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For decades the Israeli internal security service known as Shin Bet has labored in the shadows to thwart terrorist attacks by radicals on both sides of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh convinced several former directors to discuss their controversial work — which included assassinations and torture — and deteriorating prospects for peace. “The Gatekeepers” was recently nominated for an Academy Award.
- Dror Moreh Director, "The Gatekeepers"
Video: Inside The Studio
Director Dror Moreh talks about his Academy Award-nominated documentary, “The Gatekeepers.” The film reveals the dilemmas, burdens and questions that haunt former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s counterterrorism agency. “How do you win a war like that? When the terrorists are inside the civilian population and you need to find a needle in a haystack in the form of a terrorist?” asks Moreh.
“The Gatekeepers,” Academy Award nominee (Best Documentary)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIVoters in Israel on Tuesday paved the way for their country's conservative political flank on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to return to power. A newly formed centrist party however with a charismatic leader offered a sharper than expected challenge. But for the time being anyway, Israel's (word?) will remain in the control of a hawkish coalition whose identity is rooted in its hard line commitment to security.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYet according to several of the men who have led one of Israel's most critical and secretive security agencies, the country's politicians of all stripes are doing little to keep Israelis safe or lead to peace in the long-running Palestinian conflict. To make his newest documentary "The Gatekeepers" Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh interviewed six former heads of Israel's internal security service known as the Shin Bet, men who have operated in the shadows for decades combating terrorism inside of Israel and in the West Bank in Gaza.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey opened up to Moreh about their most secretive work, including spying, interrogation, targeted assassination and most of all their lack of faith that the country's political leaders are capable of building a peace with their Arab neighbors. Dror Moreh is an Israeli filmmaker. His most recent film "The Gatekeepers" has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Dror Moreh, thank you for joining us.
MR. DROR MOREHHappy to be here.
NNAMDIGood luck to you.
MOREHThank you very much.
NNAMDIYesterday Israel voters went to the polls. In the weeks leading up to the election day one topic was noticeably missing. Why do you think the parties kind of left Israeli Palestinian relations out of their campaigns?
MOREHI'm asking this question vigorously as you are. I'm shocked, astonished that the most important issue in my view -- point of view, the Israeli Palestinian conflict was missing from the last elections. And I think it has to do a lot with the lack of leadership that Benjamin Netanyahu has shown in that arena. And I think that people are really tired from that and wrongly. I thought that it should be the center -- epicenter of the elections that were yesterday in Israel.
NNAMDIHere in the United States our perceptions of internal Israeli politics revolve almost entirely around security and the Arab Israeli conflict. What other issues resonate with people there outside of that?
MOREHWell, as you see in the last elections what was being said that most what revolved was around the problem of economy, the problem of share of burden. That means that everybody will go to the army. You know, in Israel it's a compulsory to go to the army but the ultra orthodox Jews do not go to the army. And their number are growing rapidly. They do not pay taxes. So those were mostly economic issues that evolved the last election in Israel.
NNAMDIPoliticians are the faces that Israel presents to the world on issues related to its security, but you interviewed a group of men who were relatively faceless until now who ran one of the country's most secretive security agencies. Before we go any farther, exactly what is the Shin Bet?
MOREHThe Shin Bet is a combination of four agencies I think, or less, in America. In a way it's the CIA and part of what the CIA does. It's also the Secret Service who protects the president. They protect the prime minister and Israeli foreign issues. It's also the FBI because they are protecting Israel from espionage and a lot of other covert operations which are coming inside Israel. So it's a combination of a lot of things but mainly and primarily the object of the Shin Bet is to prevent terror. Prevent terror by all means and from both sides. Palestinians -- Arab and Israeli as well, Jewish basically because there is also Jewish terror.
NNAMDIThese are men who are used to conducting interrogations themselves. But in the film you were the one interrogating them, so to speak. What was that process like?
