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The Gatekeepers

Throughout The Gatekeepers, a startling documentary about the secret Israeli internal security agency known as Shin Bet, the audience confronts a common hypothetical: Counterterrorism agents have identified the whereabouts of a high-value target in the West Bank or the Gaza strip, and that target can be wiped out, provided that the collateral damage—buildings, neighborhoods, women, children—is considered acceptable. Where does that line get drawn? Depends on who does the drawing. And what are the long-term consequences of such bombings? By all accounts, severe. For the six retired former heads Shin Bet gathered for The Gatekeepers, situations like this one weren’t hypothetical, but part of their mission to contain threats from the occupied territories and protect the state of Israel. Over the course of this riveting documentary, they try to account for the decisions they’ve made and the political strictures that force bad strategies.

Though Shin Bet was set up in 1949 to monitor divisions within the new nation, after the 1967 war, the agency’s mission shifted dramatically to running counterterrorist operations in the West Bank and Gaza. The subjects talk about some prominent failures, most notably the 1984 Kav 300 bus hijacking (where two of the perpetrators were executed by Shin Bet officers, even though they were captured alive) and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which carried political consequences that are still felt today. But sometimes, the agency’s successes are just as disturbing, due to the short-term calculus of collateral damage and the long-term problem of widening the impasse between Israelis, Palestinians, and their neighbors. 

The six men have different personalities that suggest varying styles of leadership, but what’s remarkable about The Gatekeepers is how they speak in one voice about the moral complexities of their former jobs and their extreme pessimism about the future. There are lessons to be drawn here about counterterrorist policy—like the usefulness of holding direct talks with any adversary, and the hidden consequences of zapping targets via drone strikes—but Moreh and his subjects paint an overall picture about the intransigence of both sides and the Israeli government’s ongoing failure to secure a more lasting peace. With their testimony as the chorus, The Gatekeepers serves as a terrifying oracle, with Israel forevermore a powder keg waiting to go off. The last line is a killer.

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