War has a way of testing a country’s commitment to civil liberties like nothing else. It’s easy to be high-minded when you’re Switzerland. But when terrorists are flying planes into your buildings, as the U.S. discovered after 9/11, the impulse to deny some suspects even the right to be brought before a judge, a core tenet of any fair legal system, can be powerful.
Israel has been at war since its birth. How its legal system measures up is the subject of a gripping new documentary, The Law in These Parts. Shot in a single room over nine days, the film draws its power not from interviews with Palestinians—that would be the predictable approach. Instead, director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz turns the camera on the military judges tasked with imposing order and meting out punishment in the West Bank and Gaza during more than 43 years of Israeli rule. Some are defensive about their role in the occupation, others proud. One judge admits knowing that interrogators were systematically beating the suspects. Overall, an uncomfortable truth emerges: while the judges had in mind a fair and lenient occupation, they ended up rubber-stamping measures that could not possibly square with international law—including land grabs, collective punishment, detention without trial, deportation, and torture.
At times, Alexandrowicz seems to be putting the judges themselves on trial—as when he reads to them a Palestinian’s account of a beating during an interrogation. Physical abuse was standard interrogation fare for years in Israel’s Shin Bet security service. But investigative commissions have concluded that military judges knew nothing about it. Yonatan Livni, who served as a judge from 1976 to 1999, suggests that wasn’t the case. “What are you asking me, if I knew about these things?” Livni says. “Of course.” When asked whether judges have the power to curtail abuses, Livni cuts to the heart of the problem: “Theoretically, you can write, you can complain, you can speak out. Practically speaking, no. You serve a system.”
Another former judge describes helping the government make use of arcane Ottoman legislation to declare uncultivated areas of the West Bank as “dead land” that Israel could seize. The old law defines dead land as an area “far enough from the village that no one can hear the crow of the rooster when it’s at the center of the village.” By this law, Israel has managed to confiscate nearly one sixth the territory where it has built settlements.
Alexandrowicz began thinking seriously about the way Israel deals with the Palestinians during his service as a paratrooper. Conscripted a month before the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, he spent much of his service guarding settlers. Plenty of times, he says, members of his unit vented their frustrations by beating Palestinians. Though The Law in These Parts is the second documentary he’s made about Palestinians, Alexandrowicz says he’s not out to change people’s minds. “I make films on subjects I’m interested in,” he told me. When he screened his movie to a crowd that included Israeli settlers, he came under fire. “The film was full of manipulations,” one man said. “I could have taken the same raw footage and made a movie showing how just Israel has been.”
In one area, at least, Israel has gone out of its way to be fair with the Palestinians. Almost from the outset of the occupation, it has allowed them to take grievances to Israel’s High Court of Justice, a panel composed of Supreme Court judges. On occasion, the court has sided with a Palestinian, including its 1999 decision banning physical abuse in interrogations. But legal scholars say the court is much more likely to uphold questionable government practices than strike them down. And by agreeing to hear Palestinian cases, it has given the entire system of Israeli rule in the West Bank a stamp of legitimacy. “You’re the judge, but you stand across from [the suspect], and he’s the enemy,” says Livni, describing the core defect of the military courts. “This is an unnatural situation. And as long as it’s temporary, fine. But when it goes on for 40 years, how can the system function? How can it be just?”