Palestinian Gays Seek Safety in Israel
Jewish News, January 15, 2004
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By Dan Baron, Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Belying its name, Electricity Park is shrouded in
darkness, an ideal spot for curb-crawlers keen to avoid attention as they
prowl for male prostitutes at night.
The anonymity these streets offer serves as a refuge for
the young men who ply their trade in this dismal corner of Tel Aviv. Many of
them have far more to fear than the police or the occasional abusive client.
Tricked out in drag or the tight, modish attire of
Western urban youth, dozens of gay Palestinian runaways eke out a dangerous
living on Israel’s streets. For these gay men, life in the seedy parts of
central Israel is far better than the virtual death sentences they fled in the
West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Sani—not his real name—grew up outside Gaza City, in
a refugee camp whose clan networks and congestion made privacy practically
impossible. He said he realized he was homosexual at age 16, in an encounter
with another youth.
Sani’s secret was safe from his father, a local sheik,
but eventually it leaked out to the Palestinian Authority police.
“They brought me in, held me for hours,” he told JTA.
“During one round of questioning, they made me strip and sit on a Coke
bottle. It hurt. And all the time I was more worried my family would learn
Torture by Palestinian Authority security services or
vigilante attacks by relatives is a fate suffered by countless gays in the
West Bank and Gaza Strip, where sodomy carries a jail term of three to 10
Islam prescribes capital punishment for homosexual
Those who survive torture and attacks either fade into
meek self-abnegation or, like Sani, break away.
Sani’s freedom came at a price: He had to report other
Palestinian gays to the police. But as soon as he got out of the Gaza lock-up,
Sani got out of Gaza for good, posing as a day laborer to escape to the safety
of Israel proper, where he joined an estimated 300 fellow gay runaways.
Now 22, Sani is always on the move, lodging with friends
or rich clients he meets at Tel Aviv’s bath houses. If he is short on cash,
he resorts to street-walking in Electricity Park.
Sani phones home every few months to assure his mother
that he is all right—on condition that she doesn’t tell his father and
brothers anything about the conversations.
“She says they consider me dead, and it’s better that
way,” he said. “I have nightmares about them coming to kill me.”
According to Shaul Gonen of Agudah, Israel’s homosexual
rights association, at least three Palestinian runaways have been abducted by
vengeful kinsmen, never to be heard from again. “Being gay in the P.A. is,
quite simply, deadly,” Gonen said.
Israel’s preoccupation with security also means that
the runaways, in the country illegally, run the risk of being summarily
deported if caught.
“The first danger to them is from family and community,
as well as authorities” in the P.A.-controlled areas, Donatella Rovera of
Amnesty International told Reuters. “Going to Israel is a one-way ticket,
and once there, their biggest problem is possibly being sent back.”
Israel signed the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees covenant of 1951, guaranteeing asylum for anyone persecuted on the
basis of sexual orientation. The country’s Interior Ministry said any gay
Palestinian can apply to remain in Israel indefinitely if persecution is
proven, but the ministry gave no figures on how many such applications have
Another option for the Palestinians is to seek haven
abroad. One gay Israeli-Palestinian couple found a home in Canada, and Gonen
currently is campaigning to persuade European Union nations to be more
forthcoming with offers of asylum.
Many runaways are apparently unaware of their rights, or
worried that through some bureaucratic bungle they could find themselves on
the wrong side of an Israeli military checkpoint before their asylum
application is processed.
One 19-year-old runaway told Israel’s Channel One TV
that the Al-Aksa Brigade, the terrorist wing of the Palestinians’ mainstream
Fatah movement, tried to pressure him into becoming a suicide bomber to
“purge his moral guilt.” He refused and fled to an Arab village in
Israel’s Galilee region.
Gonen tells of a Palestinian runaway in Tel Aviv who
helped catch a terrorist. The gay runaway grew suspicious overhearing an
illegal Palestinian laborer speak. The man’s accent was Gazan, but he
claimed to be from the West Bank. The runaway reported the laborer to the
authorities via an Israeli friend, and police who arrested the laborer
discovered he was a terrorist fugitive.
Palestinian homosexuals often elicit more suspicion at
home than in their haven of choice, regularly drawing accusations that they
collaborate with the Shin Bet (Israeli secret police).
Human-rights observers suggest that Palestinian
homosexuals, fearing for their lives if exposed, are especially vulnerable to
Shin Bet blackmail. But a veteran handler of collaborators, Menachem Landau,
“Gays are already treated with suspicion in Palestinian
society,” Landau said in an interview. “So what good are they for covert
In Israel, covertness is a way of life for Palestinian
runaways. They pick up Hebrew and make all efforts to erase their Arabic
accents. Military dog tags and Star of David medallions are de rigeur as an
Israeli disguise. They save up money for private medical care in lieu of
hospital visits when they fall ill. The Electricity Park crowd has learned to
spot plainclothes police from afar.
The really lucky ones adopt a new identity altogether.
The 30-year-old runaway from a village near Jenin works
in a Tel Aviv restaurant using an identification card loaned to him by an
Israeli Arab friend. He lives with his Jewish partner in the quiet Tel Aviv
suburb of Holon.
“With any luck, I’ll go unnoticed until there is
peace,” he said.
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