“The Gatekeepers”: “We Became Cruel”

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

The GatekeepersA good place to start this review is at the end, the very end of The Gatekeepers, the Israeli documentary by Droh Moreh that was nominated for best documentary feature at the 85th Academy Awards.

Just before the film stops rolling, ‘they’ – the six interviewees – all come to the same conclusion: they’ve had it with the occupation, that further repression against the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – that includes extensive torture to create an army of informers, targeted high tech assassination, daily harassment and humiliation of the Palestinian population simply won’t work. And ‘they’ should know, as they perpetrated much of it.

“We’ve become cruel,” one of them says, himself one of the cruelest Shin Bet chiefs of them all, as if the Occupation was ever ‘kind’ in its earlier days?

Despite all their efforts to crush Palestinian resistance and aspirations for an independent Palestinian state, all of them, these former directors of Israeli’s Shin Bet agree that continued repression is useless and that Israel should – like France with the Algerian rebels in the late 1950s, early 1960s – seriously negotiate with the Palestinians, cut some deal with them, and get out. They understand – these technicians of Occupation – that Israel’s future in the region, nothing short of that, depends on withdrawing the Israeli military and the settlers from the Occupied Territories as soon as possible.

Theirs is something of a cautionary message as they make their case at a time when Israeli society has moved dramatically to the right, and its willingness to even address the prospect of ending the Occupation and moving towards a two-state solution have all but evaporated.

The last sentence of the film really says it all, something along the lines of ‘winning the battles’ but ‘losing the war’. And Israel has lost the war – not the war on the battlefield or in the Shin Bet’s torture chamber, but the war to win the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people. It’s over. The military giant – that can assassinate Palestinians by exploding cell phones directed from satellites – comes to the realization that for all of its military and technical prowess, long ago, Israel lost the only war that counts – for political legitimacy. In fact, its public relations machine in the USA aside, it never had it.

I found the film mostly disturbing, but not without interest.

I kept waiting to hear Palestinian voices…but there were none. This is in keeping with a long held practice/tradition that the narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian relationship be told entirely by one side – those in power. What was presented is essentially an intra-Israeli view of the Occupation, albeit by former supporters of the Occupation now turned opponents, not for ethical reasons, something of which they are not capable, to be frank, but for ‘pragmatic’ reasons. It is not that the Occupation is oppressive, repressive, a fundamental denial of the human and national rights of one people by another; instead theirs is a functional argument: repression doesn’t work, so after decades of it, let’s try something else. Is this the best that Israel has to offer on the ethical plane?

The idea that six former Shin Bet heads all call for an end to the occupation can be interpreted optimistically: cool, after crushing two Intifadas, cracked so many heads and other body parts, they have finally gotten in touch with their inner selves, become animal rights advocates and now, in retirement, want to work for peace. Something akin to Al Capone deciding he wants to join the American Friends Service Committee?

Aren’t we all happy – cool, calculating killers have found the light and become pacifists? While not impossible, this is still hard to believe.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that those speaking so calmly orchestrated what are defined by much of the world and international law as war crimes. But if you like to hear the words of professional torturers and killers now morphed into ‘professional torturers and killers for peace’ it might be worth seeing the film. All six are frank about the importance of informers, overwhelmingly brought into the Israeli intelligence network through ‘enhanced interrogation’ – otherwise known as torture. Yet they spoke of what amounts to torture, assassination with not the slightest bit of remorse.

There is an inverse relationship between their refusal to use ‘the word’ torture and its extensive practical application by all of them. Indeed, this is a film about 45 years (it starts in 1967, avoids the earlier period) of the impact of Israeli torture to extract information, to neutralize Palestinian political activity, armed or peaceful. On the one hand it does work. Israeli intelligence is very well informed concerning Palestinian political activity, though far less so, as evidenced by the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzkak Rabin, where it concerns the activities, the racist hysteria of the Israeli religious right.

The film illustrates well how Israeli-targeted assassinations are among the precursors to the growing U.S. drone assassinations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and who knows where else. What the U.S. is now doing with unmanned drones, the Israelis did mostly with attack helicopters. Some of the most disturbing parts of the film show the targeting and killing of Palestinian militants with so-called precision bombs, many of which, of course, weren’t so precise.

I was struck about something else: that the Israeli policies of counter-insurgency, meant to paralyze the Palestinian national movement in its tracks are based largely on the same counter-insurgency strategies and tactics developed first in Vietnam and Algerian by a profoundly racist French military trying desperately to maintain its control over colonies.

Keep in mind that before the 1967 War, Israel’s maintained particularly close ties with France and that many of the veterans of torturing Algerians lent Israel a helping hand, to help train the Israeli security apparatus in its early days. It is also France that gave Israel’s nuclear weapons program a big boost through training Israeli atomic scientists and information sharing.

French torture methods, euphemistically called ‘counter-insurgency’ were then passed on to the U.S. in its losing effort in Vietnam in the 1960s, to the Argentine junta in its ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s against anything that moved and was slightly left of center. The Argentinean military was largely trained and influenced by former French officers who had tortured Algerians in The Battle of Algiers. They took ‘spiritual guidance’ from extreme right wing Catholic priests, also many of the French who blessed torture and encouraged the inhumane and bloody methods used.

At the same time Israel learned The Battle of Algiers methodology which it has used extensively since 1967 but then it passed it back to the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, post-millennial. Kif-kif – the same stuff.

Of what did this shared counter-insurgency methodology consist? A number of key themes emerge:

• The criminalization of the military and the use thereof to fight ‘total war’ against civilian populations, on the grounds that it was impossible to tell the rebels from the broader population. In Argentina’s case, it was war against its own people, in Israel’s counter-insurgency targets the Palestinians.

• To establish a double standard legally – defining those who, because they are acting outside the law should not be granted legal rights – opening the way for torture, assassination and other forms of mistreatment. The rebels, labeled terrorists are no longer considered human with human rights. The only way to deal with them is to exterminate them! (or to permanently expel them).

• The extensive and unbridled use of ‘methods of coercion’, ‘innovative interrogation’, both otherwise known as torture to extract ‘intelligence’ from the population to locate rebel ‘cells’ or units. There is another important purpose of torture, not always emphasized: it is to create a network of informers. To place torture victims back into the general population to spy on their friends, neighbors and family. It was this particular aspect of the program at which the Shin Bet excelled.

The only things these strategies have produced is an unnecessary ocean of human suffering – of torture victims in West Bank prisons, of ‘disappeared ones’ in Argentina, of victims of the U.S. Phoenix program in Vietnam, of indignities and torture in the U.S. prisons at Abu Graib and Guantanemo.

May its French architects – Trinquier, Galula, Bernard Fall from France, its ‘implementers’ – Massu, Aussaresses from France, Videla from Argentina, the entire team of the Bush Administration that implemented torture in Iraq, Petraeus – be condemned for the fascists that they in fact were, and those still alive, including these six former Shin Bet heads be tried for war crimes.