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The Shin Bet chief who persuaded five others to speak out on the occupation

Ami Ayalon
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Published: 30 November 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

In this extract from his new memoir, AMI AYALON, former head of the Israeli security service, reflects on the origins of The Gatekeepers doco, its impact - and the message of hope that was edited out

WITH THE NEW RIGHT-WING GOVERNMENT [under Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009], so long as the cities were free of explosions and the economy prospered, no one seemed to care that we were digging our own graves. I asked myself how I could possibly cut through a fog so thick and entrenched. I’d tried and failed to convince people through politics.

My frustration reached a boiling point in May 2010. The Turkish ship Mavi Marmara left for Gaza on what the organizers said was a humanitarian mission to break the Israeli blockade, which had turned Gaza into the world’s largest prison. With the ship steaming toward Gaza and the Israeli government vowing to stop it, I gave an interview in which I suggested we create our own flotilla of dozens of private yachts.

We’d then meet the boats in broad daylight with massive banners saying welcome. And in the meantime, in Gaza we’ll meet Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier Hamas kidnapped in 2006. We’ll even bring Shalit’s parents along so they could see their son for the first time in five years.

“Do you think Hamas would go along?”

I reminded the interviewer that my idea was a thought experiment and not an operational plan. The political leaders of Hamas probably didn’t even know where Shalit was, I said, and had no control over the militants. My real point was that the Marmara was political theatre.

The organisers knew perfectly well that we would stop the ship, and especially if there were casualties, it would be yet another example of Israel playing the role of brutal Goliath against defenceless David.

Naturally, the government neither asked for nor listened to my advice. When members of my old sea commando unit, Flotilla 13, boarded the ship to prevent it from reaching Gaza, a small group of activists attacked them with bars and knives. The commandos’ response left nine activists dead.

Unsurprisingly, the international media blamed Israel — and Hamas won again.

Just as I began to suspect that, as in a madhouse, only shock therapy could lead us away from the ledge, one day out of the blue the documentary film-maker Dror Moreh phoned me to discuss an idea that I thought might work.

“I want to make a film about the Shabak [Shin Bet],” he said. His idea at the time was to call the film Guardians of the Threshold, as in the Book of Exodus.

“How do I fit in?” I asked.
Maybe a film on our conflict would be one way to tell the Israelis the same thing — we cannot win our fight to keep Palestinians under our boots.

Though a leftist, like so many people in our film industry, Dror had developed such a fascination with Sharon that he made a film about him. During his interviews with members of Sharon’s inner circle of advisers, including Director General Weisglass, Dror learned that Sharon’s decision to quit Gaza was prompted by the interview we retired Shabak heads had done in the Hebrew newspaper Yedioth in 2003.

Had we been leftist peaceniks, Sharon would have ignored our message. The fact that we were security professionals Sharon admired and knew personally, and whose support unlike Bibi he was unwilling to lose, triggered in him a fundamental reassessment of his strategy.

“If we could make a documentary about Israel and Palestine,” he said to himself, “it would be extraordinary.” What flashed in my mind as I formulated a response were images from Fog of War, Errol Morris’s Oscar-winning documentary about Robert McNamara, a Harvard Business School whiz kid who served as defence secretary to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and was the architect of the catastrophic Vietnam War.

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One scene in particular stood out in my memory: decades after  the war McNamara wags his finger at the camera, a kind of Dr Frankenstein confronting his own monster, and admits that already at the beginning of the war, he felt intuitively the Americans couldn’t win. Vietnam wasn’t industrialised Germany, and its ragtag peasant army couldn’t be bombed into submission.

Well over a million people died because McNamara didn’t translate his gut feelings into different policies. I have no moral right, he was saying, not to tell the truth — that his government had sent young men into needless combat, and many of them returned home in boxes.

Maybe a film on our conflict would be one way to tell the Israelis the same thing — we cannot win our fight to keep Palestinians under our boots. Maybe a film could be the shock therapy I knew we needed.


