Last edited: January 07, 2005

Refugee Status

The New Republic Magazine, August 20, 2002
Tel Aviv Dispatch

By Yossi Klein Halevi

Tayseer, as we’ll call him, a 21-year-old Gazan whose constant smile tries to conceal watchfulness, learned early on that to be gay in Palestine is to be a criminal. Three years ago his older brother caught him in bed with a boyfriend. He was beaten by his family, then warned by his father that he’d strangle Tayseer if it ever happened again.

It happened again a few months later. Word gets around a refugee camp, and a young man he didn’t know invited Tayseer into an orange grove. The next day he received a police summons. At the station Tayseer was told that his sex partner was in fact a police agent whose job is to ferret out homosexuals. If Tayseer wanted to avoid prison, he too would have to become an undercover sex agent, luring gays into orchards and turning them over to the police.

Tayseer refused to implicate others. He was arrested and hung by his arms from the ceiling. A high-ranking officer he didn’t know arranged for his release and then demanded sex as payback. Tayseer fled Gaza to Tulkarem on the West Bank, but there too he was eventually arrested. He was forced to stand in sewage water up to his neck, his head covered by a sack filled with feces, and then he was thrown into a dark cell infested with insects and other creatures he could feel but not see. (“You slap one part of your body, and then you have to slap another,” he recounts.) During one interrogation, police stripped him and forced him to sit on a Coke bottle. Through the entire ordeal he was taunted by interrogators, jailers, and fellow prisoners for being a homosexual.

When he was released a few months later, Tayseer crossed into Israel. He now lives illegally in an Arab Israeli village and works in a restaurant. His dream is to move to Tel Aviv. “No one there cares if you’re gay,” he says. These days, though, he knows that an illegal Gazan in Tel Aviv risks being deported and that he’s safest staying where he is.

And if he were sent back to Gaza? “The police will kill me,” he says. “Unless my father gets to me first.”

With bombs once again exploding all over Israel, and the Palestinian territories under seemingly permanent curfew, the woes of Palestinian homosexuals haven’t exactly grabbed international attention. But after spending two days with gay Palestinian refugees in Israel, I began to wonder why the liberal world has never taken interest in their plight.

Perhaps it’s because that might mean acknowledging that the pathology of the nascent Palestinian polity extends well beyond Yasir Arafat and won’t be uprooted by one free election. Indeed, the torment of gays is very nearly official Palestinian policy. “The persecution of gays in the Palestinian Authority [P.A.] doesn’t just come from the families or the Islamic groups but from the P.A. itself,” says Shaul Ganon of the Tel Aviv-based Agudah-Association of Gay Men, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgender in Israel. “The P.A.’s usual excuse for persecuting gays is to label them collaborators—though I know of two cases in the last three years where people were tried explicitly for being homosexuals.” Since the intifada, Ganon tells me, Palestinian police have increasingly enforced Islamic law: “It’s now impossible to be an open gay in the P.A.”

A gardener we’ll call Samir, who has fled the territories for Israel, told me of a gay friend who was a member of the Palestinian police and ran away to Tel Aviv: “After a while he returned to Nablus, where he was arrested by the Palestinian police and accused of being a collaborator. They put him in a pit. It was the fast of Ramadan, and they decided to make him fast the whole month but without any break at night. They denied him food and water until he died in that hole.”

International human rights monitors have all but ignored gay Palestinians’ plight. The U.S. State Department’s recently released human rights report for 2001, for instance, blandly notes, “In the Palestinian territories homosexuals generally are socially marginalized, and occasionally receive physical threats.” As Ganon explains it, “The Palestinian human rights groups are afraid to deal with the problem. One Palestinian activist told me that Israelis need to raise the issue because they’ll be shut down if they try to. Amnesty Israel is sympathetic but their mandate is limited to Israeli human rights violations. And the international human rights groups say they’ve got a long list of pressing issues. When Israeli police harass Arab Israeli homosexuals, I send out reports, and then—oh, you should see how quickly the human rights organizations get in touch with me to investigate. The hypocrisy is unbelievable.”

