarraj reportedly put it, “Victory for us is seeing you suffer. It brings a balance of power. Your F-16—our suicide bomber.”
Indeed when I spent two years interviewing in the West Bank and Gaza during the Second Intifada, I found this attitude borne out and also found it is often also the view of AQ operatives elsewhere as well—revenge and causing suffering in the other who has caused a high collateral damage has its own distinct pleasure even for those who understand such attacks will not bring about victory.
When Israel first began using targeted assassinations, Martin Indyk the U.S. Ambassador at the time—in July, 2001 (just before 9-11) denounced Israel’s use of targeted killing against Palestinian terrorists stating, “The United States government is very clearly on record as against targeted assassinations . . . They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.”
Times since 9-11 have changed drastically, but perhaps now when our drone attacks are causing a high civilian casualty rate and we too have engaged in disturbing soft torture methods we need to think over the haunted reminiscing’s of Israel’s security chiefs.
One who mused over the movement from assassinating bomb makers to also targeting ideologues and inciters of terrorism stated that ‘targeted assassinations become a conveyer belt and you ask yourself less and less when to stop.” Ominously looking back one commented, “Restraint is actually harder than to act.”
These disturbing interviews of these clearly hardened men—undisputed patriots that worked hard and sacrificed to protect Israeli lives—are of men who wielded incredible power and yet are bewildered by it. Each seemed clearly in solemn awe of the power to take life in an instant—feeling it even years afterward as a weighty and haunting responsibility. Perhaps we should learn from them.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”