Israeli who defends suicide bombers
By Raffi Berg
BBC News Online, Jerusalem
24 July 2003
In an office on the fourth floor of a building in East Jerusalem,
a group of Palestinian women wait impatiently.
They are here to see their lawyer, but she is busy on the telephone.
It is a hot day and the windows are open in a vain attempt
to air the stuffy room.
A picture on the wall catches my eye. It is a painting of
Palestinian prisoners sitting shackled on the ground in a
desert camp, watched over by menacing-looking Israeli guards.
I notice that the room is adorned with pictures - all of
them depicting scenes of Palestinian suffering.
Tsemel - Israeli Lawyer
fights with their abilities - the Israelis have helicopters
and rockets and the Palestinians have nothing but themselves
and some very primitive home-made explosives."
As I sit there wondering about the images, I am brought back to
reality with a jolt. "Come," commands a woman with a gravelly
voice. "Sit," she says, gesturing towards a chair.
"Now, what is it you want to discuss?" she asks.
The woman is Lea Tsemel, a straight-talking lawyer, well-known
and respected by human rights groups in Israel for her work with
To many Israelis, though, she is anathema. Her business is to defend
would-be Palestinian suicide bombers who have been captured by Israeli
security forces before they could blow themselves and others up.
"It is hard to say how many bombers I represent," she
says, but agrees it is probably in the dozens.
Born in the Israeli port of Haifa in 1945, Ms Tsemel was
22 when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the
1967 Six Day War, the outcome of which, she says, affected
"Only in the '67 war did I realise really what it was
all about. Until then I was a very moderate Zionist woman.
Lea Tsemel: "Everyone fights with their abilities"
"The occupation made it very clear to me that there
was something wrong, and I started to ask myself all kinds
of questions and came to the conclusion that Zionism is negative
and bad, and that we are oppressing the Palestinians.
"Since then my future career was more or less determined."
Better Suicide Than Surrender
"I grew up in an Israeli culture
where suicide attackers are really heroes.
Look at Samson, who in order to fight
the Philistines in Gaza made the theatre collapse on himself
and all the civilians there. He is a very big hero among
I grew up on the myth of better suicide
than surrender. So what is so special about suicide bombers?"
Ms Tsemel represented Palestinians accused of violence in the first
intifada, in the days before suicide bombs were the militants' favourite
"It used to be Molotov cocktails, but it has changed. I see
suicide bombings as just another development - a technical development,
"Everyone fights with their abilities - the Israelis have
helicopters and rockets and the Palestinians have nothing but themselves
and some very primitive home-made explosives."
Such "primitive" home-made explosives have killed hundreds
of Israelis and maimed countless more, many in the streets just
yards from where we are sitting.
Despite their devastating effects, Ms Tsemel says she understands
the motives behind suicide bombings.
"I grew up in an Israeli culture where suicide attackers are
really heroes", she says.
"Look at Samson, who in order to fight the Philistines in
Gaza made the theatre collapse on himself and all the civilians
there. He is a very big hero among Jewish children.
"I grew up on the myth of better suicide than surrender. So
what is so special about suicide bombers?"
I suggest that many Israelis would find her views hard to digest,
but Ms Tsemel is firm in her convictions.
"I don't understand why people would find my views abhorrent.
If you ask any Israeli to put himself in a similar situation of
occupation and oppression for 36 years - everyone would say they
would do the same, including [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon.
"I never heard any similar criticism from those Israelis who
are shocked by the killing of women and children in suicide attacks,
of an Israeli rocket attack that kills Palestinian civilians."
Ms Tsemel says she has never asked any of her clients why they
chose to become suicide bombers because to her it is abundantly
"I don't support such actions or see this as the solution,
but I can very well understand how suicide bombings became a very
popular way of fighting - first, because it is quite successful;
secondly, because people are ready to risk everything in order to
achieve some progress in the national struggle.
"They feel it was something they had to do. No-one that I
know was tempted into it. They all volunteered themselves.
"Those who were stopped before they could explode their bomb
are happy they were not killed and they see it as a sign of God,
that God did not want them to die."
But do they ever think that what they set out to do was wrong?
Ms Tsemel sits back and clasps her hands. "Some regret their
actions," she says. "It happens."