MOREHNot easy. I have to tell you it wasn't easy because, exactly as you said, those people are interrogators. They are the ones that are using their language and their tongues to persuade those operatives -- cooperatives to betray their countries, betray their homeland, betray everything. So it wasn't easy but, you know, the main problem or the main obstacle was to get them into the microphone and to the camera. After that was achieved they wanted to speak. Basically they all wanted to speak and to share their thoughts, their insights, their point of view about how they perceived the Israeli Palestinian conflict from their very interesting point of view.
NNAMDIGetting them in front of the camera, as you pointed out, may have been the most difficult part. That means they had to have the confidence in you that you would portray their message effectively around the world. Have you heard from them since the film has been made?
MOREHYeah, well, the film was shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival for the first time in July. And it was the screening basically that they all came and saw the film for the first time. I interviewed each one of them, I would say around -- between 12 and 15 hours, so I had a lot of material in my hand altogether interviewed, I mean, just photographed interview with around 70, 75 hours. So they didn't know how I will combine them together to bring the message at the end.
MOREHAnd in the screening in the Jerusalem Film Festival I was -- it was the most painful screening for me because I was thinking...
NNAMDIWill they beat me up afterwards?
MOREHYeah, I think I was -- each one of them on the most difficult moment which they described in the film, as you mentioned. But, you know, then in September I was in New York film festival here in the U.S. And there was -- it was during the election times here. And, you know, every time that there was an ad in television it came, "My name is Barack Obama and I approve this ad." So I can say we are the "Gatekeepers" and we approve this movie. They all approved the movie at the end.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number here if you'd like to join the conversation with Dror Moreh. He is an Israeli filmmaker whose most recent film "The Gatekeepers" has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Do American media, in your view, do an adequate job of reporting the politics inside of Israel? Call us, 800-433-8850. Does your understanding of that country go beyond the stances that Israeli leaders take when it comes to matters of war and security? You can also email us at kojo K-O-J-O @wamu.org.
NNAMDIIt's easy to be inherently skeptical of government officials even after they're out of office. How much did you challenge the interviewees and how much of their word did you accept?
MOREHI challenged them all the time and especially because it's only the heads that are speaking in the film. That means the head of the organization -- six heads of the organization are in that film. There is no one else who is -- was head of Shin Bet who is not in the film. All of them agreed to come and be in that film. So I challenged them, especially on the point of where were you when you were in office? Why didn't you say those words eloquently and strongly as you say to me while I'm interviewing you?
MOREHAnd they all said the same thing to me, which is very reasonable, we are government officials. We are working for the government. And it's our job to do our job, which is basically to try to avoid terrorism, to try to do the security job that we are established to do. We are opinionated in those circles that we are supposed to speak in front of the prime minister who is our boss. And we are saying very, very sharply there what we think, but we are not political leaders.
MOREHAnd again, at the end of the day it's up to the political leadership in Israel to move forward towards peace, not for those executives who are doing their job.
NNAMDIThe current prime minister is one who hangs his hat on taking a hard line on security measures and settlements. One of the former Shin Bet leaders that you interviewed says retirees of the agency tend to become, quoting here, "a bit of a leftist." What is it about their experiences that you think leads them down that path?
MOREHLook, these are the guys that use force, that use power, that, as you said, target -- assassinated many Palestinians in the conflict, many terrorists. They tortured, they interrogated a lot of Palestinians. They have used the force to the extent of the letter. And they understand that force can lead you until a certain point. And beyond that point that if you want truly -- I don't believe Benjamin Netanyahu says that he's for a two-state solution at all. I completely agree with President Obama who says that he thinks that Netanyahu is leading Israel on a dangerous path. I completely agree with him.
MOREHBut when you have been in that circle of power and you exercise the use of power, you understand that at the end of the day you have to sit down, speak and find a compromise. You can't have it all. Having said that, I'm not saying that the Palestinians are doves. They have their own share of guilt in that process as well. But, especially the Israeli's politicians and leaders have to understand that the best interest of Israel is to go forward towards a reconciliation, trying to reach that, let's say, two-states solution. And there is elements that are preventing that and the Prime Minister of Israel is not addressing that, as well.
