The law in those parts

Director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz puts together a documentary on military rule in the West Bank not to raise issues of right and wrong, but to spur public debate.

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz Law in these parts 521 (photo credit: Courtesy photos: Shark De Mayo)
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz Law in these parts 521
(photo credit: Courtesy photos: Shark De Mayo)
How do military law and justice in the West Bank jibe with Israel’s democratic values? This is one of the central questions that writer/director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz asks in his new documentary, The Law in These Parts, which is being screened at next week’s Doc Aviv Galilee Festival.
The film – which was produced by Liran Atzmor and which won the Best Documentary Award at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival – examines the IDF legal system that has been operating in the Palestinian territories since 1967. It comprises archival footage from the last four-plus decades, but is primarily based on searching interviews with some of the military judges who presided over trials involving Palestinians accused of violence or subversion against the IDF and the state.
Former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar is on the interviewee roster to explain the role the highest court in the land played – and still plays – in mediating between the law and military activities in the territories.
Alexandrowicz’s interest in the topic started some time ago.
“I made a documentary called The Inner Tour, which I finished about 10 years ago,” he says. “It was about organized tours by Palestinians around Israel, to see where they originated from or just for pleasure.”
In the course of the film, the director came to know some of the people – particularly the children – quite well. “Five years or so after I finished the film, some of those children, who were now older, started getting arrested by the military forces. When you make a work of non-fiction, for better or worse, you become attached to your subjects and stay in contact after you finish the film.”
He began to receive phone calls about the arrests, and in one instance, he decided to attend the trial of a teenager from El-Khader, near Bethlehem.
“That was the first time I had ever been inside a military courtroom, even though I served in the army during the first intifada,” the director recalls. “I had a lot of opportunities to access the courtrooms, but even though, as an Israeli, I knew they existed, I had never been to one.”
Former military prosecutor and judge Yonatan Livny, who served in the legal system in the territories from 1967 to 1990 and whom Alexandrowicz interviewed for the film, can corroborate that observation.
“When you drive along Route 443, you can see Camp Ofer, which has a military court,” he tells the Magazine. “How many people know what’s in there? It’s like a different world.”
That initial foray into the world of military legal justice in the West Bank led to further such encounters, and an idea for a new project began to form in Alexandrowicz’s mind.
“I thought that it was an area that should be highlighted and brought to the attention of the Israeli public,” he says. “That is, of course, one of the reasons for making documentary films.”
He explains, “I felt that this highly anomalistic situation that exists within this world, in which we are the prosecutors, judges and sometimes the defense attorney, while on the other side there is the accused and his family from another people, incorporates two concepts. On the one hand, there is the law and justice and equality, and democracy and an open trial – all these things that, in our society, we talk about every day, and we are convinced that this is something in which we believe. On the other hand, there is the continuing military occupation, which has lasted for over four decades, which is not compatible with concepts of justice, equality and so forth.”
Livny also has problems with the protracted enforcement of military justice on the Palestinian population in the territories.
“I can understand why you need such a legal system for six months, maybe a year, after you occupy territories – to protect your own country and to impose some kind of order,” he says. “But to keep that system in place for over 40 years, that’s abnormal. We are talking about a situation in which citizens are subject to military rule for over 40 years. There is nothing like that anywhere in the world.”
This state of affairs, according to Alexandrowicz, has ramifications for life on this side of the Green Line, too.
“I feel the tension that this creates in all walks of life,” he notes. “I thought that if I documented this, it could be a metaphor for something much bigger.”
CONSIDERING THE complexity and sensibilities the project would entail, the director realized he had to get his facts and figures straight before he could get to the interview stage. “I knew I would be speaking to legal experts with lots of experience, so I had to have some idea of what I was talking about.”
The project’s main sponsors, Channel 8 and HOT, were also keen to make sure the film panned out in as professional a manner as possible. According to the director, they “raised the problematic and academic nature of the film, but they let me get on with it.”
He duly began to wade through hundreds of cases that had been tried in military courtrooms in the West Bank.
“I didn’t want to make yet another film about the people who are suffering from the situation. I understood it was going to be about the law,” he recalls. “To begin with, I thought I’d make a film based on archival material, and I spent long hours going through Channel 1 archival footage. I tried to develop a cinematic mechanism for telling the story, but I realized that it wouldn’t work out that way, and that I’d have to speak to people.”
Those people included an impressive list of former military legal heavyweights, including – besides Livny – Ilan Katz, who served as a military judge from 1988 to 1992; Yair Rabinovich (1982-88); Alexander Ramati (1980-81); Avraham Pachter (1967-70); Dov Shefi (1967-68); Amnon Strashnov (1985- 87); and Oded Pesensson (1988-2008).
For the interviews, Alexandrowicz set up a low dais with an office-type desk and executive manager’s seat, where his interviewees sat. This created a semblance of the legal experts being on the witness stand, while the director conducted the cross-examination.
The dynamics between him and his subjects are fascinating to watch. He speaks in a soft voice throughout the film, gently exploring areas of legal and human interest.
He is clearly keen to draw the former judges out on what he considers to be pertinent issues, but he does so with the greatest respect. The interviewees, meanwhile – all accomplished professionals who generally exude a sense of authority and confidence – don’t necessarily batten down the hatches.
Shefi, one of the more strident speakers, generally sticks to “the party line.” He has refused to elaborate on his performance in the film, making do with a simple and succinct, “I have nothing more to add.”
Livny, on the other hand, has proven more willing to talk about his take on the legal system in the territories, and his long tenure in it.
