The Law In These Parts, an Israeli documentary awarded this year's Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury prize, examines how the country created a military-legal system to control the Palestinians in the lands Israel occupied in 1967. And at some point during the film, it becomes clear that it's the judges who are on trial. The documentary, which just screened as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival, features forceful archive footage, alongside a line-up of Israeli legal experts, explaining how they made Israel's occupation laws.
Each judge sits in a black leather chair at a heavy wooden desk intended, you might first assume, to evoke a serious courtroom. But then, each is quietly interrogated by the film's narrator; asked to explain the military rule that they created. Why did Israel even need hundreds of new laws for occupied Palestinians? What was wrong with the existing legal system? Because Israeli law, one judge says, can only be applied if you give citizenship to the Palestinian population. Why aren't Palestinian fighters described as "prisoners of war"? Why are Palestinians attempting to enter Israel labelled as "infiltrators"? One judge is asked to recount a case from the mid-1970s, where a Palestinian woman giving bread and sardines to a Palestinian "infiltrator" from neighbouring Jordan was sentenced to a year and a half in prison – as deterrent. "How did you find out about the pitta bread?" asks the narrator. Don't worry about that, the military judge replies, the walls have ears.
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The evidence against these Israeli judges slowly mounts as they try to justify an unjustifiable tangle of what they thought would be temporary laws, devised to control and subdue Palestinians in the occupied territories. One judge recounts how he told former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon of an obscure law from the Ottoman era, which Sharon swiftly deployed to seize Palestinian land. The film's narrator asks the judge if he thinks, with hindsight, that this was a good idea. "History will decide," the judge replies, but the narrator leaves no room for evasion: "But when will that be?" he asks, of a system that has been in place for 45 years.
This film successfully depicts the dense, crushing absurdities of Israel's military rule in a way that words don't always manage. While reporting from the region, I spent hours talking with lawyers, who would deconstruct the maze of rules that mean Palestinians always end up penalised. I have notebooks full of explanations of these small, complicated, crucial details. But how do you distil this system into one line of a short news piece? How do you condense the overlapping Ottoman rulings, laws from the British mandate era and brand new Israeli edicts that all fuse into a controlling mesh of military rule over Palestinians, while keeping Jewish settlers free – because as Israeli citizens, they are governed (or, mostly, not governed) by regular Israeli law? And how do you explain why 99.74% of military trials end up convicting Palestinians?
The Law In These Parts ends with a focus on Bassem Tamimi, one of the organisers of weekly demonstrations in Nabi Saleh, a West Bank village whose land and main water source, a spring, has been appropriated by a nearby settlement. He was sentenced to four months' imprisonment after protesting last month at an Israeli supermarket in the West Bank, which stocks settlement, but not Palestinian, produce. Amnesty has described him as a prisoner of conscience and demanded his release, castigating the Israeli military's "campaign of harassment, intimidation and arbitrary detention" against this 45-year-old father of four.
During a trial last year, Tamimi, a schoolteacher, told the military court: "Your honour, I was born in the same year as the occupation, and ever since I've been living under its inherent inhumanity, inequality, racism and lack of freedom. I have been imprisoned nine times for a sum of almost three years, though I was never convicted of any crime. During one of my detentions I was paralysed as a result of torture. My wife was detained, my children wounded, my land stolen by settlers and now my house is slated for demolition … You, who claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East, are trying me under laws written by authorities I have not elected, and which do not represent me". Shortly after this hearing, Tamimi was convicted of inciting protesters to throw stones at soldiers (he was cleared of more serious charges, including "perverting the course of justice", in May, after 11 months in military prison, because a judge decided that key evidence, obtained from a coerced 14-year-old Palestinian boy, was unreliable).
"What actually incited them," Tamimi told the courtroom, "was the occupation's bulldozers on our land, the guns, the smell of tear gas." And then he asked: "If the military judge releases me, will I be convinced that there is justice in your courts?"