Because the world hasn’t forced the P.A. to tolerate gays, Palestinian homosexuals are increasingly seeking refuge in the only regional territory that does: Israel. In the last few years hundreds of gay Palestinians, mostly from the West Bank, have slipped into Israel. Most live illegally in Tel Aviv, the center of Israel’s gay community; many are desperately poor and work as prostitutes. But at least they’re beyond the reach of their families and the P.A.

Still, for these refugees life in Israel means subsisting on the margins. Ganon, my guide to the community, heads the Association’s outreach to Palestinian gays. He is a big man with a goatee who spends his nights on the Tel Aviv streets where Palestinian gay prostitutes gather, providing food and clothes and trying to keep them off drugs and out of jail. Over the last four years Ganon has waged essentially a one-man campaign to try to interest human rights groups in Israel and elsewhere in their plight. He’s helped about 300 Palestinian gays in Israel and estimates that probably twice that many currently live here illegally without access to legal employment or health care and under constant threat of deportation. “No one here cares about us,” says Samir, the gardener, who lives with his Israeli boyfriend. “I’ve written to all the government ministries, to all the newspapers, asking for my status to be recognized. No one even bothers answering.”

According to Ganon, during the last year police have generally stopped arresting and deporting Palestinian gays because of his efforts. He has even worked out a quiet arrangement with Tel Aviv police, providing them a list of Palestinian gays under his sponsorship and providing those gays with Association membership cards to show their affiliation. The goal is to reassure local police, who are primarily on the lookout for Palestinian terrorists, that these Palestinians pose no threat. (The exceptions to this arrangement are Palestinian gays with security records and those from Gaza, whom the Israelis see as inherent security risks because of Hamas’s popularity there.) Some Palestinian gays, though, say they see no recent change in police policy and still feel hunted.

An American we’ll call William finds himself in the Palestinian gays’ no-man’s-land. Last year he and his Palestinian boyfriend, whom we’ll call Ahmad, moved into Ahmad’s West Bank village—a move that in retrospect seems mad. “We told the people in the village that we were friends, and for a while it worked,” says William. “But then one day we found a letter under our door from the Islamic court. It listed the five forms of death prescribed by Islam for homosexuality, including stoning and burning. We fled to Israel that same day.”

Now they live in hiding—mostly from Ahmad’s brothers, who have searched for the couple in Tel Aviv and threatened to kill Ahmad. Though William has appealed to human rights groups around the world, and to the U.S. Embassy for an American visa for Ahmad, he’s gotten little response. One American gay-advocacy group offered to help Ahmad get asylum after he arrives in the United States. But getting him there is precisely the problem, and William refuses to leave without Ahmad. And so here they are, an American Christian and a Palestinian Muslim stranded in the Jewish state, with no money and no work, living off the charity of friends, dreading the reappearance of Ahmad’s brothers, and waiting for help they know will almost certainly not come.

On a recent humid Tel Aviv night, in an area of shabby cafes for foreign workers and neon-lit sex shops, a half-dozen Palestinian teenage boys with gelled hair and sleeveless shirts sit on a railing, waiting for pickups. Ganon is here, as he is most nights, checking on “my children.” “Does anyone need condoms?” he asks. “How about clothes? Who hasn’t eaten today, sweethearts?”

A police car slows down, and the boys call out, “Identity cards!” and laugh. The police ignore them and drive away.

The teenage prostitutes, refugees from the West Bank, live in an abandoned building. They tell me that sometimes a client will offer them a meal and a shower instead of payment; sometimes a client will simply refuse to pay in any form, taunting them to complain to police. And sometimes police will beat them before releasing them back to the streets.

A 17-year-old refugee from Nablus named Salah (a pseudonym), who spent months in a P.A. prison where interrogators cut him with glass and poured toilet cleaner into his wounds, tells Ganon that he has been stopped by Israeli police no fewer than four times that day. He recites the names of the different police units who stopped him by their acronyms. “Try not to do anything stupid,” Ganon says.

“I’ve tried to kill myself six times already,” says Salah. “Each time the ambulance came too quickly. But now I think I know how to do it. Next time, with God’s help, it will work before the ambulance comes.”

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor at TNR.

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