New film holds IDF judges, lawyers accountable to ‘The Law’

Opening Wednesday in the US, documentary cross-examines the men who established Israel’s legal approach to ruling the territories

With an image of a blindfolded Palestinian prisoner in the background, retired Lt. Col. Jonathan Livny reflects on his 23 years as a military judge. (Courtesy of Cinema Guild)
With an image of a blindfolded Palestinian prisoner in the background, retired Lt. Col. Jonathan Livny reflects on his 23 years as a military judge. (Courtesy of Cinema Guild)

‘At least half of the people I interviewed are unhappy with the film,” says director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, referring to the documentary he’s just screened at Harvard.

No kidding.

Alexandrowicz isn’t necessarily bothered by his subjects’ displeasure, and viewers won’t be either. Despite a fairly dry format and a subject that’s often highly technical, the documentary makes for compelling viewing, challenging audiences as it explores the legal system Israel has developed during 45 years of rule in Gaza and the West Bank.

Bearing the English title “The Law in These Parts,” Alexandrowicz’s film was dubbed simply “The Rule of Law” in Hebrew, and spends its 105 minutes asking whether there is such a thing in the Palestinian territories.

Featuring interviews with Israeli legal advisers, military judges and attorneys who worked in the system, “The Law in These Parts” examines Israel’s legal approach to the territories, from the confiscation of land to interrogation techniques to the use of extended detention, often without charge, of Palestinian prisoners.

Opening in US theaters on Wednesday, the film has earned supporters both in Israel and overseas, claiming the best documentary award at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, and the World Cinema Jury Prize in 2012 at Sundance. Its harsh view of Israeli policy hasn’t turned off Alexandrowicz’s compatriots, who’ve attended 200 screenings – a big number for a documentary in Israel – and watched it on TV. The film has been shown to the IDF’s military courts unit, and to other parts of the security establishment, as well as at meetings of Israeli educators and legal professionals.

A 43-year-old father from Jerusalem, Alexandrowicz spoke to The Times of Israel by phone from Cambridge, Mass., where he recently made a series of appearances before students of film, law and government at Harvard.

What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for length, clarity and continuity.

‘As a person who lives in Jerusalem, I think about the security issue every morning when I take my children to kindergarten’

“The Law in These Parts” features an impressive set of interviews, including with high-ranking former generals, judges and Meir Shamgar, the retired president of Israel’s Supreme Court. Was it difficult to get people to speak to you?

It wasn’t difficult. Something about Israel is that people are very approachable. The occupation is very much written about and discussed, but even though there are a lot of debates about law and justice, no one had ever gone and spoken to them. This was the first time someone had approached them. Part of what I did was keep the discussion very non-confrontational. There was concern because I don’t have a legal education to conduct these kinds of interviews – I had to try to understand their work, in some cases by studying and reading literally for months to be able to speak in detail about their work.

Have any of the participants objected to the film?

No one disputes the facts — no one got back to us and said, “This is wrong” or “This not what I meant.” But the perspective of the film is not the perspective in which they see their work. Some of them have disagreements with what the others say. Then again, at least a few of them said that even if the experience was not what they were hoping for, they can see why it’s necessary to have a film that would do this.

Was there anyone who wasn’t willing to participate?

Yes, but not many. I didn’t approach so many people — not many more than are in the film. Only one or two [declined], such as the judge who wrote the decision for Arif Ibrahim, who gave aid to an infiltrator.

Was there anyone whose answers surprised you?

The biggest surprise was something general, not specific. Sometimes it was surprising how clearly certain things were said, like about changing the law [to serve the army’s needs], or about prioritizing order over justice, and having known about torture [in interrogations]. A very honest guy can say a sentence like, “You can’t apply the same law to different people, to settlers and to Palestinians,” but when a sentence comes out that directly, it’s surprising.

When I began research for the film, I was just reading verdicts and viewing archival footage. I had a much clearer idea of what I thought about these issues, and how they developed. They seemed much more like a conspiracy [to acquire land and disregard Palestinian rights] than when I sat down for the interviews and heard them reasoning about it. To my regret, I could see myself in their decisions. You hope that you would not do some of these things, but you can see how easily you can become part of the system. I can see how this applies not only to people in the film, but in other realms — people in other systems who wake up and realize, “This is not what I set out to do professionally.”

