The Law in These Parts is an unprecedented exploration of the evolving and little-known legal framework that Israel has employed to administer its 40-year military occupation of the West Bank and, until 2005, the Gaza Strip. Celebrated Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz (The Inner Tour) elicits this story from the very military judges, prosecutors and legal advisors who helped create the system and who agreed to take the cinematic witness chair to explain their choices. Weaving together these interviews with archival footage, often in the same frame, Alexandrowicz has crafted a comprehensive and evocative portrait of a key facet of one of the world’s most stubborn and enduring conflicts. In doing so, The Law in These Parts reveals not only the legal architecture of military occupation, but also its human impact on both Palestinians and Israelis. The film asks a question as troubling as it is unavoidable: Can a modern democracy impose a prolonged military occupation on another people while retaining its core democratic values?
Since Israel took control of the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six Day War, its military has issued thousands of orders and laws on resident Palestinians. Early on in the film, Alexandrowicz explains his motives when he calls this ad hoc system of Israeli military rule “a unique system [which] very few people understand in depth.” The men, retired now, who sat down with the filmmaker to provide that depth, were judges, prosecutors and other legal professionals. They were also high-ranking military officers. In the film, they are exceptionally candid about their actions, and acknowledge inconsistencies and contradictions in the system they built.
Former judge and brigadier general Amnon Strashnov, for one, acknowledges “a limitation in the system, where security comes before human rights.” Retired colonel and military judge Oded Pesensson, when pressed on the reliability of the information from the security services on which he based his judgments, recalls “the heavy feeling that I’m not being told the truth” but also the suspicion that a detainee’s testimony cannot be trusted because “he has his interests.” Ultimately, he says, “My obligation is to make a ruling. And if I make a different ruling, I know that someone might die.” Other interviewees include justice Meir Shamgar (Brig. General, Ret.), legal advisor Dov Shefi (Brig. General, Ret.), prosecutor Abraham Pachter (Lt. Col., Ret.), legal advisor Alexander Ramati (Lt. Col., Ret.), prosecutor and judge Jair Rabinovich (Major, Ret.), judge Jonathan Livny (Lt. Col., Ret.) and judge Ilan Katz (Colonel, Ret.).
Alexandrowicz is an aggressive interviewer who wants his subjects to confront what he sees as the contradictions—and the moral implications that flow from them—in their system. “I come from the free world,” says Pesensson. “A world where, if I want to ask someone a question, I ask, and if he doesn’t want to answer, he doesn’t. . . . And you arrive in a world whose purpose is to protect you from possibilities that tomorrow, those people might come and kill you . . . the grey world in which there are people whose job . . . is to protect your life. So you can sit across [from] me now and go to a movie this evening, and you won’t be blown up or killed or shot at in the street. The question is, how do you conduct yourself? How does this affect your decisions?”
Livny gives a frank account of the legal dilemmas stemming from the occupation: “I think that a civilian judge represents justice, and society in general. As a military judge you represent the authorities of the occupation, vis-à-vis a population that sees you as the enemy. You’re conducting a trial against your enemy. . . . As long as it’s only temporary, fine. But when it goes on for 40 years? How can the system function?”
So Alexandrowicz tilts at a dizzying number of issues that have arisen, some foreseen, some not, in 40-plus years of military occupation. Among the thousands of orders and laws issued by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in that time, the filmmaker zeroes in on what he sees as the inequity of military courts for Palestinians and civilian courts for Israeli settlers; the controls imposed on Palestinians by the identity card system; Israel’s refusal to grant Palestinian guerrilla fighters prisoner-of-war status; the alleged use of torture by the IDF; and an expansive concept of security that has allowed land seizures, wall building and military posts. Alexander Ramati, for instance, describes how he used a 19th-century Ottoman land law as legal justification for Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. Alexandrowicz asks, “In retrospect, do you think it was the right move?” Ramati replies, “I don’t think anyone can answer that.”
“Translating my research into a film was the most complicated cinematic challenge I have faced,” says director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. “I had to deal with the ethical and aesthetic questions posed by the material and to find a way to engage the audience in this journey into the heart of what is in my view one of Israel’s toughest moral quandaries.”
The Law in These Parts is a production of Noga Communications, the Rabinowitz Film Fund, the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, the World Cinema Fund and the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Lynn and Jules Kroll Fund for Jewish Documentary Film.