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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.

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Kalman Neuman on December 31, 2012 at 6:18 am (Reply)
Rejecting all the criticisms except those regarding the settlements still leaves the most objectionable aspect of the Israeli rule of the territories objectionable. To the extent that this was occupation, indended to be temporary and exercised for the good of the civilian population, there was and is little room for legal nitpicking. To the extent that the entire system was perverted in order to justify Jews and Arabs living under two separate legal regimes, this is a clear path towards a regime which includs the "a word" which no one wishes to utter
zeelig on December 31, 2012 at 9:25 am (Reply)
This is all academic BS. The so called "occupied" are occupied with nothing but eliminating Israel and eliminating Jews. So, to me, no criticism of Israel's policies is justified or acceptable with avowed bloodthirsty warriors on every border (and even within the border). Period.
S W on December 31, 2012 at 2:10 pm (Reply)
As one might note in recent news were one so inclined, Abbas has celebrated the Fatah Party with the announcement that all of what is now Israel is part of Palestine. Therefore no matter what Israel did, does today or will do tomorrow, by definition they "occupy" what Muslims want -- all of Israel. Because of this fact now easily found in the press, those who decry Israel and the "occupation" need to consider that Palestine wants to occupy all of Israel. I predict their voices will be silent or so minimal as to be silent.
Ivan Lubash on December 31, 2012 at 3:35 pm (Reply)
An aspect of the situation that is seldom mentioned is that ---- If the Arab nations had recognized the right of Israel to exist after the 1968 war, or going back to the U.N. partition in 1968, this situation (occupation or any other term) would never have existed.
    Stephen on January 1, 2013 at 4:17 am (Reply)
    Since the very beginnings of the modern movement of Zionism the Arabs have resisted a Jewish state in its hereditary homeland. This is their right but like spoilt brats they have never taken responsibility for the consequences of this resistance, fed largely by the biased dereliction of the international community to hold them to the same standard demanded from Israel to adhere to U N Resolutions.
usjustice101 on December 31, 2012 at 8:15 pm (Reply)
It does not do justice to Israel, the palestinians nor, for that matter, the cause of peace, to portray Israel so grossly onesidedly as the "occupier" who exceeds its bounds and abuses its powers. Many a solution has been born of criticism and dissent, but not when said dissent simply fans the flames of hatred as this film apparently seems to do, without ackgnowledging both sides' fault and, without suggesting solutions. Solutions cannot come from mere fingerpointing only in the direction of Israel. Any solution must, of necessity, acknowledge palestinian hostility and ongoing belligerance --indeed, palestinians' very refusal to accept Israel and to coexist peacefully-- for that is, after all, at least partly the root of the very problem. The other root of the problem, and the most important one by far, of course being that the whole conflict is not really about setting up a new arab (palestinian) state, but about the arabs' (and palestinians) desire to destroy Israel, as confirmed by recent public statements from Abbas and Meshaal.

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.
Jankel on January 1, 2013 at 8:34 am (Reply)
Zeelig ist wonderful.
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...
Academic BS....
What a better Definition?????
Gratulation, Zeelig.
Jerry Blaz on January 1, 2013 at 8:23 pm (Reply)
My mother told me many times that hashem puts a piece of meat in everyone's mouth, but everyone is free to twist it in any direction it wants. After 1967, the military superiority of Israel was no longer in question. Otherwise, one of those "bloodthirsty warriors," Anwar Sadaat would never have turned up at Jerusalem and speak before the Knesset. And after negotiations, assisted by then American Pres. Jimmy Carter, Israel has lived with peace with the largest Arab country, cool though this peace may be, even in these troubled times in Egypt. Where there is a will there is a way. However, using law and interpreting it in favor of the winner is no way to make peace or reduce the "bloodthirstiness" of the neighbors who were the losers.

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.
Jack Kuper on January 2, 2013 at 11:26 am (Reply)
Why in God's name does Israel support productions that look as if they had been produced in Gaza with funding from Iran. Last evening I caught up with another such offering:"Lebanon". If I hadn't known better I would have assumed it was a product of the Hezbollah Film Studios. Obviously, what drives these productions is their easy acceptance by audiences conditioned to see the Jewish state in a bad light.Get real!
Israel has enough enemies without feeding them more poison to feast on.
Peter Strummer on January 8, 2013 at 2:02 pm (Reply)
This is an incredibly one-sided, disingenuous review.. really a terrible review...I don't even know where to begin, and won't even attempt to address all that's wrong with it. But let's start with this: for example, you fault the documentary for focusing on the occupation's use of local laws to take land for the use by Israeli civilian settlements, by invoking article 43 of the 1907 Hague regulations, but then of course conveniently forget to mention that act of allowing civilian citizens of the occupying power to reside in occupied territory is itself illegal under international humanitarian law.

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's apartheid.
    S W on January 11, 2013 at 6:47 am (Reply)
    A quote from Lawrence Grossman in an article titled, "Who really wants mideast peace?"

    "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'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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