Arts, Culture & Media

New Israeli documentary looks at bizarre world of Israeli law in West Bank, other parts of future Palestinian state

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The Law in These Parts is a new Israeli documentary looking at the justice system in the areas Israel occupied in the 1950s Middle East wars.

A government-appointed committee of legal experts in Israel has concluded that all of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank are legal under international law.

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The panel said Israel’s control over the territory that Palestinians view as the heartland of their future state does not amount to a “military occupation.”

The report is not legally binding. And is not clear how far Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will go to implement the recommendations. But if the Israeli government adopts its central findings, it would mark a departure from both Israel’s own policy — and the international consensus on the status of the West Bank.

The Obama administration said it is “concerned” about the report, because the administration opposes “continued Israeli settlement activity.”

Israel’s legal framework for the occupied territories is the subject of a new documentary called “The Law in These Parts.” It’s a pointed look at the legal side of Israel’s 45-year-old occupation.

The Law in These Parts - English trailer from The Law in These Parts on Vimeo.

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz shot an earlier documentary about Palestinian kids that came out in 2001. A few years later, he started getting phone calls from some of the families of youth he’d spent time with. Their teenagers had been arrested by Israeli soldiers, and they wondered whether he’d come to the military court hearing.

Alexandrowicz said that’s when he got the idea for this film. He felt that, like most Israelis, he didn’t know much about the legal system that Israel developed for the occupied territories.

“Even though I had been a soldier in the Israeli army at the end of the 80s, the beginning of the 90s, the height of the first intifada, I’ve never been in a military courtroom," Alexandrowicz said. "Looking at those trials and understanding them, I started to think that it’s very important that Israeli society become aware.”

For his protagonists, Alexandrowicz chose the legal professionals – retired military judges, advocates and advisers – who wrote, shaped and implemented a legal system for Israeli-occupied lands. Alexandrowicz did extensive studio interviews with his subjects. And then cleverly interspersed these with archival material from the occupied territories, including scenes with some of his main characters.

There’s one poignant scene with army judge Jonathan Livny, shot in a military courtroom during the first intifada.

“I realize that I’m sent to the West Bank by the Israeli flag. To the people who sit here, opposite it, view it as the flag as the enemy and I represent that flag,” Livny said. “But on the other hand, the other symbol, which is even higher than the flag, are the scales of justice. And I always say that I would like to be able, and I hope I can always love my country as represented by the flag and still love justice. And still uphold justice.”

“The public perception is that most of this has to do with security,” Alexandrowicz said.

And he said the earliest laws published by Israeli military authorities in the occupied territories were indeed about security. They were basic rules about criminality and the penal code.

“But afterwards, as I show in the film,” Alexandrowicz added, “immediately there had to be dozens and then hundreds and finally thousands of orders that have to do with things that are completely not related to security. It can be orders about what plants the local population is not allowed to pick anymore. It can be orders that have to do with traffic. It can be orders that have to do with some of the resources of the area.”

The Israeli military protects certain basic rights for Palestinians living under occupation. They have access to Israel’s high court, for example. But here’s the problem with the situation in the West Bank today, Alexandrowicz said.

A legal system that was once assumed to be temporary is now nearly half-a-century old. And there’s a fundamental flaw in the way Palestinian non-citizens are governed.

“In that same area, you have another group of people, Israeli citizens who live in the area and they do have Israeli citizenship. They enjoy all the rights that come with being Israeli citizens and that makes a very different situation on every section of life you choose to examine. It makes a great difference between the two groups,” he said.

And crafting a legal system for such a situation, as one of his interviewees puts it, means entering into a gray world — a place where the values of justice and rule of law collide with politics and ideology.

The Law in These Parts is showing in San Francisco later this month and in other U.S. cities in the fall.