Israeli filmmaker Shai Gal made an unexpected discovery when he delved into a network of right-wing settlers who plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock in the 1980s.
In 1984, the Israeli secret service Shin Bet arrested a group of far-right religious extremists on charges of plotting to blow up the holy Muslim site the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The conspirators hoped eradicating the shrine would clear the way for reconstruction of the Jewish temple which once stood on the site in biblical times.
They were also behind a long-running terror campaign against Palestinians, including a series of car bomb attacks against West Bank mayors and a scheme to blow up civilian buses at rush-hour.
Some 30 years later, Israeli investigative TV journalist and filmmaker Shai Gal looks back at the events surrounding the case and delves into what has happened to the plotters. What he uncovers is chilling.
Gal recounts how his initial interest in the case was sparked by reading Dear Brothers: The West Bank Jewish Underground by Haggai Segal, one of the convicted terrorists. “It’s an autobiographical account of what happened in the 1980s. I said to myself, this needs to be made into a movie,” says Gal.
What would come to fascinate Gal was not the events themselves, but rather what went on behind the scenes: the psychological, judicial and political battle between the extremists, the Shin Bet agents who tracked them down and the judges who tried the case. The angle came out of a conversation with former Shin Bet chief Ya’akov Peri, who was involved in the investigation and who features in the documentary.
“I told him I had read Haggai Segal’s book and his response was, ‘This is not a book, it is a statement of defiance’. It was then I started to see there were two sides to what had gone on.”
The final piece in the jigsaw was Gal’s realisation that a number of the convicted gang members were not only still pushing their far-right, religious, pro-settlement agenda, but they were doing so from a position close to the wheels of political power.
“I started finding these photos of them with politicians and it became apparent that a number of them were extremely close to the centre of political power in Israel. It was then I said to myself, I have a movie.”
In a bid to frame the complex story – part investigative thriller, part political exposé – Gal decided to focus uniquely on interviews with people involved in the case.
The interviewees range from convicted terrorist plotters Natan Nathanson and Yehuda Etzion to secret service chiefs Peri and Carmi Gillon and Dorit Beinisch, the state prosecutor on the case who went on to become president of the Supreme Court of Israel. Their testimony is intercut with reconstructions of the group’s operations and archive footage and images from the time.
One of the most gripping aspects is how the work reveals the close contemporary ties between some of the convicted gang members and figures in Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government. One scene captures Nathanson showing hard-right Israeli Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel round the construction site for Amichai, the first new Jewish settlement to be built on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank in 25 years. Nathanson boasts that without the campaigns by him and his fellow activists, the settlement would never have got the green light.
Gal acknowledges his documentary comes at a crucial period in Israel’s 70-year history, as a less politically engaged majority comes to terms with the rise of a determined, hard-right political class. “We're at a point where a lot of things are starting to change,” he says.