One of the first Israeli lawyers to defend Palestinian rights. During the past 30 years, Tsemel’s cases have dealt with land confiscation, torture and interrogation, house demolitions, residency, and political prisoners, among many others. In 1999 she won a landmark case that outlawed the use of torture by Israeli officials when interrogating detained Palestinians.
Leah Tsemel was born in Haifa in 1945 to a family that fled Europe just before the Holocaust. Most of her family was lost in the Holocaust. She attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and graduated in 1968 with a degree in criminal law. Tsemel became politically active in college. She was a member of the left-radical Israeli group Matzpen, opposing Zionism and occupation.
The political beliefs she holds today were shaped by the 1967 war and the subsequent occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
In 1967, Tsemel volunteered in the Six Day War, believing that the immediate aftermath of the war would give Israel an opportunity to make peace with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians. However, she was disappointed with the outcome of the war, understanding for the first time that Israel "never intended to have peace" (Dateline May 5, 2004).
"It seems that my parents and others who wanted to build the state of Israel did not understand that it is impossible to build a new future on the relics of oppression," she notes.
She witnessed the Israeli army deporting Palestinians out of entire towns and villages, and eventually destroying some of those towns. The occupation of the Palestinians in 1967 changed her entire worldview, and as a result, in the 1970s she became one of the first Israeli lawyers to defend Palestinian rights. She says that feelings of shame about Israeli abuses against Palestinians motivated her. The focus of her legal practice was, and continues to be, radical and unpopular in Israeli society.
Her children suffered much discrimination and torment in Israel because of Tsemel’s activism for Palestinian rights. Despite all this, Tsemel sees it as her moral obligation to defend Palestinians against oppression and repression. For more than 30 years she has defended Palestinian rights in Israel, from the military courts to the Supreme Court of Justice. Her cases include land confiscation, torture and interrogation, house demolitions, residency, political prisoners, identity card confiscations, suicide bombers who did not detonate their bombs, and many more.
She won a landmark case in 1999 in the Israeli Supreme Court, outlawing the use of torture by Israeli officials when interrogating detained Palestinians. More recently, Tsemel and a group of young lawyers forced Israel to admit the presence of the secret prison facility 1391 in Northern Israel, where Palestinians were being tortured. Israeli officials were forced by the president of the Supreme Court to speak about where the prison facility was, why it existed, and how it had been run.
Tsemel is regarded highly in peace and justice activism circles for her commitment to human rights. In 1996, Tsemel received the Human Rights Award of the French Republic on behalf of the Public Action Committee against Torture in Israel. Tsemel is relentless in her efforts, described as a rock by coworkers and partners. She says that she feels despair only when she thinks that she has not done enough. At that point, the despair turns into motivation to continue her work.