MY ONE PROVISO to Dror was that I wanted all the other former directors to participate. I made the rounds and helped Dror get everyone to agree to be interviewed on camera.

In making the film Dror was repeatedly astonished by, as he put it, the “dynamite on my hands.” One telling example: Interviewing Yuval Diskin, Dror quoted the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s famous lines from a year after the Six-Day War that made the Shabak out to be a malignant presence:

“A country that controls a hostile population of a million foreigners will necessarily be a Shin Bet state, with everything that requires, with implications on education, freedom of speech and thought and on democratic governance. The corruption characterising every colonial regime will also infect the State of Israel. The administration will on one hand have to deal with suppressing Arab rebel movements and on the other cultivate quislings, Arab traitors.”

Without so much as flinching, Diskin, his eyes trained on Dror, said, “I agree with every word.” In fact, all of us former Shin Bet directors did.

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Diskin also described the experience of having to partner with former PLO terrorists to stop Hamas. “How could I suddenly sit down with terrorists I’d spent my career chasing? I realised that we were, in a way, equals. As the saying goes: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Avraham Shalom, the gatekeeper during the First Intifada who had to resign because he ordered terrorists executed junta-style to deliver the message that no terrorist will survive an attack against us, went so far as to call the IDF “a brutal occupying army” that he compared to the Germans in their treatment of non-Jews in occupied Western Europe.

Shalom grew up in Nazi Austria and experienced firsthand what it meant to be a pariah in a racist regime. “We’re slowly becoming professional conquerors,” he added, “and from that stems very dangerous behaviour among ourselves. It’s behaviour that ultimately becomes a part of your character.

“And that’s what scares me. You’re standing in a roadblock, and if one Arab gets tired of standing in line, and he has an outburst, then you hit him with the butt of your gun. That’s not an unusual thing. It becomes a norm for you.”

“Yes,” chimed in Carmi Gillon, my predecessor. “We cause millions of people’s lives to become impossible.”

I chipped in the stories about the old fisherman in Gaza:  “Victory is to see you suffer.” I emphasised how our various counterterrorism tactics — building walls, entrapping Palestinians in their cities and towns subject to our raids without notice, cutting off electricity and water, and blockading Gaza — produce more terror and hence reinforce our own fear.

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I also talked about empathy: how fighting terror requires seeing our actions through the enemy’s eyes and how violent repression escalates the cycle of violence.

All of my colleagues agreed with me when I tried steering the film in a positive direction by quoting Clausewitz: “Victory is simply creating a better political reality.” The brighter future we must aim for, I said, is Israel as a democratic state with a Jewish majority and with progressive education and welfare systems in the spirit of our Declaration of Independence.

Had the two Intifadas, or Defensive Shield and Cast Lead for that matter, brought us any closer to that future? No. In this regard, Israel had been winning battles and losing the war against terror for a generation.

I didn’t leave it at that. I told Dror about going to Balfour Street in Jerusalem after the Yom Kippur War and not finding a wise old man at the end of a long corridor keeping us all safe, an anecdote I hoped would represent the film’s central message:

‘For most people it is a very, very sad moment when you suddenly realise . . . nobody was behind the door.”

For me it was like I suddenly saw the light. I realised the simple concept of democracy. It is me who needs to take the responsibility. I am responsible. Democracy says that each of us has the right to influence. And in the case of crisis we not only have the right, but the responsibility to influence.

This is my advice to every Israeli youngster. You have the right and the responsibility to influence. Even if you are in a minority. Don’t assume that a leader cares about doing the right thing; their decisions are often motivated by staying in power and not what is best for Israel. It’s up to you. That’s what Herzl meant when he said, “If you will it, it is no fairy tale.”

WE SIX EX-GATEKEEPERS sat in the front row for the documentary’s premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival, the first time I saw the production in its final form. The opening scene thrust me back into the brutal reality of working in the sewer: A military aircraft follows a white van through the warrens of a refugee camp.

The voiceover explains the dilemma of having a top terrorist in clear sight, and yet not knowing if innocent people are with him in the van. What do you do? There is no judge next to you, no cabinet minister or prime minister. It’s your call. The van explodes in a puff of grey smoke.

