She has been defending for 50 years, from those arrested for throwing stones to others who tried to blow themselves up on buses. Her success in court is relative, her popularity with the Israeli public questionable
Known as the “Palestinian lawyer,” 75-year-old Israeli Lea Tsemel has defended for fifty years, from minors arrested for throwing stones to others who tried to blow themselves up on buses in Israel. Her success in court is very relative, her popularity with the Israeli public questionable and her optimism is total. A few months ago, a documentary about her called ‘Advocate(2019)’ was released; In it, an incombustible lawyer is drawn trying to open a gap in the Israeli judicial system, which leaves the Palestinians aside. When she started her career, in Israel she was labeled a “traitor”, a “devil’s advocate”, a defender of terrorists. Today, internationally at least, she is a human rights lawyer. “In Israel, I am still very marginal. But with so much reason that it makes me feel great. And very optimistic.”
‘Advocate’ opens with an interview that Tsemel gave in the 90s to an Israeli television program in which the journalist told her that he had imagined her taller and more threatening. To which the lawyer replied, “well, I left my tail and horns at home this time.”
Tsemel lives in Jerusalem in an old stone house with high ceilings and whitewashed walls in a downtown neighbourhood, with her husband and their dog. “It is a Jewish house,” she emphasizes, distinguishing it from the many other houses of the same style but which were Arab-owned before 1948, when the State of Israel was created. Her, she says, was not taken from anyone. However, she welcomes us in the very modern penthouse with fine lines, wooden floors and steel railings of his son the architect, in the ‘hip’ center of Tel Aviv, where Tsemel takes care of her youngest grandchildren.
The lawyer leaves her long days between the courts and her office in East Jerusalem, where her secretaries, fellow lawyers and interns are Palestinians, walks at a very fast pace (always), gets in her car and drives the barely 50 kilometres that, however, they separate one world from the other: Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. “I have brought hummus from Jerusalem, very rich. Are you sure you don’t want to? Why don’t you want to? It is very tasty”. Like other Jewish grandmothers and mothers, according to the stereotype, Tsemel is more concerned with the well-being of her interlocutor, that food and drink are okay, more than the interview she is giving.
The man who bit a dog
Before ‘Advocate’, winner in several national and international festivals, another documentary about her had already been filmed years before, entitled ‘Lawyers without borders’. “Well, they do it because I am one of those people that they consider different, as a man who bit the dog, and from time to time journalists remember and are interested,” she says, eating her pita with hummus.
Lea recounts that she grew up in a “normal left Zionist” house in the northern city of Haifa. During the 1967 Six Day War, while she was studying law, after completing her mandatory military service, something about her changed: she stopped believing in Zionism and its virtues.
“My principles were turned upside down, with the occupation my whole paradigm changed, and then I started with politics, due to an attack on humanity. Add to that anger, a lot of anger, humanism and anger, I cannot stand this system. That is why I have this strong will to change, to fight against its decisions.”
What does that anger do to you? “It makes me a rebel.”
Her mobile phone rings. Before answering, see if you really have to attend. What if. “What have the border police detained you? But what land were you stepping on? Nod, listen, advise your client who is calling you from Hebron, in the West Bank. And when she hangs up, she throws a compliment to his 10-year-old grandson who passes by.
She relates that her work is not always very exciting, she has many administrative cases that she says are very boring, of marriages of Palestinians from the occupied territories with Palestinians from other places, such as Jordan or Israel, or with foreigners, whom Israel prevents live together in the West Bank. “Why does Israel want foreigners here to really tell what is happening? They prefer that they go to other countries and that’s it, but I have to take care of all the cases that come to the office.”
Except for one type of case: “Palestinian collaborators with Israel, I don’t catch those.”
Tsemel argues that she does not condone Palestinian violence but that she sees it as the only recourse they have against Israel, which is why she has dedicated her life to its defense, “because I understand them,” she says.
