Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Gatekeepers –An Analysis

By Lawrence Davidson

Prof. Davidson teaches history at West Chester University in West Chester, Pa. This is a guest contribution. 

There is a new documentary movie about Israel, called The Gatekeepers. It is directed by Dror Moreh, and features interviews with all the former leaders of the Shin Bet, the country’s internal security organization. The Shin Bet is assigned the job of preventing Palestinian retaliatory attacks on Israel and, as described by Moreh, the film “is the story of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories as told by the people at the crossroads of some of the most crucial moments in the security history of the country.” Along the way it touches on such particular topics as targeted assassinations, the use of torture, and “collateral damage.”

The Gatekeepers has garnered a lot of acclaim. It has played at film festivals in Jerusalem, Amsterdam, New York, Toronto and Venice, and elsewhere. It has received critical acclaim from critics and won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Best Documentary Award. It has been nominated for an Oscar.
Part II — The Messages
In order to promote the The Gatekeepers, Morah has been doing interviews and recently appeared on CNN with Christiane Amanpour. He made a number of points, as did the Shin Bet leaders in the clips featured during the interview. I shall review and critique some of these below.

– Moreh says that “if there is someone who understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s these guys” (the Shin Bet leaders). Actually, this not necessarily true. One might more accurately claim that these men, who led Israel’s most secretive government institution, were and are so deeply buried inside their country’s security dilemma that they see it in a distorted fashion (with only occasional glimmers of clarity). For instance:

– Avraham Shalom (head of the Shin Bet from 1981-1986), tells us that “Israel lost touch with how to coexist with the Palestinians as far back as the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967….When the country started doubling down on terrorism.” But is this really the case? One might more accurately assert that Israel had no touch to lose. Most of its Jewish population and leadership has never had any interest in coexistence with Palestinians in any equalitarian and humane sense of the term. The interviewed security chiefs focus on the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza because they are the ones who offered the most resistance to conquest. But what of the 20% of the population of Israel who are also Palestinian and who actually lived under martial law until 1966? You may call the discriminatory regime under which these people live “coexistence,” but it is the coexistence of superior over the inferior secured largely by intimidation.

–Moreh also insists that it is the “Jewish extremists inside Israel” who have been the “major impediment” to resolving issues between Israel and the Palestinians. The film looks at the cabal of religious fanatics, who in 1980, planned to blow up the sacred Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, as well as the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin in 1995. Yet, as dangerous as are Israel’s right-wing extremists and settler fanatics, focusing exclusively on them obscures the full history of the occupation.

By the time Menachem Begin and Israel’s right-wing fanatics took power in 1977, the process of occupation and ethnic cleansing was well under way. It had been initiated, both against the Arab Israelis from 1948 onward, and against the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza after 1967, by the so-called Israeli Left: the Labor Party and such people as David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres, and Yitzak Rabin himself. Amongst the Israeli leadership, there are no clean hands.
– Finally, Dror Moreh repeatedly pushes another message: “a central theme of the documentary is the idea that Israel has incredible tactics, but it lacks long-term strategy…if [security] operations do not support a move toward a peace settlement, then they are meaningless.”
Again, this erroneous assessment is a function of being so deeply situated inside of a problem that you cannot perceive it clearly. Moreh assumes that achieving peace with the Palestinians is the only “long-term strategy” Israel ought to have and, in its absence, Israel pursues no strategy at all. However, an objective assessment of Israeli history tells us that there has been another strategy in place. The Zionist leaders have in fact always had a long-term strategy to avoid any meaningful peace settlement, so as to allow: 1. occupation of all “Eretz Israel,” 2. the ethnic cleansing or cantonization of the native population, and 3. settlement of the cleansed territory with Jews.
It is because of this same naivete that Moreh confesses himself “shocked” when Shalom compares the occupation of the Palestinian territories to “Germany’s occupation of Europe” which, of course, had its own goal of ethnic cleansing. It is to Shalom’s credit that he made the statement on camera, and to Morah’s credit that he kept the statement in the final version of the film. But then Morah spoils this act of bravery when he tells Amanpour, “Only Jews can say these kind of words. And only they can have the justification to speak as they spoke in the film.” Well, I can think of one other group who has every right to make the same comparison Shalom makes– the Palestinians.
Part III — The Retired Official’s Confession Syndrome

For all its shortcomings, the film is a step forward in the on-going effort to deny the idealized Zionist storyline a monopoly in the West. Indeed, that The Gatekeepers was made at all, and was received so positively at major film venues, is a sign that this wholly skewed Israeli storyline is finally breaking down. Certainly, this deconstruction still has a long way to go, but the process is picking up speed.

