The Shin Bet doesn’t have the global rep of Mossad, its compatriot of grim legend and equally grim reality, but, as Israel’s domestic security outfit, this organisation is something like our MI5 but with its finger closer to the trigger. Integral to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and its fight against terrorists, the Shin Bet collects intelligence, runs agents, quizzes prisoners and, as the souped-up ‘Zero Dark Thirty’-style reconstructions in this Oscar-nominated doc demonstrate, is key to eliminating security threats.
Dror Moreh’s solemn, gripping film rests on a sit-up-and-watch journalistic coup: he interviews six previous Shin Bet heads, who account for all but two years in its history from 1980 to 2011. These are battle-hardened men, free of the restraints of office and lacking the silver tongues of politicians. They’ve ordered deaths, they’ve seen the bodies, they know the world’s not black and white and their reflections are complex and candid. ‘When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist,’ says one. But they’re no softies. ‘With terrorism, there are no morals,’ says another when confronted by the murder of captured terrorists in 1984. Neither do they offer words of praise for politicians, who, as a breed, one accuses of having ‘no strategy, just tactics’.
What makes this film pleasingly knotty and stimulating is that for every weary shrug or resigned lament, there’s a flicker of pride. Talking of how, in 1996, Hamas’s Yahya Ayyash was killed by a mobile phone loaded with Semtex, one interviewee wishes all such operations were as ‘nice and tidy’.