Justice in a gray world

Jonathan Livny, a Retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Israel Defense Forces and military judge from 1976-1999 is interviewed in ‘The Law in These Parts.’  Photo: Cinema Guild

By Robert Nicholson, Jewish Ideas Daily

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,” a recent favorite on the New York film circuit. 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 the Six-Day War. Israel, the movie tells us, has used a species of “law” — in reality, a framework of control masquerading as law — 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 while citing “emergency conditions” to deny the Palestinians basic human rights. Israel resurrected obscure Ottoman land laws to justify Jewish settlement and, worse, manipulated these laws to prefer Jews to native Arabs. 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. But his admission of subjectivity cannot relieve him of responsibility for 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 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. 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.

ADVERTISEMENT
JSU Gala Advertisement

In fact, however, Israel’s military regime was not born ex nihilo. 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. Confronted with the prospect of an extended occupation, Israel set out to establish transitional justice complying with international law.

Alexandrowicz condemns Israel for refusing to extend its own law to the Palestinian territories, yet the Hague Regulations require an occupying power to maintain the existing laws of an occupied territory, except for reasons of public order and security. 

The filmmaker tells how Ariel Sharon invoked the Ottoman law of “mawat” (“dead” or “unused”) land to allow Jewish settlement and expects his audience to be incredulous — yet the Ottoman Land Code was, and is, the legal regime governing the West Bank. It may not have been wise, but there was nothing radical about Sharon’s applying the law of mawat.

In his most outrageous leap, Alexandrowicz argues that Israel’s allowing Palestinians to petition the High Court is an underhanded way of legitimating the occupation. In fact, Israel granted this concession despite the absence of any historical precedent. The film does not mention the important cases in which the High Court has ruled against the state.

The issue of Jewish settlement is more difficult. Alexandrowicz explains the inequality between Palestinians, living under military rule, and Jewish settlers, who enjoy the protections of Israeli law. This accusation of procedural and substantive inequality is the film’s one major criticism that sticks.

Reviewers have quoted Brig. Gen. Dov Shefi, who says in the film that “order and justice don’t always go hand in hand.”  While this is true, Col. Oded Pesensson’s description of the West Bank legal environment as a “gray world” seems more compelling. We are not speaking here of dispassionate bystanders applying abstract notions of justice to distant events but of a military administration forced by war to govern a hostile territory until political leaders negotiate a solution. A tension between order and justice does not seem all that remarkable. 

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. “Law in These Parts” fails in this obligation.

 This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.