Sunday, 10 February 2013

Lessons from Shin Bet

The new documentary film The Gatekeepers stars an unlikely crew of Israeli liberals: six former directors of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, a sort of combined FBI and Homeland Security. These are the guys responsible for rooting out threats from the Palestinian enemies and, sometimes, blowing them up.

So they did that over the years, more or less as a matter of course, displaying a mentality we can immediately recognize: we are under attack, we hit back, we destroy them, et voilĂ , where’s the problem?

Except that for all six of them, the results are not what they hoped or expected to achieve. As one says in conclusion, ‘We have won every battle, but we are losing the war’.

He means that peace and security are no closer for Israel and its citizens than they were 45 or even 65 years ago after the great victories of 1948 and 1968. One by one, these former heads of the agency that interrogated tens of thousands of Palestinian detainees, recruited informants and traitors among them, spied upon every last goat herder and olive farmer, compiled information on anything that moved throughout the occupied territories until the control was absolute—they all conclude that an empowered settler movement, which overlaps with the extreme and sometimes violent right-wing forces in Israeli politics, have crushed any chance for long-term, peaceful coexistence.

That’s interesting in itself and worth giving them a hearing. But what’s missing from their account is any awareness of how they contributed to this outcome with their police-state tactics. In fact, the filmmaker shows (but does not explicitly acknowledge) an eerie parallel between Shin Bet’s approach to controlling the West Bank and Gaza and the East German Stasi as illustrated in The Lives of Others (2006).

The film shows the enormous effort and expense Israel expended in tracking down the perpetrators of violence from the conquered territories, and how many were killed or imprisoned as a result (along with many non-violent political opponents of Israeli policies who are not mentioned). It’s hardly surprising that support for Draconian police measures was overwhelming as Israelis saw themselves threatened by things like attacks on public buses and meeting places. So Shin Bet was set loose to crush everything.

Meanwhile, not much attention was paid to the lives of the people under occupation and virtually none to the possibility that they, too, experienced random attacks. Given their statelessness, they had no recourse to defend their property or lives. And we know what happened when a sector of the Israeli leadership tried to find a way to neutralize their long-standing grievances through the Oslo process—Prime Minister Rabin fell to an assassin after a lengthy process of demonization and right-wing threats.

The Shin Bet fellows now wonder where things are heading given the settlers’ dominance of Israeli politics and their indifference to the fate of their non-Jewish neighbors. One can only conclude that Israel will remain on a permanent war footing, hostile to its neighbors, and relying on force to crush opposition or foreign threats.

Perhaps we will have a Napolitano or a Brennan look back on their round-ups and drone strikes 20 or 30 years from now in a similar fashion and wonder why things didn’t turn out as they had hoped, that the tough-guy, kill-‘em-all approach hasn’t brought peace, security and universal love to Americans despite all those billions poured into Making-Us-Safe.

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