A Few Good Lawyers
From time to time, the Palestine Center distributes articles it believes will enhance understanding of the Palestinian political reality. The following article by Raja Shehadeh was published by The New York Times on 27 April 2012.
By Raja Shehadeh
I saw the film in the Palestinian village of Bilin, just west of Ramallah. This was a fitting setting for the occasion. In 2007, a local councilor secured a rare judgment from Israel’s highest court that ordered the army to reroute the separation wall and return to the villagers hectares of land that had been taken away from them. The wall was moved only last year, and the residents of Bilin continue their struggle to reclaim more land they say is theirs and was allocated to the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit, on the other side of the rerouted wall. Alexandrowicz’s film was screened in an open area of Bilin only recently returned.
According to the film, one of the first decisions Israel made in the aftermath of 1967 was to declare the territories under its control to be ones it “held” or “administered” rather than “occupied.” This allowed it to claim that it was not bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention — a determination with far-reaching implications.
To this day, Palestinian civilians are not “protected persons,” and they are vulnerable to arbitrary actions like administrative detention. Palestinian fighters captured by Israel are still not considered “prisoners of war,” and, with very few exceptions, have to serve prison sentences in Israel.
Even graver perhaps, this system has allowed Israel to establish civilian settlements for its own people in the occupied Palestinian territories. Already some half a million Israelis live in or have a second home here.
From the elevated open ground where we sat to watch the film, I could see Mattityahu East, a new neighborhood of Modiin Illit that is being built on land belonging to Bilin. I could also see the separation wall snaking through the hills. Here and elsewhere throughout the West Bank, the wall separates communities — Israeli Jews on one side, Palestinians on the other — subjecting them to different laws and different lives. One group gets more rights, more land and more water while the other’s development is being strangled.
As they described what they had done and why, some of the veteran Israeli jurists portrayed in “The Law in These Parts” twitched or smirked or stared off in the distance. Perhaps they felt uncomfortable. Others seemed to think of themselves as simple functionaries and were proud to have helped consolidate the gains Israel had won through war. Some appeared to have been genuinely moved by fear: we were trying to prevent even greater evil, they said; these dangerous men had to be stopped.
Others were proud of their contribution. Meir Shamgar, who once served as the head of Israel’s High Court, extolled the fact that Palestinians can petition Israeli courts to review the Israeli army’s actions. He said he hoped this would be emulated elsewhere.
As a lawyer myself, and one who has defended land disputes before Israeli military courts, I have sometimes thought that this review mechanism serves Palestinian plaintiffs. But watching Alexandrowicz’s film I found myself agreeing even more with the disquieting view of an unidentified Israeli jurist. Without oversight from the High Court, he said, the Israeli occupation would have been harsher. But it might also have seemed less legitimate to the Israeli people — and they might have moved to end it.
“When it goes on for 40 years,” the former military judge Jonathan Livny asks in the film of the Israeli occupation, ”How can the system function? How can it be just?”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.
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