When people outside Israel imagine its intelligence and counterterrorism system, they immediately think of the Mossad, the foreign-intelligence agency. But the Israeli Security Agency, commonly known as the Shin Bet or, in Israel, the Shabak, is equally if not more important. The Shin Bet is responsible for internal security and functions something like the FBI, except that it’s also responsible for the Occupied Territories of Gaza* and the West Bank. Its motto, which simultaneously means “the defender that cannot be seen” and “the defender that should not be seen,” reflects its low profile. Yet the Shin Bet has been at the center of Israeli national security, from the 1967 Six-Day War to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 to the First and Second Intifadas of, respectively, 1987–1993 and 2000–2005.
The Gatekeepers, the remarkable documentary by Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh that was nominated for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars and which opens throughout the country this month, sheds light on the Shin Bet’s history. Moreh managed to convince all six living former heads of the Shin Bet to sit for in-depth interviews; their voices, with the occasional interjection from Moreh off screen, serve as the narration for the movie, which combines the interviews with historical footage, photography, and CGI to tell the agency’s history.
The result is a gripping, fascinating, and ultimately depressing story of how tactics come at the expense of a larger strategy in Israeli security policy and why, in the words of Avi Dichter, who ran the Shin Bet in the early 2000s, “You can’t make peace using military means.” In addition to being documentary filmmaking at its most riveting, The Gatekeepers should be required watching both for those interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and those concerned with intelligence gathering and counterterrorism in general. No other country faces as great an ongoing internal security threat as does Israel, and American policymakers and national security officials could learn much from the Shin Bet — both from its successes and its failures.
The Shin Bet has stopped the vast majority of terrorist attacks inside Israel and has a well-deserved reputation for competence and professionalism. Much of the film centers around the discussion of different techniques used by the organization to gather intelligence in the Occupied Territories and the decision-making surrounding targeting. But the six men also talk candidly about the failures they confronted during their tenures, including keeping domestic extremism in check. In 1995, the Shin Bet failed to protect Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by right-wing Israeli radical Yigal Amir. It was also criticized for failing to predict the First Intifada, much the way the CIA came under fire for its inability to foresee the Arab Spring.
The former heads also reflect upon the ruthlessness and brutality that the Shin Bet has sometimes engaged in. Here they somewhat disagree, especially over the role of ethical considerations in counterterrorism. Avraham Shalom, who resigned from the Shin Bet in 1986 after being accused of ordering and concealing the murder of two captured Palestinian hijackers of a bus near Tel Aviv, seems to dismiss moral concerns as naive pieties: “With terrorism there are no morals. Find morals in the terrorists first.” (Although Shalom denies, and the film fails to make clear the scope of, his involvement in the deaths of the prisoners, both the interviews with the other Shin Bet heads as well as recently revealed information about the investigation into the affair make clear Shalom’s personal involvement.)
This amoral approach to counterterrorism is not shared by the other former Shin Bet heads, and even Shalom ultimately criticizes instances of overkill — the flattening of whole buildings to go after individual terrorists and the civilian deaths that go with it — as immoral and ineffective. Immorality and ineffectiveness also mark the larger “strategy” of security through occupation, which Shalom strikingly compares to the behavior of the Germans toward occupied Poland and Belgium in World War II. Yet it’s worth noting that the Shin Bet often did not reflect the nuanced self-awareness that its former heads show now that they are out of office. It’s a powerful reminder of how situation- and context-specific moral judgment can be. As Yaakov Peri, who led the Shin Bet during the First Intifada, notes, “[W]hen you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.”
Where the former Shin Bet heads are in complete agreement is over the fecklessness and incompetence of Israel’s political leaders, with the potential exception of Yitzhak Rabin, in formulating strategy — either in bringing the occupation of the Palestinian territories to some stable resolution or in checking the growth of the right-wing and religious extremism that has corroded Israeli society over the past thirty years. Some of these criticisms may be self-serving, and the contempt that the more recent heads like Yuval Diskin have for the current Netanyahu administration is well known. But The Gatekeepers makes a compelling case that the story of the Shin Bet is one of tactics without strategy. The film closes with Ami Ayalon, who led the Israeli navy before heading the Shin Bet in the aftermath of the Rabin assassination, citing Clausewitz: “Victory is simply the creation of a better political reality. That’s victory.”
Concluding that the political reality in Israel is, for all of the Shin Bet’s successes, only getting worse, Ayalon sadly remarks, “We win every battle but we lose the war.” In an era where American policymakers too often focus more on the latest technology and tactics than on how to ultimately end conflict, they would do well to reflect on Ayalon’s conclusion — not just as a description of what’s happening to Israel, but also, perhaps, as a warning of what could befall the United States.
* [Update, 3/16/2013, 11:16 AM] A comment below takes issue with our characterization of Gaza as an occupied territory. While Gaza’s status according to international law is today disputed (see here and here), the film focused on episodes that took place in Gaza before the 2005 disengagement plan, when Gaza was under full Israeli control.
(Alan Rozenshtein and Ritika Singh are Lawfare staff contributors. Netta Barak-Corren is an LLM candidate at Harvard Law School; a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former clerk to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel, she served for five years as an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces.)