During the film’s final segment, titled “The Old Man at the End of the Corridor,” I waited in vain for what I imagined would be the redemptive moment in this otherwise relentlessly bleak film.

What the hell? I thought to myself, slouched in my seat. Dror had cut my message of democracy and freedom, ending his documentary on a dark note. “If you need reassurance or grounds for optimism about the Middle East,” wrote the film critic for The New York Times, “you will not find it here.”
I asked Dror why he had edited out my message of hope. He replied that it was an artistic decision. But there’s more than art at stake here, I said. This is our future we’re talking about!” “What can I do? I see no way out,” he replied

And that was, for me, a big problem. I rang up Dror and asked him why he had edited out my message of hope. He replied that it was an artistic decision.

“You’re the artist, Dror, and it’s your film. But there’s more than art at stake here. This is our future we’re talking about!”

“What can I do? I see no way out.”

“But I told you during our interviews how I thought you should end the film. The strength of Zionism is that our fate is in our hands. Not God’s. Not some historical forces beyond our control. We can still decide to change direction and avert disaster. Our future is in our hands. I even quoted Herzl’s motto, ‘If you will it, it is no fairy tale.’”

Dror thought the line from Herzl was a slogan.

“It’s not!”

“Then make your own movie,” he said with a chuckle. The film was nominated for an Oscar but didn’t get American Jewish leaders banging on Bibi’s office door, as they had in response to our comments in the original Yedioth interview.

Perhaps the film’s bleak outlook spread our national depression to the Americans. Though it was a big hit on Israeli television, The Gatekeepers failed to rouse the mass of viewers from their passivity.

I soldiered on, repeating what people like Dror considered my quixotic message of “If you will it, it is no fairy tale” to the ever-dwindling circle of people willing to listen.

Dror and I stayed in touch. One day he called to ask if I had heard President Obama’s speech at a Jerusalem convention centre packed with university students. “No,” I replied. “I had been invited to attend, but I’m sick of speeches that lead nowhere.”
Though it was a big hit on Israeli television, The Gatekeepers failed to rouse the mass of viewers from their passivity.

“It’s a pity you missed it,” he said, because the president had pushed, essentially word for word, for what I had been advocating. “No wall is high enough . . . to stop every enemy that is intent on doing so from inflicting harm,” Obama told the students gathered there.

If you want security, he said, start by “putting yourself in the shoes” of the Palestinians: “Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own. Living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day.”

It was in fact a fine address, and the students reacted to his speech with a roar of applause. But I knew from personal experience that, just as Israeli voters did not respond to the message of The Gatekeepers, the students who cheered Obama would grow up incapable of acting upon his injunction. A speech by a well-meaning American president was no substitute for an Israeli leader giving our people a realistic plan to secure our survival as a democracy.

I began turning down radio and TV interview requests because nothing I said seemed to make much of a difference. It was bad enough to be failing at the most important mission of my life.

More distressing, I didn’t know why Israel tends to overreact to the smallest of threats, why we  prefer bullets over words, why we refuse to explore opportunities for peaceful conflict resolution, and why we so easily swallow political demagoguery. As Ari Shavit had put it in his book My Promised Land, we act as if we are in “deep shit,” and I didn’t know why.

Until the spring of 2013, that is. I was on the second leg of a gruelling 23-hour trip to Sydney — a Jewish organisation there had invited me to talk about The Gatekeepers. On the flight I flipped open the book by the Tel Aviv philosopher Chaim Gans, A Political Theory for the Jewish People. Two more stone tablets falling from the sky wouldn’t have struck me harder.

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Photo: Still from The Gatekeepers (2012), with images of six former Shin Bet chiefs who spoke out

Ami Ayalon, who leads the Shin Bet and the Israeli navy, is born in Tiberias.

About the author

Ami Ayalon

Admiral (Ret.) Ami Ayalon is a former director of the Shin Bet security agency (1995-2000), cabinet minister and Knesset member

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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