Justice in a Gray World

By Robert Nicholson
Monday, December 31, 2012

Israel uses the pretense of law to dominate and disenfranchise Palestinians in the territories.  So argues Ra’anan Alexandrowicz in his documentary The Law In These Parts (in Hebrew, Shilton Hahok), a recent favorite on the New York film circuit and winner of awards at the Sundance and Jerusalem film festivals.  Since the film has garnered nearly universal acclaim, it is appropriate to ask whether the judgment is deserved. 

The film aims to examine Israel’s military regime in the Palestinian territories since 1967.  With riveting newsreel footage and personal interviews of high-ranking IDF officers, Alexandrowicz brings a relatively dry topic to life.  The interviewees’ strong personalities and firsthand perspectives on major events lend the film an air of authority.

Since the Six-Day War, the movie tells us, Israel has used a species of “law”—in reality, a framework of control masquerading as legal discourse—to govern the territories for Israel’s exclusive benefit.  Rather than extend Israeli law to the territories, Israel devised a military regime that pilfers Palestinian land and resources while citing “emergency conditions” to deny the Palestinians basic human rights.  Israel resurrected obscure Ottoman land laws to justify Jewish settlement in the territories and, worse, manipulated these laws to prefer Jews to native Arabs.  Contrary to popular belief, Israel’s allowing Palestinians to petition the High Court of Justice for redress of grievances does not bespeak Israeli liberality; rather, it cleverly reinforces Israeli hegemony by giving it the stamp of legality whenever the Court rules in favor of the state, which is often.

Alexandrowicz acknowledges his subjective gaze, interrogating Israeli officials just as he says they interrogate Palestinian defendants and comparing his selective editing of their testimony to the capricious way in which they, in his view, execute “justice” in the courtroom.   But his admission of subjectivity cannot relieve him of responsibility for all the film’s faults.          

The major fault is the film’s narrow perspective.  The Israeli military is put on trial for its life with almost no reference to the complex situation that gave rise to the occupation.  The narrative effectively begins in mid-sentence—in June, 1967, with Israel’s preemptive attack on three Arab states.  Gaza and the West Bank appear to have been utopias before the arrival of the Israeli juggernaut.  No mention is made of the way their previous occupiers, Egypt and Jordan, governed the territories between 1948 and 1967.  Little attention is given to the murderous Palestinian fedayeen whose insurgency doomed any hopes for normalcy in the region.  Similarly, after a few court cases are mentioned and broad conclusions drawn, the narrative cuts off abruptly around 2000, with barely a hint of subsequent events—like the Gaza disengagement. Everything, it seems, can be blamed on Israel’s military lawyers.

In fact, however, Israel’s military regime was not born ex nihilo.  Though debate persists about the origins of the Six-Day War, it is undeniable—though Alexandrowicz does not mention it—that Israel’s attack was directed at states openly calling for Israel’s destruction just two decades after the Holocaust.

After the war, Israel found itself in control of historic hotbeds of anti-Israel sentiment populated by a million hostile Palestinians.  The Arab League announced that there would be “no peace with Israel.”  Confronted with the prospect of permanent hostility and extended occupation, Israel set out to govern with a kind of transitional justice in a military regime complying with the normative requirements of international law.       

Alexandrowicz condemns Israel for refusing to extend its own law to the Palestinian territories—yet Article 43 of the 1907 Hague Regulations requires an occupying power to maintain the existing laws of an occupied territory, abridging them only for reasons of public order and security.  The filmmaker tells in detail how Ariel Sharon invoked the Ottoman legal category of mawat (“dead” or “unused”) land to allow Jewish settlement and expects his audience to be incredulous—yet the Ottoman Land Code was, and still is, the legal regime governing the West Bank.  It may not have been strategic or wise, but there was nothing radical about Sharon’s applying the law of mawat

In his most outrageous leap of logic, Alexandrowicz argues that Israel’s allowing Palestinians to petition the High Court is an underhanded way of legitimating the occupation.  In fact, Israel had no obligation to grant this concession and did so despite the absence of any historical precedent.  The film does not mention the important cases in which the High Court has ruled in favor of Palestinian petitioners and against the state.

The issue of Jewish settlement is admittedly more difficult.  Alexandrowicz spends significant time explaining the inequality between Palestinians, who live under military rule, and Jewish settlers, who enjoy the full protections of Israeli law.  This accusation of procedural and substantive inequality is the film’s one major criticism that sticks: arguments for allowing Israeli settlers to “carry the law on their backs” while denying the same right to Palestinians are not very convincing.  If the film highlights any issue deserving closer examination, this is it.

Reviewers have quoted Brigadier General Dov Shefi, who says in the film that “order and justice don’t always go hand in hand.”  While this is undoubtedly true, Colonel Oded Pesensson’s description of the West Bank legal environment as a “gray world” seems far more compelling.  We are not speaking here of the European Court of Human Rights or the International Court of Justice, dispassionate bystanders applying abstract notions of justice to distant events, but of a military administration forced by the exigencies of war to govern a hostile territory until political leaders can negotiate a solution.

In this context, a tension between order and justice does not seem all that remarkable.  Occupation regimes are tasked above all with maintaining order in the absence of peace, making perfect justice more difficult to achieve.  Some Palestinians have suffered injustice in recent decades, and the film is right to remind us of that.  Yet justice is an elusive concept in this grayest of worlds; and the Israeli military regime is an outgrowth of the conflict, not the source of its evils.  Enumerating its shortcomings is valid, but the exercise must at least apprise the audience of the historical, political, and legal complexity surrounding it.  The Law In These Parts fails in this obligation.

Robert Nicholson is a 2012-13 Tikvah Fellow.


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