An absorbing study of Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet paints a sombre picture of the nation’s conflict with the Palestinians.
Combining interviews with six former heads of the secretive organisation, archival footage and animation, it explores their emergence after the Six-Day War in 1967 and the subsequent occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Structured into seven parts, it is filled with startling revelations ranging from the Bus 300 affair, the internal turmoil following the Oslo Accords, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Second Intifada in 2000 and some piercing reflections of over 40 years of sustained conflict.
The real coup here is in getting such a range of key individuals to speak so freely about what were probably classified operations.
Not only does this shed valuable light on the details of particular events, but also paints a surprisingly balanced view of what is a fiercely intractable conflict.
Right from the beginning we see Israeli military joy at victory in the Six-Day War tempered by the realisation that the occupation of one million Palestinians was never going to have a happy ending, and instead would trigger a seemingly endless cycle of revenge attacks lasting up until the present day.
As some of the Shin Bet admit, despite the fact that they became a highly effective military force, they could never control the central problem of occupation and the resentment and violence it triggered.
Indeed, the ‘better’ the operations were – such as killing a leading terrorist via a mobile phone in 1996 – the more vicious the response, which again highlights the limits of even the most advanced tools of modern warfare.
Intercut with the main interview and archive footage are computer graphics of television monitors showing a bird’s eye view from a helicopter.
At one sobering point, one of the interviewee’s describes having the power of life or death over a suspected terrorist on the ground and the difficulty of making the decision to blow him up. (It is worth noting that the complicity of Palestinian spies is freely admitted at certain points).
As the film progresses we see a range of ideas and emotions, from the belligerent Avraham Shalom (head from 1980-86) to the more conciliatory Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), but perhaps the most memorable is in the section titled ‘Our Own Flesh and Blood’.
The phrase was originally used by Palestinians to describe their willingness to sacrifice suicide bombers, but here it gains a tragic irony with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, who Shin Bet were assigned to protect.
The late Israeli prime minister was of course shot in 1995 by an ultra-conservative Jewish extremist, who felt that the 1993 Oslo Accords were a shameful sell out, showing that a whole political process could be undone by a single assassin.
It could be argued that the road to peace was irretrievably shattered from this point on, as the subsequent major peace talks of 2000 were soon followed by the Second Intifada and a renewed cycle of violence.
The Shin Bet interviewees by the end of the film feel like a perfect metaphor for the wider conflict: worn down by years of killing and violence they seem to be struggling with themselves as much as their Arab neighbours.
Director Dror Moreh doesn’t refrain from exploring the darkest corners of intelligence operations and in the process has crafted an hauntingly ambiguous portrait of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.