Alexandrowicz's documentary won top prizes at the Jerusalem and Sundance Film Festivals. (Courtesy of Cinema Guild)
Alexandrowicz’s documentary won top prizes at the Jerusalem and Sundance Film Festivals. (Courtesy of Cinema Guild)

Israel’s harshest critics would say you’re being too easy on them, that Israel is simply racist in its treatment of the Palestinians.

I think it’s a fact to say that our regime is racist. We care about the rights of Palestinians only so long as they affect us. It may be an internal thing — we don’t want to see ourselves [as bad guys] — or external — we may end up having some sort of accountability.

The Israeli narrative tells you that everything is security versus human rights, and security prevails. As a person who lives in Jerusalem, I think about the security issue every morning when I take my children to kindergarten. I can’t not think of it. At the same time, I see half a million Israelis who have moved to the West Bank, which has created half a million new security problems, or more. It can’t be such a simple argument [as security versus human rights]. When you look at the issues, the façade just doesn’t hold.

The argument from the Palestinian side is that it’s just one big conspiracy to take as much as possible. I can see that the facts sort of show that, but looking at these people [in the film], a conspiracy is not what I see. I see people who are working within a system that is driving them in a certain direction. It’s more complicated.

The film notes that Israel, by allowing Palestinians to seek justice at the Supreme Court, is actually doing something not required by international law. But later, you suggest that the Supreme Court is merely acting as a fig leaf for the occupation. Do you see this as a contradiction?

As an Israeli with liberal beliefs, when I’m walking down the street and see the graffiti that the right wing likes to post on walls – “The Supreme Court is only good for the Arabs” — I believe this is because the court is the one institution that really protects the rights of minorities, the one body that will protect democratic values. But when I started researching and reading judgments from over the years, I realized that it’s really only a handful or a couple of handfuls of times that the court said, “No, this is not legal.” The court never ruled categorically against house demolitions or deporting people from the territories. The army and Shabak stopped these practices for their own reasons — because they’re not effective — but the court never banned them.

‘I think sometimes body language is more revealing than what people say’

There were cases where it created some limitations, but even more important were the cases in which there were no judgments. In those cases, the rights group or a Palestinian would sue over something that was going to happen — land that was going to be taken or a house that was going to be demolished. What would happen is that the court would say that they have a [legitimate claim], and would signal to the army that perhaps it is best not to have a judgment. The army would then do something else — not deport the person, but hold him in administrative detention; not destroy the whole house, but the room where the Molotov cocktail had been thrown. The Palestinian would then withdraw the petition, and no judgment had to be written. Everyone wins. The Palestinian [gets what he needs], the army doesn’t establish a bad precedent and the court is saved from writing another decision that goes against the occupation, or from getting attacked like it is today for issues having to do with the Palestinians.

One practice you describe is withholding certain kinds of evidence, under the claim that revealing the identities of sources might endanger them, or could reveal Israel’s security practices to enemies. The film seems skeptical, but do you think that can ever be the case?

You’re right — when you look at a specific case, these arguments are very understandable. But when you see this process repeating itself thousands of times, you begin to question how much this is really about a clear and present danger. There is a big system of imprisonment without trial that justifies itself on this argument. The argument is logical, and I can follow it, but when you look at 45 years of occupation, this is just a pretense to do something else.

Among the legal experts in the film, some seemed at peace with their role in the legal system, and others seemed defensive or perhaps regretful. Was that your feeling?

I think sometimes body language is more revealing than what people say, but I’m careful about interpreting it. I’ll leave that to the audience. That’s what cinema does — we can all look and think. I’m happy that this film leaves things open — that audiences are coming up with different interpretations, especially of where [the interview subjects] stand in relation to what they’re saying.

Looking at them is a sort of mirror for many of us. At this point, films with Palestinian protagonists are very hard for Israelis to relate to, and even films about a soldier at a checkpoint. But this film has educated, white-collar Israelis in a very respectable profession. What they think is a mirror for many mainstream Israelis, because Israelis can put themselves into the protagonists’ position.

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