“One thing I try never to forget is that the Israeli flag and the scales of justice were both on the courtroom wall above me while I was trying a case. For me, the scales of justice are always higher than the flag,” he states.
“That’s the way it should be, especially when the situation [of the military system in the territories] goes on for so long.”
Shefi, by contrast, declares in the film that the law in the territories sometimes takes precedence over justice.
Throughout the project, Alexandrowicz did his best to maintain an objective stance and was generally impressed by the judges and advocates.
“I think that the people I interviewed, by and large, did the best they could under the circumstances,” he says. “There are plenty of people in the system who are unprofessional and negligent, but not my interviewees.”
He adds that “the historical perspective sheds a different light on the military judges’ work. That is one of the two conflicts thrown up by the film. The other is the perspective of justice.”
INDEED, ONE of the main elements that comes through loud and clear in The Law in These Parts is the question mark over the ability of the legal system in the territories to provide justice.
“We live with the law,” the director says.
“At least once every four years, we have an opportunity to say something about the law.
The legislators are from our own people. But in the territories, the legislator does not operate on the basis of the people’s best interests. He might follow the line of a legal professional aiming to strike some sort of balance and achieve law and order, from his point of view, but the element of the legal system bringing justice to the people does not exist there.”
Livny echoes this sentiment in describing his own experiences in the courtrooms: “When I tried an accused, there was no issue of finding him innocent or guilty, or whether the accused confessed to the charges. It was only a matter of deciding how much time he should serve in prison. The GSS always asked for the maximum, six months, and it became a matter of bargaining.”
He also points to an inability to identify with the accused as he would with a fellow Israeli.
“You are in court to try your enemy,” he says. “We are not talking about an Israeli court trying someone for criminal charges.
The Israeli criminal is not my enemy, but when I am a military judge in the territories, I am trying my enemy. It’s always a situation of ‘you’ and ‘them.’ It’s an intolerable state of affairs, for all the sides involved. In [the defendant’s] eyes, that’s not his flag on the wall, it’s mine. In his view, it is all an injustice.”
The former military prosecutor notes that he worked in a definitively impossible situation in which he could not possibly have considered freeing the accused.
“I was there as an Israeli judge, wearing the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces. I would say to myself that if there was not sufficient evidence [to find the accused guilty], or if I decided to believe the accused, and if something subsequently happened, how would I feel? We are not talking here about a man who stole a kilogram of tomatoes; these are security issues here,” he explains.
He asserts that “if I had to err to one side or the other, I would naturally prefer to safeguard Israel’s interests and risk sending an innocent man to prison. The flipside is that I might free a guilty man who might cause the death of Israelis. What is preferable? I think the answer to that is clear.”
DESPITE ALEXANDROWICZ’S declared intent to focus on the legal issues and matters of principle, rather than on the human side of the situation, some of the latter does surface during the documentary. Some of the subjects are asked whether they were aware of the methods of interrogation employed, or whether prisoners were tortured before confessing to the charges. Most deny any knowledge of such goings-on; Livny does not.
“If you’re asking me whether [I knew that] torture was used, of course I did,” he states unequivocally in the film.
Pesensson adopts a more circumspect approach.
“We were never allowed to witness interrogations,” he says, “but I did see the state the prisoners were in after the interrogation. They weren’t always in a good condition.”
Other interviewees refuse to address the topic at all in the documentary.
Ramati, for his part, sidesteps several of the more probing issues, but does recall a moment that provided the legal springboard for the entire settlement movement.
When then-agriculture minister Ariel Sharon tried to get the settlement of Elon Moreh started, the Supreme Court ruled that it was an illegal move. According to Ramati, Sharon immediately convened an urgent meeting of his military and legal advisers, at which Ramati proffered the Mawat Land Law as a legal basis for building Jewish settlements in the territories. “Mawat” means “dead”; the law, passed in the mid-19th century by the Ottoman authorities, defined “mawat land” as a location far enough away from any populated spots that a person standing at the edge of the nearest village could not hear the call of a rooster from the vacant site.
That set the settlement movement on its way, and the rest is history.
ALEXANDROWICZ STRESSES that his main aim in putting the film together was not to raise issues of right and wrong, but to spur public debate.
“I feel the goal of the film is to bring the fundamental concepts of our society back to the agenda,” he says. “We need to look at what we mean when we use words like ‘law,’ ‘justice’ and ‘equality.’ Does that apply to the residents of the territories? Last week, [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu said, mostly to the settlers, that we should only build in the West Bank in accordance with the law. He said there are enough places where it is important and necessary to build in accordance with the law. My film takes a look at what that law is, what it means to build legally in the West Bank, and what international law says about that.”
By extension, though, issues of human rights arise as well.
“The film looks at what it means when we say that we want to protect the rights of the people whose land we have occupied and, for that purpose, we operate a legal system,” says the director. “What does it say about law and justice when this is the result?” Alexandrowicz isn’t sure what the far-reaching effects of the documentary will be – although he was buoyed by the award at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
“I am encouraged by the fact that people want to see the film and appear to be receptive to the content, and to allow themselves to ponder it,” he says.
Livny, meanwhile, has received tangible proof that the film has resonated with at least one person: “One Friday I was at the shuk [Mahane Yehuda open-air market in Jerusalem] when a woman came up to me and said how much she’d appreciated what I said in the film. That was nice.”
The Law in These Parts will be screened at the Doc Aviv Galilee Festival on November 30 at 6 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center in Ma’alot-Tarshiha. For more information about the festival: