"The Law in These Parts" sounds like the title of a routine western, maybe something starring Tom Mix or Johnny Mack Brown, but it turns out to be considerably more compelling and provocative.
Directed by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz and winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, this is the second superb Israeli documentary (after "The Gatekeepers") to come to town in less than a month and deal fearlessly with an aspect of that country's legal and political system.
While "The Gatekeepers" centered on the activities of Shin Bet, Israel's FBI, "Law" has a narrower but equally potent focus: how the legal system Israel uses to rule the occupied Palestinian territories was put into place and how it has functioned over the 40-plus years of its existence. This may sound like a dry, legalistic endeavor, but the result will surprise you.
That's in part because Alexandrowicz has taken pains to make this an idiosyncratic documentary. We actually watch stage hands build the set used for interviews. The director not only spars repeatedly with the people he's talking to, he makes thoughtful voiceover comments about the nature of this documentary and the form in general.
But the major reason this is such an involving film is the people Alexandrowicz interviews. Smart, tough, unapologetic, they are high-ranking members of Israel's military legal community, including three brigadier generals, three lieutenant colonels and one major. They know what they are talking about, and they mostly don't mince words.
They were also key architects of the occupied territories legal system as well as the attorneys who functioned under it. As such, they were ideally placed to realize, and speak to the notion that, as Dov Shefi, former military advocate general puts it, "order and justice don't go hand in hand."
"Law's" narrative begins in 1967, when Israel's victory in the Six-Day War meant that, literally overnight, a million people became subject to Israeli authority. Constructing a legal system that would cover all the contingencies of everyday life was an enormous undertaking.
Why not, the director asks, just place all these people under standard Israeli law? For one thing, as it turns out, that would imply the intention to annex territory and, for another, it would grant them full Israeli citizenship, something the country's hierarchy did not want to do.
So the occupied territories ended up being governed under a system that everyone thought would be temporary but ended up lasting for decades with no end in sight, like a makeshift building facing the stresses of conditions it was never meant to withstand.
The military legal system that was set up almost by definition did not view things the way a civilian court would. As the occupation stretched on, the existence of two separate legal structures, the civilian one for the ever-increasing number of Israeli settlers and a harsher military one for the Palestinians, became increasingly problematic.
One of the first decisions the military justice system made was not a surprising one given the structure's origins. Though captured Fatah guerrillas wanted to be considered prisoners of war, not criminals, the courts, using inflammatory comparisons on the order of "venomous snakes without human values," ruled otherwise.
A more unexpected decision allowed Palestinians the right to appeal cases to Israel's High Court of Justice, something that international law did not mandate. And,in 1979, the court in fact ruled in favor of a group of Palestinian farmers who said their land had been illegally expropriated for settlement.
Given that ruling, how did all the Israeli settlements that currently exist on the West Bank come into being? "The Law in These Parts" is at its most fascinating when it talks to legal advisor Alexander Ramati, who provided the rationale that allowed everything to happen.
Ramati told former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a settlement partisan, of a 19th century Ottoman concept called "Mawat land," which allowed the state to seize uncultivated land that was a certain distance from any village. The state promptly did so, and the High Court said that was permissible but only on a temporary basis. Meanwhile, all those years have gone by and the settlement population is close to 500,000. Asked point blank by the director whether he thinks what he did was right, Ramati says no more than "only history will tell."
One of the more intriguing questions "The Law in These Parts" raises is whether the High Court should have been ruling on these cases. While Meir Shamgar, who has been both advocate general and president of the High Court, is very proud of the system, others are not so sure. The court's rulings, which almost always legitimize military actions, provide protective cover for Israel's occupation policies, one in a way that not ruling would not have done. It's one more complication in a brilliantly complex film.