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Maintaining a balance.

Lea Tsemel is an Israeli Jew with Palestinian sympathies. The combination can be explosive, especially when held by a practising lawyer.

On the morning that the 415 Palestinians were deported from Israel last December, their defence lawyer Lea Tsemel was interviewed on national television. In what Tsemel now describes as a cliche, she was asked to justify her position as an Israel-Jew, defending the enemy. What would she do, she was asked, if her own son were attacked by Palestinian terrorists? Tsemel responded with her standard answer, "I hope I'd be brave enough to represent the people who attacked my son because I believe in their right to fight for their liberty."

But Tsemel also believes that the Palestinians' right to political autonomy in the Occupied Territories - the West Bank and Gaza strip - has wider implications for Israeli society. In defending the Palestinians, she says, "I am preserving my own rights in that country." Speaking at an Amnesty International conference in London, Tsemel, a founder of the Israeli Feminist Organisation in 1971, explained that this includes the rights of women, which are distorted by her country's obsession with preserving its national security.

In this highly militarised society, security issues intrude at every level of debate about human rights. Tsemel cites as an example, politician Wael Dyan's recent motion in the Israeli Knesset to scrap the remaining laws restricting homosexual relationships. When a delegation of male and female homosexuals addressed representatives, they used as the main thrust of their argument the fact that since they served in the military, they also had a right to express their sexuality.

But while Israel has become a "modern, semi-liberal society," where women have access to the professions, education and a political voice, according to Tsemel, the security question imposes significant restrictions. Women face pressure to maintain the demographic balance, especially in the Occupied Territories, where settlers are encouraged to bear as many as 12 children because it is their patriotic duty. Pro-natalist policies have also resulted in anti-abortion legislation and throughout the 1980s, the Efrat Committee for the Encouragement of Higher Birth Rates called upon Jewish women to fulfill their national duty by bearing more children to replace those Jewish children killed by the Nazis.

However, Tsemel says that the position of Palestinian women is just as, if not more, problematic. In a society which has been abused for 25 years, women's rights have taken a particularly high toll and Tsemel observes that perhaps only the tight control Palestinian families exert upon their daughters has kept their culture intact. But, as a feminist and a lawyer, she often confronts difficult moral conflicts over precisely whose rights she should defend.

"What do you do if you consider yourself a feminist and you have to defend 16 year old boys from a refugee camp for torturing a woman because they suspected she is having a sexual relationship or not behaving morally in the refugee camp?" she asks. "What do you do? I tell you, I defend them." Tsemel has also been asked to defend boys who claimed they attacked a local hairdresser on the suspicion that she was recruiting young girls into the Israeli security services.

Although Tsemel, who runs her own practice in Jerusalem where she has worked as a lawyer since 1972, has drawn the line at defending Palestinian rapists, she offers no answers to these difficult choices. She believes that without this strictly enforced moral code, which can result in a woman's murder if she has shamed her family, "maybe all the Palestinian women would be whores in Tel Aviv."

There are, however, increasing numbers of Palestinian women who have become directly involved in the national struggle. Israeli soldiers in the territories now regularly don flak jackets while on patrol because of the dramatic rise in spontaneous attacks by Palestinian women, armed only with kitchen knives or other household objects. Tsemel represents many of these "knife women," who resolve the contradiction between staying at home to support their families and their desire for emancipation by provoking a short jail sentence. "Ending up in prison," she says, "gives them freedom from the family and gives them justification to be honoured by the society."

Palestinian women have also found ingenious ways of working around family restrictions. The Israeli army was puzzled when a series of violent attacks was carried out on their soldiers in mid-morning, rather than during the night. It was only after Abir Wahaydi, a student at Bir Zeit University was caught and confessed to these crimes, that the bold daytime attacks ended. Wahaydi was able to orchestrate a military campaign but still be a "good Palestinian girl," by observing her parent's 6 pm curfew.

Even among the most conservative Palestinians, however, the attitude towards women's involvement in the national struggle has recently been challenged by Hanan Ashrawi's prominence as a Palestinian representative in the Middle East peace talks. Ashrawi, the former head of Bir Zeit University's English department and a Christian, is undoubtedly the Palestinian's most eloquent speaker. But according to Tsemel, she has also sparked criticism from those who ask, "why are we represented by a woman who is privileged, why isn't there a woman from a refugee camp?" It is a criticism, says Tsemel, which would never be put to a male leader. "It's taken for granted that men from the aristocracy will head the delegation but with Hanan, it's different."

With the Palestinian deportees still stranded in the desert, the disappointments with Rabin's government and the Middle East peace talks mired in delays, Tsemel is guarded about dramatic change in the future. "I see stagnation mainly. But in us, the women, maybe there is some sanity which can bring this forward."
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Title Annotation:Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel defends Palestinian cause
Author:Wheelwright, Julie
Publication:The Middle East
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:952
Previous Article:Reliving a legacy.
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