NNAMDIYour film relies on those six voices, all formal leaders of Shin Bet. Did you ever consider incorporating experts or people who have different views into the film?
MOREHNo, not at all. I think that they are the experts. I think that it's very, very important for me that it will be purified by their voices. Their agency is the one that deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no one beyond them who understand that problem better than they do. This is what they do. This is their day job. They deal with the Palestinian conflict. So if you want an expert view, you better ask the experts, not the ones that are proclaiming themselves as to be experts.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Dror Moreh. He is an Israeli filmmaker whose most recent film, "The Gatekeepers," has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think political leaders in the United States, in Israel and in the Palestinian territories are equipped any more to restart a peace process? Why or why not? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIYou have said that Errol Morris' "The Fog of War," inspired you to produce "The Gatekeepers." In "The Fog of War" Morris effectively humanizes Robert McNamara, a man who was villainized by anti-war activists. Did you, too, hope to humanize the men in this film?
MOREHAbsolutely. I think that it was important for me to show the human beings behind the faces and to show that it is also human beings that are acting that. Especially, you know, the opening part of the movie is where you will Yuval Diskin, the current, the last one, head of Shin Bet, discussing a very dramatic dilemma that he has to deal with as head of Shin Bet when he's describing that there is a car and in that car there is a terrorist, which you've hunted for a long, long time.
MOREHBut there are two people inside that car and you don't know if those people are terrorists. What do you do? I think that the answer to that is, as a human being, I think is haunting and I think that it is something that I think every human beings -- and I think that in America, as well. This is the problem. I listen to your previous interview with those targeted assassinations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is something that the American officials are dealing every day. And how do you win a war like that, when the terrorists are inside civilian population and you need to find a needle in a haystack in the form of a terrorist.
MOREHAnd you don't want to create collateral damage that means that innocent bystanders would be hurt. And I think that, again, I wanted to get into that human issue, the human aspect of those warriors who are dealing with this kind of terrorist attack and what burdened them. All of them paid a very dear price for their efforts to secure the security of the State of Israel.
NNAMDIHere's Allison in Silver Spring, Md. Allison, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALLISONThanks for taking my call. I just wanted to say a couple of things. I lived for several years, both in Israel, as well as the occupied territories, both the West Bank and Gaza. And as a Jewish-American sort of lived and saw both sides of the story, if you will. And I also wanted to point out to your listeners, Kojo, that there's another film called, "Five Broken Cameras."
ALLISONWhich, when you mentioned how the U.S. press covers this issue, I hope that you consider having the producer and director of that film on your show. But I would urge all Americans to view that film as well to give, in some respects, the other side of this story, not directly saying that your current guest is giving a story that's not important, but that really gives a very, I think, honest and subtle nuanced picture of what life is like for Palestinians in the occupied territories who aren't terrorists, who are in fact trying to use non-violent protests to rid themselves of an illegal occupation.
ALLISONThe fact that their Palestinians using nonviolence I think is something that the media misses all the time. So I just wanted to point that out.
NNAMDICare to comment on that at all?
MOREHI totally agree with her. I think that the other film, "Five Broken Cameras" is an important film. It shows also the non-violence protests of the Palestinians, but bear in mind that there is violence. And there is violence and Palestinians have orchestrated violence, but they have a deal, you know. They want the country. They want to be free out of the occupation of Israel, of the West Bank and I think that this something that "The Gatekeepers" are saying very, very loud and clear, in a clear voice, we should go towards a two-state solution, which means, basically, the end of occupation. End of occupation of the West Bank and end of occupation of people who don't want to be occupied by an occupier.
