Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Two days before her arrest by the Israeli army, 28-year-old Palestinian human rights lawyer Diala Ayesh had been visiting Palestinian detainees in Israel’s Ofer Prison.
Little did she know that the next day, she would become one of the people she has spent her life’s work defending – a prisoner.
On January 17, Israeli forces arrested Ayesh at a checkpoint near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank at about 2pm. One week later, Israeli authorities issued an “administrative detention” order against her, meaning she will be held without trial or charge for four months.
News of Ayesh’s arrest spread quickly across the occupied West Bank. She has worked for years – often pro bono – defending Palestinian political detainees in both Israeli or Palestinian Authority (PA) prisons.
Her family are still in shock over her arrest.
“We feel that it is getting harder every day. The feeling of loss and of missing someone only increases – it doesn’t get easier,” her 26-year-old sister, Aseel, told Al Jazeera.
“Whenever I cry at night in bed, or feel like I miss her, I try to remember how extremely strong she is,” continued Aseel, sobbing. “We feel that we are the ones who are weak, and she is the strong one. We derive our strength from her.”
Targeted by Israel and the PA
Even while behind bars, Ayesh’s top concern is the other prisoners.
After October 7, when Israel launched its ongoing assault on the besieged Gaza Strip, Ayesh formed a volunteer collective of female lawyers to follow up on the unprecedented numbers of Palestinians being arrested by the Israeli army in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“She would train these female lawyers to conduct visits to the occupation’s Ofer prison, particularly amid this information blackout about prisoners,” Muhannad Karajeh, her former colleague and head of Lawyers for Justice, where she used to work, told Al Jazeera.
Ayesh and her team’s visits to these inmates in the only Israeli jail in the occupied West Bank were a small flash of hope as visits to prisoners in prisons in Israel were stopped after October 7.
“This group would act as the link between the prisoners and their families,” he continued.
A few weeks into her arrest, she told Aseel through her lawyer, to communicate with the families of the prisoners she had been following up with and to give them the latest updates on their sons, which she had written onto a notepad.
“She’s in prison, and we don’t know anything about her – whether she’s eating or not, sleeping or not, or what conditions she is being held in,” said Aseel. “Yet, all of her worries are to pass on a message from a male prisoner to his fiancee outside.
“That’s Diala for you.”
During her arrest, Ayesh was subjected to assault, threats, and insults by Israeli soldiers, according to the Addameer human rights organisation. She was transferred to Israel’s Hasharon Prison before being later taken to Damon Prison, where she is now being held.
Ayesh’s work as a human rights defender rose to the fore during her time at the Ramallah-based Lawyers for Justice, representing Palestinian political detainees in PA prisons. In July, she attended a session on behalf of the group at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
“She was like a power engine to her whole team and all the lawyers,” said Karajeh. “She has a big soul for volunteering, and people love her on the personal and professional level.”
Her efforts to monitor and document abuses against Palestinian detainees have made her a target for both the Israeli occupation and the PA.
During popular protests in the occupied West Bank against the killing of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat by PA forces in June 2021, Ayesh was “exposed to physical assault” by security officers, said Karajeh. She was among dozens of other women who were violated at the time.
Her family said, despite the difficulty of Ayesh’s arrest, they have been showered with love by people who came to support them.
“We were very shocked by how many people reached out to us after Diala was arrested,” said Aseel. “She is a social person, but it was so surprising to realise how many people were following her work.”
“This gave my parents a moral boost – it helped them to push forward and be patient,” she added.
Tala Nasser, from the Addameer prisoners’ rights group, explained that Ayesh’s arrest comes amid a “violent mass arrest campaign” carried out by Israel since October 7.
The fact that the vast majority of the more than 6,900 Palestinians arrested in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem since October 7 have been transferred to administrative detention highlights the arbitrariness of Israel’s arrests, she said.
“This campaign includes activists, human rights defenders and political leaders,” Nassar told Al Jazeera, noting that it is “an attempt to silence them and prevent the exposure of the occupation’s crimes across the whole country”.
In December, Israeli forces also arrested political and civil society leader Khalida Jarrar, who was similarly transferred to administrative detention.
Despite releasing all but three Palestinian female detainees during the latest prisoner exchange with Hamas at the end of 2023, the Israeli army rearrested dozens. Some 80 female prisoners are being held today, all of whom are in the Damon Prison.
Among the 80 are dozens of women from the besieged Gaza Strip, but lawyers are forbidden from visiting them or knowing anything about them.
Several reports have emerged of female detainees from Gaza being physically beaten and abused, including an unknown number of them being held at Israeli military bases and not in prison.
Lawyers say conditions for all Palestinian detainees, including women, are unprecedentedly difficult. Eight Palestinian male prisoners have also died or were killed in Israeli custody since October 7, most of them in the days and weeks after their arrest.
Over the past few months, many videos have emerged of Israeli soldiers stripping, torturing and abusing male prisoners from both the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“It is important to note that every female that is arrested is violated in one way or another,” said Nasser. “They are all facing threats, intensive strip searches, verbal assault and physical violence.”