Friday, August 17, 2012

The Law in These Parts

The most boring documentary format is the studio interview. To keep audience attention the subject being discussed or the people being interviewed must be extraordinarily interesting.

The Law in These Parts opens with a old man unfolding and holding up a poster declaring martial law in Hebrew and Arabic. He tells us this is one of hundreds printed for the IDF years before the Six Day War, in preparation for the possibility that Israel would occupy all or part of an Arab country.

The men interviewed in The Law in These Parts are retired military judges. Some are candid, others are evasive1, some flip-flop. Mostly their answers, while partisan, are refreshingly free of the trite and unconvincing statements that all too often used to justify Israeli actions. The interviews are interleaved to cover the development of Israeli military jurisdiction over Palestinians chronologically from 1967 to 20112.

The film starts with an explanation of what Law means in a military context, its purpose, how it differs from other law, how Israeli military courts function, how military laws are made and changed (at the whim of the Regional Commander, though there are hints that higher command and politicians also get involved) and how the civilian population finds out what the laws are (sometimes by notices and loudspeaker but more often by being arrested by soldiers). The judges pointed out that military law must match International Law, in particular the Geneva Convention. Though they had trouble with justifying blowing up houses and other actions they said were designed dissuading resistance to with the ban on collective punishment and reprisals in the 4th Geneva Convention. The contradiction between the Jewish settlements and Article 49 was also touched on. The film skims over the expansion of the Law to cover everything from putting up posers and throwing stones to cosmetics and accountants, and moves onto some of the landmark cases and their consequences.

One aspect of military occupation that Israelis are quite proud of (and the judges being interviewed were no exception) is that the Israeli Supreme Court functions as the court of appeal for populations under Israeli military rule. It is not clearly explained how and why this came about, but consequences of this form one of the main threads of the documentary. One of the cases appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court in 1979 was of some land confiscated by the IDF for military purposes and handed over to settlers the same day. When the Supreme Court later said that the confiscation was illegal the Minister of Agriculture held a meeting to decide how to get around the ruling. One of the interviewees proudly described how he told the Minister of an Ottoman Law that allowed the Ottoman government to confiscate land more than a cock's crow from a village and that hadn't been farmed for at least 3 years3. The Minister, Ariel Sharon, arranged for a helicopter survey of the West Bank looking for such land.

In cases where the Supreme Court overrules the IDF, unlike its normal swift and decisive manner, can take years to begin to rectify the situation. The film also pointed out that overruling of military decisions by the Supreme Court is rare, normally the Supreme Court finds in favour of the military providing a judicial seal of approval for the IDF's actions.

The aspect of the documentary troubled the interviewees the most and one that they were pressed hardest on was their knowledge of and how they dealt with the torture victims and information gained via torture. Most (but not all) of the judges initially claimed they had no knowledge that torture was taking place. When asked how they dealt with Palestinians detainees who said they had been tortured or looked beaten up, the general response was that if there was a conflict between something a Palestinian said and what the GSS (aka Shin Bet or Shabak) said; they always believed the GSS because Palestinians have a reason to lie!

The judges were also asked how the military law applied to Israeli civilians when they are in the Occupied Territories. The answer is that military law somehow does not apply to Israeli civilians nor to the land they are on when they are in the Occupied Territories. On the other hand (and this was something that troubled some of the judges) it seems that Israeli police and civilian law also does not apply to the activities of Israeli civilians acting against Palestinians - a useful legal black hole for "enterprising" Jewish settlers to exploit4.

The final thing that some of the interviewees mentioned was that they thought that military law is really only a temporary solution. On the other hand they did not offer an alternative - certainly not withdrawing back to Israel.

Despite its unpromising format and unspecific title, The Law in These Parts is a gripping and informative documentary. A must see for anyone interested in law in the wild west.

Ian's rating 5/5

1. The oldest and most evasive of the interviewees was 86 year old Justice Meir Shamgar Brig.-Gen. (ret) President of the Israel Supreme Court 1983-95 (first appointed to the court in 1975), served in the IDF from 1948 and was previously a member of the Zionist terror organisation Irgun. In 1944 the British send him to a detention camp in Eritrea, where he studied law by a correspondence course with the University of London.

2. It does not cover military rule in the Golan Heights and Sinai after 1967 or in parts of Israel from 1948-1960s.

3. This sounds similar to an Ottoman law used inside Israel to confiscate land from Israeli Arabs.

4. Actually if Israeli civilians cooperate with or defend Palestinians they are liable to be manhandled, shot or arrested (briefly) by the IDF, whereas Israeli civilians acting against Palestinians will be protected by and assisted by the IDF.

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