Sitting in her office in downtown Ramallah, Diala Ayesh chain smokes.
Her former job at Lawyers for Justice — an NGO that fights human rights abuse by the Palestinian Authority — has made her a target for the PA security forces, even though she now runs her own legal practice. She can never relax.
Over the years, the 24-year-old human rights lawyer has been detained, beaten and sexually assaulted, she tells the JC, leaving “a profound psychological impact”.
Even when she has been released, the harassment hasn’t stopped. She has been hounded on social media by trolls who claim she is a prostitute and reveal her whereabouts. She lifts her cigarette and takes a deep drag.
“It has been a terrible set of experiences,” she says through the smoke. “They were attacking my profession, lying and defaming me. At the same time, my clients have been through much worse.”
In July last year, Ms Ayesh was arrested during a crackdown following the brutal murder of her friend, human rights campaigner Nizar Banat, by the Palestinian security services. It was the beginning of hell.
“There were so many security men, Ramallah was like a military camp,” she recalls. “I was on my way to my office when I heard that a friend had been arrested. I said to my colleagues, let’s go to show our support, and I will support them as a lawyer.”
Together with a group of activists, lawyers, journalists and other professionals, she headed to the police headquarters in east Ramallah and stood defiantly outside. Then, she says, the onslaught came.
“They attacked the women, pulling our hair, starting with a doctor and a senior engineer,” she says.
“I wanted to go home but one of the security men called me by name, saying ‘Diala, if you try to go I will pepper spray you in the face’. I saw my friends running and started running too, but he chased me.
“His footsteps were behind me. I can still hear the sound of them today. And then he was on me, hitting me on my buttocks and my breasts, hitting me and fondling me, touching me intimately. I told him to stop, but it carried on.”
She was dragged off to a cell in which 24 people were packed so tightly they could only stand. “They were hitting us as we stood,” she says. One journalist was injured so badly that he was later hospitalised.
Ms Ayesh stubs out her cigarette and lights another. After some time, she recalls, the men were removed from the cell. Then came her turn. She was taken into an interrogation room with 10 male officers and one woman, with guards introducing her as a “prostitute”.
“They accused me of participating in demonstrations, of being the head of an illegal movement,” she says. “I told them I had been sexually assaulted. It was that that got me released.”
The basis of the rule of law is that lawyers like Ms Ayesh must be able to represent their clients without interference from the state.
This is enshrined as a “sacred right” in the Basic Law, the PA’s constitution, along with freedom of speech. However, Ms Ayesh says she has learnt from bitter experience that the constitution means little.
“I joined Lawyers for Justice because I was amazed that an entity can arrest someone just for their political views,” she says.
“When I started representing people who had been, I clashed totally with the PA. They could not understand why a woman would work defending political arrestees.”
Early on, in November 2019, she visited a client who was being held in Jericho. That was her first taste of intimidation.
“I asked him: ‘Have you been tortured?’ Immediately the guards came and dragged him out and I was told to leave. They surrounded me, trying to intimidate me physically.”
Afterwards, she says, she was ordered not to talk to detainees. “Only after their release could they tell me how badly they had been tortured,” she said. “Dozens of them.”
The PA would monitor her phone conversations with her clients. “The security men would ask them: why did you talk to Diala?”
Then came the killing of Mr Banat. “Nizar was my friend,” Ms Ayesh says. “I agreed with him about the need to fight corruption.
“The demonstrations against his murder started the day after his murder. Thousands of us protested in Ramallah.
“Uniformed Preventive Security men started harassing us. I was sprayed with teargas. I saw a guy being hit. His head was split open. Then they started hitting all of us and we ran.”
Protests against the killing of Banat continued for months, often with thousands taking part — events that were barely reported in the West.
Soon, says Ms Ayesh, the security men started attending the rallies in civilian clothes, which seemed to make them more violent.
“At one demonstration in Ramallah, the weekend after the murder, they started hitting us with belts and throwing rocks,” she says.
“A friend of mine was hit in the eye. I was hit on the chest and then one of officers grabbed me and rubbed his chest against mine in a sexual way.
“I said ‘stop! You’re sexually harassing me!’ He replied: ‘I have a gun and if you don’t shut up I will empty it into your head.’” She was also pepper-sprayed. “I was choking,” she recalls.
The lawyer reserves especial levels of anger for Britain and other Western countries who fund the PA.
In the four years to March 2022, Britain’s “Conflict, Stability and Security Fund” has splurged £22.5 million of taxpayers’ cash in the Palestinian territories.
According to Foreign Office documents, this is intended to create “a more capable, accountable, sustainable and inclusive PA security sector”.
The money helps “the rule of law [to be] upheld”, the documents say, while “perceptions of corruption in PA institutions [are being] tackled, and their transparency improved”.
Ms Ayesh views these claims with open disdain. “You say you support human rights, but when I see the atrocities the PA is creating, I say you must stop paying your money,” she says. “This isn’t just on my country. It’s on yours.”