NNAMDIAllison, thank you very much for you call. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If you haven't yet, the number is 800-433-8850. Our guest is Dror Moreh. He is an Israeli filmmaker whose most recent film, "The Gatekeepers" has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Dror Moreh. He is an Israeli filmmaker. His most recent film, "The Gatekeepers" has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. At one point an interviewee compares the Israeli assassination tactics that result in excessive deaths with the American War on Terror in Afghanistan. Do you think the United States would benefit from a similar conversation about its counterterrorism efforts?
MOREHI think it should. I think it should. It's about time that America will get into that debate of the moral issues of the debate, the moral issues of the aspect of what you do and prudent enough to continue in that strategy. I think that this is something that America will do, definitely. And I saw the people that you interviewed before me. I think that those issues are very relevant to the American public, definitely to the decision maker. Can you win a war like that? What does it mean to use those techniques of targeted assassination? Can it be moral?
MOREHAll those issues are issues that Israel has dealt with for a long, long time. Supreme Courts, judicial system, tactical systems, strategic systems, all of them have dealt with that and they have conclusions.
NNAMDIOne of the most striking images in this film comes from a demonstration held shortly before the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. An unruly scene where protestors angrily denounced Rabin's approach to the peace process and several conservative politicians, including Netanyahu stood above the crowd drawing political strength, if you will, from the crowd, but it was a dark kind of popular strength. What were you trying to say then about the nature of populism?
MOREHI was trying to say that in Israel, and I think that the American people are not aware of that, this is also Jewish terror, very wide and strong and it mostly comes from the settlers movement. It mostly comes from those ultra right wing religious parts in the Israeli horizon. And I think that if there is a danger to the existence of the State of Israel it comes from those people because those people come from a religious belief that says that Jews are not allowed to divide the country, that the land is sacred, more than life. And whoever gives part of Israeli or the land of Israel to another person or to another entity, is committing a betrayal.
MOREHAnd the shouting that you saw in that film, in "The Gatekeepers," which called Prime Minister Rabin a traitor, and the incitement that was against him was horrible. I remember. I was a young man back then. It was horrible and at the end of the day he was assassinated. And I think, from my point of view, that people who assassinated him or the person who assassinated him is sitting in jail, but the people who incited the rabbis, that kind of gave the order to kill him, are still out, in large, continuing to spread their poisons all around. They didn't answer for the death of Rabin and the Israeli society has not dealt with that as seriously as it should.
NNAMDIAfter the Six Day War the Shin Bet began carrying out antiterrorism efforts, but one of your interviewees says they didn't know what terrorism they were fighting. They didn't have a strategy. They only had tactics. How did that end up defining Shin Bet operations?
MOREHAt the beginning there was no terror in the occupied territories. I don’t know if you remember. I was a young boy then in 1967, but everybody was shocked from the victory of Israel. It was unprecedented and it brought a lot of people under Israel occupation. And nobody knew how to deal with that. At the beginning there was no terror and this was probably the best time to go towards a solution. Maybe it wouldn't have been reached, but it was the best time. And then because you think tactically and not strategically, that means you see what is in the distance of five centimeters from the tip of your nose and not looking five or ten years down the line.
MOREHAs he said very nicely, Avraham Shalom in the movie said the terror begin and then we begin to fight terror and then the terror begin more complicated, we became more sophisticated and we forgot about the Palestinian state. And, you know, I have to tell you, in creating that movie I saw hundreds and thousands of hours of archive material. And the most sad thing that I saw there, that the history is repeating itself. We are not learning. You know, the basic rule in humankind is to learn from your mistake. Don't go back to the same mistake over and over again.
MOREHAnd when you look at that archived footage, you understand that neither the Israelis or the Palestinians have learned from their mistakes. They continue to do the same mistake over and over again.
NNAMDIYour interviewees are highly critical of the Israeli government. At points in the film one gets the impression that it's the politicians versus the Shin Bet. How publicized were those internal conflicts before the release of your film?
MOREHNot at all almost because, as I said, they speak in those committees in the Knesset or inside the prime minister's office, where they are criticizing the prime minister. They are not viewing it in public. And I think the film has allowed them to voice their voice in a very loud and clear way to say politicians could have done much better, should have done much better and need to do much more better in the future.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again, here is Lynn in Annapolis, Md. Lynn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LYNNHi, Kojo. And I've never called your show before, but I really appreciate you.