On the other hand there is something troubling about the belated nature of the insights given in these interviews. They are examples of what I like to call the “retired official’s confession syndrome.” Quite often those who, in retirement, make these sorts of confessions were well aware of the muddled or murderous situation while in office. But, apparently, they lacked the courage to publicize it at the time. It would have meant risking their careers, their popularity, and perhaps relations with their friends and family. One is reminded of the fate of Professor Ilan Pappe, who did stand up and live his principles, and eventually lost his position at Haifa University and was, in the end, forced into exile. For most, however, including these leaders of the Shin Bet, their understanding was clouded and their actions skewed by a time-honored, but deeply flawed, notion of “duty” to carry on like good soldiers.

Part IV – Conclusion

To date, Israel’s leaders and Zionist supporters have shown an amazing capacity to ignore all criticism. The newly re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has let it be known that he has no intention of watching The Gatekeepers. It is also questionable how many of those who voted for him, or other right-wing politicians, will bother to seek the documentary out.

Israel’s government has recently made the decision to ignore the country’s obligations under the United Nations Human Rights Charter, a decision signaled by its representatives refusal to show up for the country’s “universal periodic review” before the Human Rights Council. Nor is there any sign that any new right-wing led government coalition will stop the ethnic cleansing and illegal colonial repopulation of East Jerusalem.

The only reasonable conclusion one can come to is that it will take increasing outside pressure on Israel, in the form of boycotts, divestment and sanctions, to convince a sufficient number of that country’s Jewish population that they must change their ways. To not change is to acquiesce in Israel’s evolving status as a pariah state. The irony of it all is that that status will have little to do with their being Jewish. Yet, It will have everything to do with the fact that, in this day and age, even the Jews have no right to maintain a racist state.

Of Hope and Disgust: Solitary Confinement

By William Fisher

This news may come a tad late for Nicholas James Yarris, and may be greeted with a combination of hope and disgust. Hope that things are going to get better. Disgust that it’s taken a generation to take the first step.

What is this big news?

Dick Durbin, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate, announced that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has agreed to a comprehensive review of the use of solitary confinement in its prisons.

The study will include the fiscal and public safety consequences of the controversial practice and will be carried out by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). NIC plans to retain an independent auditor to examine the use of solitary confinement, which is also known as restrictive housing. NIC is an agency within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, effectively controlled by appointments by Attorney General Eric Holder.

BOP spokesman Chris Burke said, "We are confident that the audit will yield valuable information to improve our operations, and we thank Senator Durbin for his continued interest in this very important topic."

Prisoners in isolation are often confined to small cells without windows for up to 23 hours a day. Durbin's office said the practice can have a severe psychological impact on inmates and that more than half of all suicides committed in prisons occur in solitary confinement.

In Durbin's state of Illinois, 56 percent of inmates have spent some time in segregated housing. Illinois houses TAMMS, the state’s supermax facility in Tamms, Illinois, where it has been reported by numerous journalists, penologists, and academics, that solitary confinement is routinely being used as a management tool. Durbin and other State leaders have been campaigning to close the facility because of its high cost.

"The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world, and the dramatic expansion of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can't ignore," said Durbin, who chaired a Senate hearing on the use of solitary confinement last year. It was the very first such hearing ever held in Congress.

And it is a subject about which Nicholas James Yarris knows a little something. He spent 23 years in solitary confinement as a death row prisoner in Pennsylvania before his exoneration through DNA testing in 2003. The Innocence Project was instrumental in securing his release.

Here’s what Yarris said:

Having spent an astounding 8000-plus days locked within a cell 23 hours a day, I have witnessed or understood every form of deprivation or sensory starved confinement one can know.

There are two features to solitary confinement that I wish to address here in this statement.

First, the most degrading mental breakdown to men comes from the physical confinement. In the three decades I spent watching new prisoners come to death row in Pennsylvania, I saw with little variation, the breakdown of the personality of men initially entering death row. This occurs when all structure from your previous life hits full stop and you are left with ordered times for every facet of your care.

