For Homosexual Palestinians, Israel is Their Best Shot at Safety

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 why.”

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 years.

Islam prescribes capital punishment for homosexual activity.

Those who survive torture and attacks either fade into meek self-abnegation or, like Sani, break away. But it’s an unlikely scenario, given the efforts Israel has made to tighten its borders over the last three years to keep out terrorists.

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 knows he can resort to street-walking in Electricity Park.

Sani phones home every few months to assure his mother that he is alright — 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 been filed.

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.

“Why should I take any risk of exposure? How can I trust this or that cop who arrests me to grant me my rights, when he probably thinks I’m a suicide bomber?” said a 30-year-old runaway from a village near the West Bank city of Jenin.

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.

Hassan Khreisheh, head of the Palestinian legislative council’s human rights committee, dismissed the runaways in Israel as “collaborators guilty of various crimes, including homosexuality.”

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, denied this.

“Gays are already treated with suspicion in Palestinian society,” Landau said in an interview. “So what good are they for covert work?”

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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