Quite a bit, it turns out. Especially if you are an Israeli military judge or architect of foreign policy. As it turns out, there is a clause in international law that prohibits the transportation of citizens from their homeland into “occupied” territories. According to The Law in These Parts, when the Israeli Supreme Court affirmed this clause of international law, the solution for allowing the practice of transporting Israeli settlers to the occupied territories while maintaining a public stance that the country was adhering to international law was simple: change the language. Palestine became lands that were “held” by Israel rather than “occupied.” The law no longer applied.
Never mind that most of the military judges and prosecutors interviewed for Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s documentary continue to use the term “occupied territories” to this very day. The purpose of the law is to provide a sheen of legitimacy for foreign policy, not to shape it by providing guidelines and oversight for what is right.
America should pay attention, because although this is a documentary by an Israeli born filmmaker and about the history of Israel’s legal justifications for its presence and policies in Palestine, the rationalizations should be dishearteningly familiar to anyone who has ever read a memo by or seen an interview with John Yoo or tried to discern the difference between “torture” and “stress positions.”
The use of confessions made by those who had been tortured is another theme explored in Alexandrowicz’s documentary, with at least one of the military judges admitting he was aware that torture was used on defendant’s in his court. This was possible in part because no set of laws oversaw or limited the treatment of the Palestinians brought before the military courts during an intifada. As non-Israeli’s they had no civil-rights. Once the courts denied that they were prisoners of war, standards affirmed in the Geneva convention were said not to apply. When one detainee was not produced before a judge within the legally required time period, the judge let him go…then promptly rewrote the law to suspend that rule altogether. Subsequently, a prisoner need only be brought before a judge if he requested a hearing, and even then there was no longer a time limit placed on doing so.
Given that the prisoners were not allowed to face their accusers–judges themselves were simply told that the evidence against them was classified and asked to trust the military police, the absence of a trial was simply a round about admission that such vehicles were for show, anyway.
In another example of adopting laws to suit one’s needs, the military judges and prosecutors describe adopting an ancient custom of declaring land beyond the cry of a goat’s call and uncultivated for three years as “dead” and hence free to adopt for public domain. That this law was only referenced after a court ruling thwarted other attempts to annex land was openly admitted to by the participants who treated the legal system of their own country and of international agreements as strategic obstacles to their foreign policy to be worked around or bypassed.
The most amazing thing about Alexandrowicz’s film is, in fact, that he got these men to sit for an interview at all. As with any politically divisive subject matter, there will no doubt be those who claim the film is slanted by the ideology or politics of the director making it, but truthfully Alexandrowicz rarely does more than ask a question and let the men used to being in power explain themselves. The longer one has been in power, the less one is used to being challenged, and in one of the best scenes in the film, the irritation of a participant that Alexandrowicz could dare to point out an inconsistency in logic or a weakness in argument becomes palpable.
From a technical standpoint, The Law in These Parts is not a particularly innovative film. It is essentially shots of talking heads intercut with or superimposed with stock footage of the region they ruled for the last forty plus years. The scariest part of how bold and bald are the hypocrisies of rhetoric in and after wartime is the realization that, increasingly, those who wield power on our behalf don’t expect anyone will care enough about methodology to hold their practices up for scrutiny.