I stayed up way past my bedtime last night to watch Newsnight’s take on the controversial Oscar nominated film ‘The Gatekeepers’.
This film was first shown in April 2013, and it caused a stir then. Why, one might wonder, did the BBC see fit to air it now, and why, one might ask, did they choose to bring along one hostile critic of the Israeli government, one left-wing Israeli writer, chief BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet, one Palestinian and only one overtly pro-Israel spokesperson, Col. Miri Eisin, to discuss it?
This film has already been argued over by the good and the great. Some of the most interesting analyses can easily be revisited online. Both the ‘above and below the line’ reviews and comments in the Telegraph and the Guardian to name just two, make fascinating reading.
The film largely consists of people talking. Six former members of Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Yuval Diskin, Avi Dichter, Yaacov Peri and Carmi Gillon. This film shows them being reflective, sometimes remorseful, self-examining and self critical. The oldest, former Shin bet director Avraham Shalom has since died.
“Avraham Shalom Bendor, head of GSS from 1981-1986 resigned after being accused of ordering the killing of two Palestinian prisoners and organising the subsequent cover-up.”
“His career, however, ended in controversy. On April 12, 1984, four Palestinian terrorists hijacked bus No. 300 traveling from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon and forced it to drive into the Gaza Strip, where it was eventually stopped by Israeli security forces.The following day commandos stormed the bus, killing two of the terrorists and capturing two alive. All but one of the hostages were freed.Security forces initially reported that all of the terrorists were killed in the raid, but an inquiry was ordered after photographic evidence showed one of the hijackers being removed from the bus alive. The investigation found that two terrorists who were taken alive were later beaten and executed, but was unable to clarify exactly who had ordered the act.After a lengthy investigation in which senior Shin Bet officials maintained their silence, increasing evidence pointed toward Shalom having ordered the killings. He resigned in 1986.
I just included that because it puts into perspective some of the issues that weren’t brought out in the discussion.
This review in the Telegraph dated April 24th 2013 by Alan Johnson is interesting. He takes issue with Melanie Phillips who thinks the views of these former Shin Bet men are simplistic and will only hearten Israel’s enemies. Of course it doesn’t take much to hearten Israel’s enemies. Israel’s enemies are easily heartened, and the BBC often acts as heartener in chief. Alan Johnson thinks, or thought at the time, that viewers will be won over by the honesty and the humanity of the interviewees. He assumes viewers will take it as read that all these men are Israeli patriots, not dissidents. I wonder whether that is an over generous assumption on Alan Johnson’s part. Many of the viewers will not assume any such thing.
It was true then, in 2013, and it still applies now, after Operation Protective edge, the terror tunnels, Islamic State, the murder of Lee Rigby, beheadings galore and the BBC’s technicolour footage of injured children in Gaza, that many people will see the self reflective speculation and self examination as remorse and regard the film as one big cinematic confessional. ‘Forgive me, world, for I have sinned.’
But it’s not that. Not at all. It’s a snapshot. The film was made at a time when these men were thinking these thoughts, and saying these things. Almost trying ideas out, as one does with important and sensitive matters.
What if another film were to be made today, in the light of subsequent events? The same men might by now have reconsidered some of the self-doubting, speculative notions that they put out, as if putting ideas and thoughts through their paces to test their strength. Perhaps they had been lured by the filmmaker into letting it all hang out in the way that filmmakers are apt to do. “Trust me. I promise I’ll treat it sympathetically” they say, “Be as frank as you like” .
But all that is by the by. It wouldn’t matter if they all stood by each and every word.
There is one thing that has to be stressed, which almost never is. It’s a war. When Avraham Shalom said there is no morality where terrorism is concerned, that was not the shocking thing it was made out to be. It might have shocked Evan Davis, as if it was said, not about terrorism and war, but about some scuffle in Hampstead or a squabble between staff at the BBC.
I well remember the Guardian and the left-wing press being horror-stricken in 2005 when ‘Breaking the Silence’ ‘revealed’ that during one of the intifadas there was an order within the IDF to ‘shoot to kill’. Worse - it was alleged that this even applied to ‘unarmed Palestinians’
It was an intifada! It’s war! Things get bloody.
The former Shin Bet men did what they had to do. As Miri Eisin said, they didn’t say these things while they were doing their job. Then, they didn’t have the luxury of retrospective self-examination, and it’s only because they were able to keep Israel relatively safe by being very good at what they did, that they are able to do it now.
Even Davis started the debate with a rather obtuse remark:
“I want to address that we’ve eschewed the usual convention of assembling a panel that is proportionally representative of the Israeli and Palestinian population. Instead, because the film raises such interesting questions for Israeli society we have guests from Israel with divergent views. It would of course be interesting to hear a Palestinian reaction, and we will do that as well.”
My heart sank when I saw the rotund figure of Avi Shlaim sitting in the circle.
Miri Eisin, the only panel member who was openly pro-Israel, spoke so eloquently that she was clearly able to counter, single-handedly, all the waffle and bluster of her co-panellists.
Evan mainly picked up points favoured by Israel’s critics. ‘The pointlessness and futility’ of.......... what, Israel? The Zionist Project? Of fighting for survival? And he particularly noticed the unseemly leniency with which Israel treated its own terrorists, ‘the Jewish underground’ - releasing them from prison with premature haste. Miri gave a robust response.
Avi Shlaim thinks that Israel has acted like a colonial power since 1967, and he praised the former Shin Bet chiefs for candidly criticising the Israeli government for making them do the things they did to address ‘so-called terrorism.’
Evan, no doubt thinking he was playing devil’s advocate, ventured “But surely Israel needed a secret service?”
Repressing terrorism was necessary, conceded Shlaim, but the time that the secret services gained, which could have been used as an opportunity to make peace with the Palestinians, was wasted by the politicians, who did not do so, he said.
Miri disagreed. We are not a colonial power, we do not act like a colonial power. There is a real conflict going on, and it needs to be resolved, she said.
Evan Davis then introduced the clip from the film in which Avraham Shalom talks about morality and terrorism. We see him being interviewed by the filmmaker, who is prompting him to justify killing two of the four terrorists who had hijacked a bus. “You’re treating it as a black and white issue” says Shalom. “In the war against terror - forget about morality” “When there’s a 1-ton bomb, forget about morality.”
Ari Shavit, Haaretz writer and author of ‘My Promised Land’ appeared on a screen. He compared the Israeli public’s horrified reaction to Avraham Shalom’s ‘atrocious’ actions in the 80s (the ‘bus 300 affair’) and Britain’s relatively muted public response to the Stalker affair. You will recall that this affair was about another ‘shoot to kill’ policy, revealed some time after the event, but of course it concerned Northern Ireland.
Evan wasn’t satisfied with that answer. He said Shavit wasn’t addressing the central point, which was that the Israeli politicians didn’t do their job when they had the chance. They didn’t use their precious intifada-free time to “settle the issue”. “I wondered what is your answer?” he insisted.
Evan obviously thinks peace, or peacemaking, is all in the hands of the Israelis.
Avi Shavit agreed that the efficacy of Shin Bet as well as Israel’s defensive measures such as Iron Dome have protected Israel, effectively absolving governments from the burden of confronting the underlying problem, which he says is the occupation, adding that the film did not give the context. Previous Israeli attempts at peace resulted only in more violence, he says.
Avi Shlaim doesn’t think any Israeli government has genuinely attempted peace, apart from Yizthak Rabin, who was bumped off by a Jewish right-wing fanatic.
Miri argued that he was undermining other leaders’ attempts to achieve a resolution to the conflict, and forgetting that there are two sides and implying that “it was always the Israelis who fail.”
Evan turned to Lyse Doucet. He wanted to know what sort of film it would be if it was made now. The first sensible question he’s thought of so far, I'd say.
Lyse Doucet is far more familiar with the issues than Evan, and she tries to give an even-handed, BBC style overview. No value-judgements were made in the preparation of this product.
Lyse reminded us that the conflict has been going on for a long time, and that they have just come out from another war. She mentions the tunnels, recognising that they pose a serious threat. “A labyrinth that has been built since the last war.” Hamas has become more militarised, she says, and now there are al Qaeda-linked and Salafist groups in Gaza.
Miri Eisin says there are two things, security for the Israelis and sovereignty for the Palestinians, and the difficulty is achieving a balance between them. The security services were and are dealing with terrorists. “And creating them” says Evan.
No, she said. We really don’t. “At the end of the day it’s about education. On both sides. When you educate people to hate, on both sides, guess what - they’re going to hate.”
The Palestinian is brought in. Ahmad Khalidi Editor, Journal for Palestinian studies.
“But listen. We’re a society that was thrown out of its country in 1948. This is 66 years ago. In 1967 what remains of our country was occupied. It is continually being colonised.”
Now that’s a good start. This person is in charge of Palestinian studies. I think we can see what sort of an education he’s giving his students.
Evan thinks it’s time to introduce another clip, the one concerning Palestinian collaborators recruited and used by Shin Bet for intelligence gathering.
“The occupation is pervasive. It has to do with everyday life” continues Ahmad.
Ari Shavit, on the screen, says: “In order to convince the Israeli public that there is a way to end the occupation that does not lead to the destruction of Israel, we have to be realistic.
”We are not surrounded by the English Channel. We have to deal with the Middle East as it is.”
Miri says: “Any resolution is coming out of a real politik of absolute mistrust. We need leadership on both sides and we need to make some hard decisions.”
The last word goes to Lyse. It’s not a new problem. “I think for centuries societies have had to find a balance between the use of force and the influence of politics, of negotiations, of leadership.” Polls used to say that the leaders were out of touch with their public, and that "on both sides" the public wanted peace; what is needed was political courage."
That leaves me still wondering why the BBC decided to air this matter just now, when the labour party is pushing hard for the recognition of a unilateral Palestinian bid for statehood.