Tsemel does not condone Palestinian violence but sees it as the only recourse they have against Israel
When asked “Do you win a case?” Tsemel laughs and replies: “Very, very difficult. The politics of this country is very clear. If there is a hole that I can put my leg in, I put it, and sometimes I succeed. I believe that in the present circumstances I give the best defense there is, which is not enough in many cases. But I do it, and I’m in good spirits, and moving forward and demanding rights, not underneath and begging them to spare our lives”.
QUESTION. Does it often happen that the Palestinian defense acts like this, begging to be spared their lives?
REPLY. It usually happens, yes.
Q. What has been your last job satisfaction?
R. I had it today. Two 17-year-old Palestinian youths were detained in the Al Aqsa Mosque, found a kitchen knife in one of their backpacks, interrogated them, obviously in an unsympathetic way, and the policemen said that the youths confessed that they were with the intent to stab Israeli soldiers. Now, these two are mentally retarded boys, with their certificates that certify it, they go to a school for the disabled, they also have severe physical disabilities, and it shows, they were hardly going to stab anyone. They were interrogated in the juvenile section, for minors and for retards. And today, finally, the policemen understood and let them go home. That was my joy.
P. Do you distinguish between individuals and system?
R. The system is poisoning itself more and more, it does not hear, it does not see, it is cruel. And there are judges who really try to reduce sentences, really see the other person, understand, but it almost never works. The system is stronger than them.
Q. Why do you think the balance is negative?
R. Because there is an occupant and a busy. There are Arabs and Jews and this is the country of the Jews.
The system is poisoning itself more and more, don’t hear, don’t see, it’s cruel
Q. What happened today with the police [the case of the young people with disabilities who were finally released by the Police] is not a sign of understanding on the part of the individuals who can end up changing the system, police officers who behaved like an error in the system?
A. The mistake is that they detained the mentally handicapped for a week. I believe that the system is what it is and the performance of people, with its profit and loss ratio, is what makes it up. What cake is that?
The question is addressed to her grandson, who returns to her side. “Banana”, she replies. “Do you want banana cake? Why not? You haven’t finished your coffee”. And returns:
I have a new case of a boy who went to a demonstration, raised his head and was shot. Now he hardly moves, he is in the hospital in intensive care. Things like that are very difficult. Israel will go and compensate him, but will also say that it was a security situation, they threw stones, the soldiers defended themselves …
Q. Do you think soldiers are afraid and sometimes shoot before they have processed the real danger?
R. I do not think they are afraid, they want to show them who is boss. It is the colonial type of thinking.
I don’t think Israeli soldiers are afraid, they want to show them who’s boss. It is the colonial type of thinking.
Q. Do you think an 18-year-old soldier after shooting a child can live with it?
A. Yes, after all, he was an Arab boy. It has happened, look at the case of Elor Azaria, he killed a neutralized Palestinian, lying on the ground wounded, what more do you want?
Q. I met a soldier on a train who said that he served in the West Bank, that he had arrived imbued with patriotism, ‘to show the Arabs who’s boss’, and that, after an incident in a Jewish settlement, in which a house was It caught fire and the Palestinian firefighters who came to put it out were stoned by settlers, he completely changed his position. Thanks to the fact that he went to the territories and saw that kind of thing.
“Hallelujah,” says Tsemel.
The lawyer, short and hyperactive, regularly organizes dinners at her home in Jerusalem with her friends, “only they are dying little by little,” she laments. Sometimes her daughter Talila, a Jewish nun and left-wing activist, also comes.
Q. Can you be religious and anti-occupation?
A. Of course, it is; I represent a group of rabbis for human rights, for example. They are called Torat Emet (the doctrine of truth). These religious defend the occupation of the settlers with their bodies, arrive every day in the occupied territories, where they do not live, and defend the goats of the Palestinians, for example.
Q. Is something scary?
R. The future.
Q. What future would you like for this corner of the world?
R. I believe in a country only with equality for all citizens, but if it is necessary to go the way of two states, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, then let them be two states.
Q. Do you feel in a marginal place in Israeli society or less and less?
Yes, very marginal, but with such reason that it makes me feel great. And very optimistic.