An Israeli Jew and a Palestinian meet in transit right after having been sentenced in court. The Palestinian asks the Jew how much time he got. “Three years,” says the Jew. “The judge was relatively lenient, though, and took into account that the guard who tried to stop me from robbing the bank didn’t die from his wounds. How much time did you get?”
“Seven years for driving without my headlights on,” says the Palestinian.
“Wow! That is a hefty punishment,” the Jew exclaims.
“On the contrary, my judge was also lenient. He noted that if I had been caught driving without headlights during the night he would have sentenced me to fifteen years.”
Black humor like this circulated in Israel during the first intifada, functioning as a coping mechanism for liberal sabras bewildered by the egregious violations their country was perpetrating against Palestinians. This particular joke alludes to the discriminatory and often absurd logic of the military court system in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, a system that is explored in depth for the first time in Lisa Hajjar’s Courting Conflict.
Hajjar, a professor in the Law and Society Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that the military court system has been the centerpiece of Israel’s controlling apparatus in the occupied territories. It has served as an extremely important component within the broader range of governing institutions and practices in which Palestinians are tracked in grids of surveillance, subjected to restrictive codes of conduct and physically immobilized through the use of closures, curfews, checkpoints, walls and prisons. During the first intifada (December 1987-93), between 20,000 and 25,000 Palestinians were arrested every year, the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world at the time. Even though arrest rates later declined, the estimated number of prosecutions since the beginning of occupation in 1967–half a million out of a population of 3.5 million–underscores the carceral nature of Israeli military rule. Thus it is not surprising that virtually all Palestinians have had some experience with the military court system, whether personally or through the arrest and prosecution of relatives, friends and neighbors.
While the bulk of Hajjar’s book discusses the workings of the military courts, she begins her investigation with an analysis of the complex legal system that Israel put in place in the occupied territories, showing how this system serves as the backdrop for the courts themselves. Immediately following the 1967 war, Israel formulated a policy that rejected the applicability of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, the most important humanitarian law pertaining to the occupation of conquered territories and their civilian populations, to the West Bank and Gaza. Next, it set up a legal system composed of Ottoman, British Mandatory, Jordanian and Egyptian law, and Israeli military orders. The military orders are decrees issued by military commanders that immediately become law for all Palestinians living in the area.
Over the years, military commanders have issued at least 2,500 such orders–orders that regulate every aspect of the occupied population’s life, from publishing newspapers and traveling abroad to grazing sheep and using donkeys for transferring goods. The commanders were vested with powers not only to enact laws but to cancel and suspend them, which enabled them to continuously reshape the legal system in accordance with Israel’s political objectives.