LYNNYou're welcome. And Happy New Year.
NNAMDIHappy New Year.
LYNNAnd I've just caught a little bit of your guest and he is a beautiful and wise man. I'm going to get teary here. I met in graduate school, at a very fancy graduate school in America -- and I'm a Methodist girl from Baltimore -- met and fell in love with one of my fellow graduate students who was an Israeli tank commander who came here on a fellowship, a very brilliant, wonderful and loving man. And we fell in love and we were from different religions and different places in the world and none of our families wanted us to marry, but we married anyway.
LYNNBut he had been in war and was an ardent patriot back in the '70s when I met him. He had been in war for about seven years. That manifested itself after we married. He eventually, I think, lost his mind. He became a professor and I could write I book, but I haven't. But we have a deep and abiding love. And what I'm trying to say is I've just turned 60 and I have lived long enough. He passed away when he was 49 and he remarried after our marriage, but that didn't end real well.
LYNNHe has two sons in Israel now.
NNAMDIWhat do you think was the effect on him?
LYNNI'm just trying...
LYNNI'm just trying to say that I think that the culture of constant war, I think that -- I hate war now. I've lived long enough to understand that what we suffered through was what is now called PTSD and when my dad was in the army in World War II, you know, he came back with friends in Baltimore that were shell shocked.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly, Lynn, but I think you have made a point that…
LYNNI just think there's too much war. There's just too much war. People are battered.
NNAMDII think you've made a point that "The Gatekeepers" certainly underscores and that is these men who have been in anti-terrorists battles themselves feel that there has at some point to be a strategic end to all of this.
MOREHThere has to be. It has to be. I mean what's the point to continue war? And I think that Lynn has pointed something which is very, very strong and true, which is the Israeli society is a society that has been in constant survival mode. And it had a huge effect, also, on the Israeli civilian society, the amount of racism, the amount of violence, the amount of hatred, the amount of racial prejudice that you see in the Israeli society is alarming. And if there was a real leader that could have seen that -- and that's why, also, "The Gatekeepers" have come and said their things very, very eloquently to warn, look where the Israeli society is heading towards.
MOREHThat's to say that this is in the best interest of Israel to solve that conflict, not only of the Palestinians. And I think that she's very, very right. War is horrible. People have to understand that war is horrible. And the more you will do in order to avoid the war, the better it will be for yourself being, for yourself conscious.
NNAMDIAnd finally, Dan in Washington, D.C. Dan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANHello, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I'll be real quick. If I'm pronouncing it right, Mr. Moreh, thank you. I appreciate your efforts in "The Gatekeepers." Pick a real quick straw, as you made an analogy at the beginning, three agencies, CIA, FBI and Secret Service, to the Shin Bet. As I understand it the Shin Bet is an internal service. In the United States CIA is an external service only, whereas the FBI and Secret Service are internal primarily.
MOREHYeah, what I meant is that they do some of the jobs that the CIA is doing, including the drone attacks, which they are responsible for, which the CIA is doing in Afghanistan or in Pakistan. And this is something that the Shin Bet is doing also inside Israel.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're almost out of time, but just quickly, your film has received international praise and is up for an Academy Award, but how was it received at home in Israel?
MOREHVery well. We opened three weeks ago. It was opened into art venues. It moved to 7 big venues and now we are in 15. And it's sold out completely for the next week. So it's really, really encouraging. The Israeli people are pouring, in hundreds and thousands, into the cinema. So I’m very happy with that.
NNAMDIWell, three years or more of your life has gone into that film.
NNAMDIIt's called "The Gatekeepers." It's been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. And Dror Moreh is an Israeli filmmaker who made that film. Thank you so much for joining us.
MOREHThank you for hosting me. It was a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd good luck to you.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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