Yachad hosted the UK premier of ‘The Law in These Parts’, which asks whether a modern democracy can impose a prolonged military occupation on another people while retaining its core democratic values? Jake White reviews.
The Law in these Parts is an Israeli documentary directed by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, which focuses on the legal system put in place by the IDF in the West Bank and Gaza following the Six Day War of 1967.
The question the film examines is how this legal system, and the acts committed under it may be squared with the democratic values which Israel espouses.
Israel’s activities in the Occupied Territories are much scrutinised by commentators and the film’s scepticism about the trade off between freedom and security (“their” freedom versus “my” freedom as the film puts it) is broadly consistent with the views of many writers on the Israeli left.
Yet this is a worthwhile (and knowing) contribution to the debate, not only because its subject matter has probably never been presented in film before; or because it is liable to draw these issues to the attention of a wider audience.
Ultimately its value lies in the compelling and humane account of the events it presents, and its reminder to us us all of the standards against which our conduct is to be judged.
The film consists in large part of interviews with some of the grandees of the IDF legal hierarchy who were responsible for creating or administering the system in its early, formative days.
It cleverly juxtaposes this austere, at times claustrophic material with black and white footage from the very outset of the occupation; the operation of the justice system; and the creation of the settlements.
At times it blends the two, by projecting the footage onto the walls of the studio including in the presence of the interviewees. It proves an effective reminder of how much has changed and how much remains the same.
Most of the service men give a robust account of their actions. General Dov Shefi explains that following the end of hostilities, the new law was what the IDF said it was. Machievelli discusses a similar idea in The Prince (law as power) but it is suggested this is not one which any modern democracy would typically identify itself with.
Lieutenant Colonel Ramati explains how he revived the Ottoman land law concept of “mawati” land, or “dead” land, which was used to identify land suitable for settlements in the West Bank.
Others pointed out how house demolition and detention without trial of those posing a serious risk to security were introduced by the British towards the end of the Mandate in order to maintain order – the parallel being that the IDF justifies use of these measures on precisely the same grounds.
There is a veneer of legality about all of these measures. It is true that the law of armed conflict requires the occupying power to maintain the laws and customs of the occupied territory.
But Israel’s application of this principle in practice has been selective and, as the principle of “mawat land” demonstrates, has often caused it to breach other requirements of the same body of law (namely the prohibition on transferring the population of the occupying power into occupied territory).
The film courageously tackles the use of torture by the IDF, in particular during the first intifada. In a powerful moment, and after listening to extensive allegations of torture made by a Palestinian detainee, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Livny interrupts the interviewer to admit that he knew about the use of such methods. His rejoinder is that he was simply “serving a system”.
Many of the retired service men are moved by the footage or the documents they are shown. They are not depicted as monsters bereft of compassion.
Justice Shamgar rightly takes pride in his decision to ensure that acts of the IDF in the Occupied Territories should be capable of challenge in the Israeli Supreme Court. The 1999 decision of the Supreme Court to ban torturous methods of interrogation (like its decision on Targeted Killings in 2005) was both brave and laudable.
But when the suggestion is put to him, that the courts have overturned only a very small minority of the acts of the IDF, and that its involvement may have, perversely, legitimated the occupation, he will not even entertain it.
Perhaps most troubling, many of the interviewees dodge the most difficult questions about their contribution to some of the problems we see today. “History will judge” Ramati explains.
But when will history judge? And what will happen in the mean time?
Discover more about The Law In These Parts here.