Why is the Middle East so damnably complicated? You can spend a few semesters at a university reading books like The Arab World by Peter Mansfield and Six Days of War by Michael B. Oren. Or you could spend an hour and a half watching The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary about Israel’s spymasters and the violence they have unleashed.
The film’s opening images are from the gun-turret camera of a warplane tracking a truck through a city street. An unseen man talks about what it means to come to a decision. Then the truck disappears in a flash.
This is a talking-heads documentary starring an odd assortment of heads — one looks like Warren Buffett, the billionaire; another like Uncle Fester from The Addams Family; still another like Gavin MacLeod from The Love Boat. They are all former chiefs of Shin Bet, the Israeli counterpart to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They’re like Greek philosophers talking about ethics — specifically, the use of coercion during the nearly half-century occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip — all thoughtful and giving unexpected answers. “We’ve become cruel,” says one, at the end of a lengthy catalogue of Shin Bet operations. One involves a booby-trapped cell phone that blows the head off a Hamas operative, but is so quiet no one else in the building hears it.
The occupation goes wrong early: Israel decides to take a census using Israeli conscript soldiers. They are taught rudimentary Arabic, but mispronounce a key word. Instead of telling Palestinian families, “We came to count you,” the soldiers mistakenly say, “We came to castrate you.”
In a coda, a Shin Bet chief asks an educated Palestinian, a psychiatrist, why they have not acknowledged defeat. “Victory,” the Palestinian replies, “is to see you suffer.”