One film exposes the Israeli military mind-set, the other tells a story of charity in the midst of tragedy
Director Dror Moreh interviews six former heads of Israel's secret police the Shin Bet (‘The unseen Shield’ in Hebrew). Following the murder of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian militants ‘Black September’ during the 1972 Munich Olympics (see Steven Spielberg’s Oscar nominated Munich) the organisation is infamous, as Mossad, for coordinating Israel’s ruthless retaliation.
The Gatekeepers confronts head on the Arab-Israeli crisis in the Middle East and its constant flow of confused controversy, as if breathing a heavy sigh of frustration at the region’s hopeless hostilities. The film seeks an insight into Israel’s own understanding of its occupation of Palestine in light of Moreh’s unprecedented access to Israel’s central intelligence agency.
The Gatekeepers uses historical newsreel flashbacks fused with firsthand accounts featuring contextual events which propel the plot forward. Key events include The Six Day War of 1967 (referred to in Hebrew as ‘The Setback’) which preceded the occupation of Palestine by Israeli forces which continues today. The Oslo Accords of 1993 signed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, as a makeshift peace treaty under the shadow of US president Bill Clinton. And the 300 Bus Affair of 1984 in which two Palestinian hijackers were unceremoniously executed without trial by the Shin Bet, who then provided false testimony to cover their tracks.
In the course of the film these events serve as narrative nerve endings, inflammatory footnotes to demarcate the often messy, always busy operational history of the Shin Bet. Moreh's film is not out to justify or incriminate anyone. Instead it seeks to understand the methodical mindset mandatory for the job of bossing Israel's consistently controversial contribution to the war on terror.
One such controversy occurred in 2005 in a refugee camp called Jenin, in Palestine, when a young boy was killed by Israeli army gunfire as he played on the street outside his home. That boy’s name was Ahmed Khatib and the documentary The Heart of Jenin (2008) tells the story of how his father Ismael (a patriotic Palestinian) agreed to donate Ahmed’s organs to save the lives of Israeli children.
The film follows Ismael as he travels from Palestine into Israel to meet the families of the children who now carry his son’s organs and bears powerful witness to his gentle charity, as it helps him to overcome the prejudices and fears which have defined his generation and shaped his country.
It is often tempting to be distracted by the divisions that separate people in conflict, when fear can cloud judgement and reason is rendered redundant by misunderstanding. A particularly striking moment in the film shows Ismael and his family waiting at the border to cross into Israel. They are refused entry despite having all the necessary documentation, illustrating the extreme prejudice ingrained in Israel towards Palestine and vice versa.
Ahmed Khatib’s story is a sobering example of the human cost of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, referred to by one interviewee in The Gatekeepers as “collateral damage”. The Heart of Jenin shows with searing simplicity how peace between people hinges on mutual respect and understanding and is a touching reminder of how courage, good humour and forgiveness can flourish in spite of a conflict conducted, according to one of the eponymous gatekeepers, with “no strategy, just tactics”.
Moreh’s questioning of the men (presumably ‘the gatekeepers’ of Israel’s national neurosis) is sensitive to the desperate desire for explanations, in lieu of justice or accountability, on behalf of the objective observer if not the state of Israel itself. You get the feeling these men do want to make sense of the part they’ve played and Moreh’s film subsequently bears powerful witness to their extraordinary testimony, even if he does coax it out of them on occasion.
The Gatekeepers definitively underscores the infuriating futility of fighting terror with terror, as Israel invariably insists on “winning every battle” as it loses the war. The film is a powerful reminder that decisive action in the war on terror must come from individuals, from integrity of purpose, and from compassion in the shadow of uncompromising ideology.
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