Justice in a Gray World
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.
Sadly, Israel remain a country surrounded by those who only seek its destruction. Never in the history of mankind has a sovereign country been surrounded by so many enemies from so many sides for so long. Israel's survival and self defense is no easy task, and no modern-day democratic and civilized government -- or people -- has ever had to make the sometimes difficult choices the Israelis have been forced to make. In the interest of survival therefore, until and unless all belligerant parties modify their stance to no longer seek Israel's destruction, Israel is fully warranted to take any and all measures necessary -- nothing short of that will ensure Israel's survival.
Should the mass of Jews be like him..???
I don't think G.D does exist, so i don't pray for things getting better, but try to fight for it....
I think jews are mostly intelligent, alas, but alas once more, true Lawyers.....: they found the Pentateuch and Talmud and Dinim, alas, alas...and use that extreme ability to destroy themselves More Precisely...
What a better Definition?????
Certainly the settlement movement is the most difficult to justify, even for the legal beagles, and the fact that the "hill-top youth" (a most disarming term) doesn't get caught as often, and when they do, they get off with a much lighter sentence, much less incarceration, and just as much pats on the back as do those young Arabs get when they stand up to the military regime in the territories.
Israel has enough enemies without feeding them more poison to feast on.
The documentary does a very good job of showing how two civilian populations, living in roughly the same area, are subject to two separate legal systems civil code vs military ...and the human rights of one of the populations is respected, while the human rights of the other populations is disregarded. It's pure discrimination.
This is the real world, and wars happen, and sometimes a military occupation is necessary. But what the Israelis have implemented in the occupied Palestinian territory isn't just occupation...it's apartheid.
"Israelis also know that in making his case before that body, PA President Mahmoud Abbas called Israel a racist, apartheid state that practices ethnic cleansing — hardly the words of someone eager for a peaceful two-state solution."
A quote from Mr. Strummer: "But what the Israelis have implemented in the occupied Palestinian territory isn't just occupation...it's apartheid."
Is it not interesting how charged accusations clutter a discussion and end up having yet another Jew agree with the Palestinian Authority? Is it also most interesting that Mr. Strummer justifies occupation as sometimess "necessary." It is an odd moral stance, given that Israel's limited yet ongoing war with its Muslim neighbors over sixty does not evidence -- as Rabbi Grossman observes in the article -- a possible partner for real peace.
All one need of any Palestinian "authority" is a set of proposed borders with which they will settle. Decades has past, and this simple request has been srucpulously avoided. Why? Any proposed borders which do not eradicate Israel mean capitulation to Israel existing. Apartheid is not what is occuring, except in the minds of passionate people willing to ignore basic realities about Palestinian notions, as have been consistently expressed by Arafat, Abbas and the leaders of Hamas and Hizbollah. Ignore them, and then maybe one might have a claim for apartheid. With such Palestinian positions, this is not apartheid but rather -- as Mr. Strummer noted can be -- a "necessary" situation. Sad but real.
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