For me, these laws do not exist; they are meaningless — Bassem Tamimi (Palestinian activist)
I recently watched Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s fim, The Law in These Parts, which unfolds the legal mechanisms of the occupation of the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since their take over by the Israeli Defense Forces in 1967. Alexandrowicz alternates archival footage and interviews with six members of the Israeli military legal corps who were involved with significant actions in the legal colonial framework. The interviews take the form of a kind of confession and this uneasily brought to mind the film The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh, 2012), which showed that having a confessional readily operative for agents of oppression did not necessarily address the right questions/problems. In contrast, another recent film, The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012), triggered tremendous historical and civilizational questioning through different means. Nevertheless, The Law in these Parts does address the right/useful questions in the context of the occupation and we should look closely at what they are.
I have written a lot about how architecture was used as a colonial weapon in the Palestinian territories. It is important to note how this architecture is the embodiment of a series of legal strategies that were implemented in order to organize Palestinian daily life according to military occupation logic, to allow the civilian colonization of these territories, as well as to ensure each legal action never reaches a ‘breaking point’ with regard to international legislation.
This colonial law is a well-thought strategy, not a set of quickly decided tactics. In this regard, the first thing the film tells us is that the brochures informing the Palestinians that they were now under Israeli military legislation — a necessary measure according to international law — were designed and printed by dozens of thousands long before 1967 and the actual occupation of the Palestinian territories by the I.D.F. The content of this colonial legislation was then regularly updated as issues were raised, involving groups of military law-makers to continue constructing the legal means by which Palestinian life would be organized by the Israeli army.
Alexandrowicz asks whether it would have not been simpler to enforce Israeli legislation on the Palestinians. He receives the answer that such logic had to be avoided absolutely as it would have been considering the occupied population as citizens of Israel de facto. The film also points out the ambiguous legal obligation of the Israeli civil population — there are currently 500,000 Israeli civil settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — who live in the occupied territories. Unsurprisingly, this population’s criminal activity is not judged by military courts like the occupied population, but by civil Israeli courts that have been consistently lenient with their action.
The legal problem that constitutes the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories — until 2006, there were still some in the Gaza strip — is particularly illustrative of the way laws are being conceived or/and instrumentalized as colonial weapons. Article 23 of the Hague Convention states that “It is especially forbidden […] (g) to destroy or seize the enemy’s property unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war” (1907). The Israeli civil settlements do not qualify for such “necessities,” and Alexandrowicz recounts how, in 1975, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled against the foundation of the settlement of Elon Moreh in the region of Nablus, since the purpose of the land seizure had evidently nothing to do with security. The justice’s decision, given months after the land had actually been seized, ordered the settlement to be evacuated and for the land to be given back to its Palestinian owners.
One of the officers interviewed by Alexandrowicz in the film then had an idea that provided a legal narrative that was acceptable for Israeli civil society: he invoked a law that was implemented in Palestine during the rule of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century to 1920. This law, called mawat (waste) land, was applied to parcels of land that were far enough from a village so that one would not hear the rooster. These parcels could belong to anyone who would cultivate it. However, if it were not cultivated for three years in a row, the land’s ownership would go back to the Empire.
This piece of archaic legislation was then integrated into colonial legislation and, even today, allows the I.D.F. to seize massive amounts of land (see interview with Raja Shehadeh for Weaponized Architecture). I insist on the fact that this law has more to do with a form of narrative, one that seems to legitimize the Israeli army’s systematic seizure of land, rather than an actual legal construction that would integrate part of the occupied population’s legislation within the colonial law.
The film ends with the record of the defense of a Palestinian activist, Bassem Tamimi, in a military court in 2011. In the middle of an eloquent diatribe against the laws that placed him in front of this colonial court, he says this sentence: “For me, these laws do not exist; they are meaningless.” Through these few words, Tamimi succeeds in expressing the irrelevance of such laws— mechanisms of organization of collective life — to individuals who simply refuse to be subjected to them. This sentence is at the core of the legitimate reason to disobey a law (see past article): illegality as a profound selfless resistance to the law itself. Of course, the army and architecture will always constitute a means of enforcement of the law. However, as powerful as they are, they cannot force one or several individuals to accept the law as the legitimate apparatus of organization of their lives.
From case number 2058 in 2011. The military prosecutor vs. Bassem Tamimi. The defendant, to the court:
Your honor, 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 an overall of almost three years, though I was never convicted. During one of my detentions, I was paralyzed 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. International law recognizes that occupied people have the right to resist. Because of my belief in this right, I organize popular demonstrations against the theft of more than half the land in my village. Against settler attacks, against the occupation. 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 who do not represent me. For me, these laws do not exist; they are meaningless. The military prosecutor accuses me of inciting protesters to throw stones at the soldiers. What incited them is the occupation’s bulldozers on our land, the guns, the smell of tear-gas. (excerpt from Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, The Law in these Parts, 2012)
Léopold Lambert is an architect, writer and editor of The Funambulist http://www.leopoldlambert.com/, http://thefunambulist.net/