Last edited: August 22, 2004

Palestinian Gay Runaways Survive on Israeli Streets

Reuters, September 17, 2003

By Dan Williams

TEL AVIV—At the bath houses of Tel Aviv, “Rani” finds anonymity and sometimes a free buffet. And there is always the chance of meeting an Israeli or a rich tourist who will offer his hotel room for a few nights, no questions asked.

For gay Palestinian runaways such as Rani, life on the street in Israel is a daily calculation of how to survive, but it is still easier than the persecution they say they suffered in the more traditional communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“Anwar”—who like other Palestinian homosexuals interviewed by Reuters goes by an assumed name—fled the West Bank after his brothers and father suspected he was gay and beat him senseless.

Rani said he was tortured by Palestinian police who wanted him to spy on other homosexuals—a charge authorities at his Gaza hometown denied. He escaped on a work visa to Israel before a Palestinian uprising for statehood erupted three years ago.

Rights activists estimate that 300 mostly male gay Palestinians are quietly eking out a living in Israel, at risk of being forcibly repatriated because they are illegal immigrants or because police consider them a threat.

“The first danger to them is from family and community, as well as (Palestinian) authorities,” said Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International. “Going to Israel is a one-way ticket, and once there their biggest problem is possibly being sent back.”

Palestinian runaways learn Hebrew quickly, playing down their Arab accents. Hospitals are avoided, and cash put aside for private health care. Those who turn to prostitution learn to spot plainclothes police from a distance.

Fearing that word of their whereabouts might reach vengeful relatives back home, they avoid contact with one another.

“In my dreams I see my relatives, wearing masks, coming to kidnap and kill me,” said 22-year-old Rani, wearing a goatee, fake military dog-tags and a Star of David medallion—the trappings of Israeli urban youth.

According to Shaul Gonen of Aguda, Israel’s main homosexual rights lobby, at least three Palestinian runaways have disappeared this way, punished for violating “family honor.”

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Sodomy carries a three- to 10-year jail term in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinian legal experts say enforcement is at the discretion of local authorities and usually requires that the accused be caught in the act.

Islam denounces homosexuality as a sin, and many Palestinians deny it exists in their midst. Israel, which decriminalized sodomy in 1987, is considered among the more liberal of societies when it comes to gay rights.

“Palestinian society is very conservative and there is a very, very, very small and secretive community of these people,” said Hassan Khreisheh, who heads the human rights monitoring committee in the Palestinian Legislative Council, or parliament.

He dismissed the runaways living in Israel as “collaborators guilty of various crimes, including homosexuality.”

Palestinian gays are regularly accused by compatriots of being part of Israel’s vast network of informers.

Asked to verify Anwar’s account of his expulsion from home, a Palestinian security source said that not only Anwar, but also his father and brothers were viewed as “prostitutes and spies.”

“In the Arab mindset, a person who has committed a moral offense is often assumed to be guilty of others, and it radiates out to the family and community,” said Bassam Eid, director of Palestinian Human Rights Watch.

“As homosexuality is seen as a crime against nature, it is not hard to link it to collaboration—a crime against nation,” Eid added, lamenting what he called a “total lack” of support networks for gays in the West Bank and Gaza.

Eid and Gonen said they knew of several Palestinian gays who had worked for Israeli intelligence in exchange for money or administrative favors including the right to live in Israel.

One former Israeli handler of collaborators disputed this.

“Gays are already treated with suspicion in Palestinian society,” said Menachem Landau, a veteran of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency. “So what good are they for covert work?”

Pressure goes the other way too. “Ali,” a 19-year-old from the West Bank, said he went into hiding in Tel Aviv after Palestinian militants ordered him to carry out a suicide bombing and “purge his guilt” for being gay.

Rani said he knew of three similar cases. “But they refused. We don’t want to kill, just to live—in Israel or wherever.”

Anwar, who lives with a Jewish partner under identity papers loaned by an Israeli Arab, said he was content but wanted to move abroad eventually. One Israeli-Palestinian gay couple won residency in Canada, but this is rare.

Gonen said Israeli police had expelled several dozen gay runaways at West Bank and Gaza checkpoints in recent years. Most soon sneaked back.

But he said four had vanished in the territories and one was later reported to have been killed by relatives.

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