Combined with intentional cruelty inflicted upon men in maximum-security settings, makes most men break down in their first two years. I entered death row at age 21, being the second youngest man on death row in my home state at the time in 1982.

In subsequent years, I saw death row swell in numbers from 24 in 1982, to 250 in 2004 by the time I was set free. I saw endless processions of men enter death row only to see that within two years each one either committed violence on others, self harmed or had serious mental breakdowns and required long-term medications to keep them stable.

Of the three men executed by Pennsylvania, two were heavily medicated psychiatric patients with long-term mental health issues.

I have witnessed numerous suicide attempts and 11 successful suicides. I myself have not only attempted my own suicide at age 21, but later in my incarceration, in 2002, I asked to be executed rather than to continue being held in endless degradation..

It was only because of my asking to be executed that the DNA tests I sought for 15 years had been forced upon the state. I was not let out of solitary confinement until the day I was set free. I was exonerated by DNA in July of 2003 and was not released until January 2004. In the last months I was stripped of all death row privileges and was placed in an administrative/disciplinary housing unit where I was allowed nothing at all in my cell.

I was brought before the prison administration of Green County Prison in Pennsylvania once DNA had been used in court to remove all of my death row convictions. I was told that I posed a threat to the staff because in the years confined within solitary confinement, having my hand crushed by a guard or other things done to me made them fear me. I was told that they feared I would lash out at them because they could not accept that anyone.

For all of Pennsylvania's efforts to hold me in solitary confinement because I was so dangerous was, in the end, a facade. I make this last point not to be facetious, but to point out the reality that every prisoner at some point is going to get out, either on his feet or not. I am able to look at what was done to me and see beyond the draw of anger or pain. Not everyone is going to feel as I do, and they are going to be worse in society than they were before we subjected them to solitary confinement.
I wonder just how much arm-twisting Dick Durbin had to engage in to get the prison bureau to agree to this study. But Durbin’s reputation is that, when he has the sniff of his target in his nostrils, he can be short, sharp and unforgiving.

That this study might actually get started and finished is good news. But taking a generation to reach the start-point should trigger a healthy dose of skepticism. From testimony given at Durbin’s Senate hearing, we get a strong sense that solitary confinement is not a top priority for the current head of the prisons bureau, Charles Samuels. At the hearing, he was unable to tell the senators how many inmates were currently in solitary in the Federal prison system. While Samuels offered no figures for the total number of prisoners the BOP holds in isolation, in 2010 a BOP spokesperson told CNN that there were more than 11,000 inmates in "special housing"—a common euphemism—out of a total prison population, at that time, of about 210,000, it was reported by Mother Jones. Since that time, the prison population has continued to grow.

Samuels says solitary is “a deterrent and it works," before admitting his agency has never studied the issue. Yet the federal prison system is a serious offender when it comes to the use and abuse of solitary.

MOJO went on to write, “A former corrections officer who rose through the ranks at the BOP, Samuels came off as a consummate bureaucrat. (His predecessor Harley Lappin, forced to resign after a drunk driving incident, now works for the nation's largest private-prison corporation.)

Samuels quickly made his position clear: "Segregated housing," as he called it, is a necessary part of prison practice, and is not used excessively in the federal system. It's not a "preferred option," Samuels said, but he went on to say he believes that it helps stop violence and other bad behavior in prison.

Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have completed a number of major studies of prisoners and detainees in many local, state and federal facilities, including those run by private contractors. Their conclusion is that inmates “confront conditions that are abusive, degrading and dangerous. Soaring prison populations due to harsh sentencing laws—which legislators have been reluctant to change—and immigrant detention policies coupled with tight budgets have left governments unwilling to make the investments in staff and resources necessary to ensure safe and humane conditions of confinement. Such failures violate the human rights of all persons deprived of their liberty to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

David Fathi, the Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said, " The [BOP] is the nation’s largest prison system with over 215,000 prisoners, and has been using solitary confinement at an alarmingly high rate. Similar reviews in state prison systems have led to dramatic reductions in solitary confinement, generating millions of dollars in taxpayer savings. We hope and expect that the review announced today will lead the Bureau to significantly curtail its use of this draconian, inhumane, and expensive practice."

And lest any of us get carried away with enthusiasm, it would be prudent to remember that our nation’s capitol is suffocating under the weight of hundreds of thousands of reports on every conceivable subject – which no one has read or, Heaven Forfend, acted on since they were published.