Gay Pride in Israel.
Saif shuffles awkwardly. “It would devastate my father and my mother wouldn’t speak to me again,” he says, "and I would certainly be ostracised by the community.”
Saif is wondering what would happen if his homosexuality was made public. As a gay guy in the Palestinian West Bank, such information could see him murdered. While his sexuality remains hidden from his direct family, Saif said local Palestinian Authority police are aware and keep files on him and other homosexuals, blackmailing them into working as spies and informants.
A 20-year-old student living near Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s administrative centre, Saif learned in February last year that police have monitored his friendships, relationships and movements over several years. A brother-in-law, who he describes as “open-minded and well travelled”, was approached by a policeman friend of his, asking him if he knew of anyone by Saif's name, then went on to tell him details about Saif's friends and daily activities.
“He warned me that if they thought I would be useful, the police would use the files to pressure me into giving information on political activists within the village”.
Created through the 1993 Oslo Accord signed between Israel and Palestine, the Palestinian Authority possesses limited powers in designated areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, coordinating with Israel to police areas not under direct military occupation. Since 2007, the two territories have been politically separated between the rival parties – PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party in the West Bank, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In recent months, PA forces have struggled for control of cities, and it's that temperamental nature in the West Bank that elicits an environment where those on the social fringes are targeted for coercion.
While Palestinian law doesn't criminalise homosexuality, it is socially taboo to be openly gay. Saif believes that the PA surveillance on him resulted from his first relationship, with a “well-known” homosexual. “I’ve heard stories,” he said, “of guys being called at random and told to come into police stations, with threats their families would be told about their sexuality if they didn't show up.” Surprisingly, the PA declined to comment on the claims.
In contrast to Palestine’s conservative society, Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, has a vibrant LGBT community. According to lawyer Shaul Gannon, from the Israeli LGBT organisation Aguda, around 2,000 homosexuals from the Palestinian territories live in Tel Aviv at any one time. Most exist illegally, making employment difficult and providing no recourse to state services.
Israeli Gay Pride.
There are avenues open to gay Palestinians to seek asylum in the Isaeli state, but there is also paranoia about intelligence sharing between Palestinian and Israeli agencies. For this reason, few Palestinians consider this an option, as it could lead to them being outed in their own community. Over 17 years working with Aguda, Gannon recalls only 60 people accepting state help and said just ten are living in Israel by court order.
“It’s not wealthy people coming to us", he says. "These people know honour’s importance to the family. They will immediately be judged collaborators, which is punishable by death or imprisonment. If they return, they’ll face heavy torture, and I know three cases where people were killed. In Gaza, returning men are often made to attend schools teaching Islam and the errors in their ways.”
Members of the Palestinian police being friendly.
A stateless life in Israel and racism towards Arabs present new barriers for those who do leave Palestine. Some live on the streets or work as prostitutes. “They live day-by-day,” Gannon explains. “When you’re hungry or if you’ve got into drugs, this happens. There are great dangers, either from being beaten up and robbed by customers or picked up by police. If they have a boyfriend, they have shelter, can look for work and so on.”
A house party in Ramallah where a lot of gay men were present.
Majd, a gay Palestinian man, comes from a village near Jenin in the West Bank’s north. It's an area of conservative social values and a heartland for Islamist political groups. Obtaining a permit to visit a Jerusalem hospital in April, the 23-year-old took the opportunity to meet his Israeli lover and travelled to the historic Old City for sight-seeing. Police asked for the pair’s documents and, as Majd wasn't at the designated hospital, they were arrested and separately questioned.
“They said I was in deep trouble, saying there was a bomb in my friend’s car and they’d beat me,” Majd remembers. “I didn’t know what they were talking about.”
During several interrogations, he explained his homosexuality and the nature of the relationship with his Israeli companion. He was taken to another room where he was photographed, fingerprinted and handed a telephone. A man on the other end introduced himself as Alon and said he was an officer in Israel’s domestic intelligence organisation known as the Shin Bet.
“He spoke Arabic and, after my harsh treatment, he seemed nice to me,” Majd remembers. “He was familiar with the West Bank and asked questions about where I’d lived and gone to university. He knew my home.” Before being released, Majd was ordered to attend a “secret meeting” with the Alon several days later. “I felt I was in really deep trouble,” Majd said. “If I didn’t go, I was sure the Israelis would inform the Palestinian Authority, who view homosexuality as a sickness linked to collaboration with Israel. It would mark me as a traitor.”
Majd met Alon on a Sunday afternoon at the Qalandia military checkpoint. Upon arrival, he was strip-searched and made to wait two hours, before being taken to a room to be photographed in front of a board with his name and particulars written in Hebrew. “They made it obvious I was there with them,” he said. “They were angry I arrived late and, when I said I travelled from a long distance in the north, they knew I was lying, naming the village where I'd been. They traced my location through my cell phone.”
Israeli undercover police arresting a Palestinian boy accused of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.
Alon entered and, when Majd requested the presence of a lawyer, threatened to have him jailed. Alon questioned him about the political situation in Ramallah and people’s feelings towards the PA, promising to arrange permits to visit Israel as often as Majd liked if he cooperated. “He said nothing comes for free and if I was good to him he’d be good to me,” says Majd. “He said I should call him if demonstrations were planned. He wanted to know the names of the organisers, the religious people in the villages and names of children throwing stones at Israeli military jeeps. I told him I wouldn’t help.”
Being from the Jenin area, coming out would be bad news for Majd. “If my male relations knew, they would come and beat me or kill me,” he says matter-of-factly. “My father couldn’t stand that his son is gay. My parents are religious and see homosexuality as a disease. Jenin is a place where your name is important to protect. It’s not safe to be exposed here.”
Life for Saif and Majd is one of forced conformity. Saif believes most gay Palestinian men end up marrying to appease family obligations and avoid the truth of their own identities. “Many of these men don’t like women, but there's a social pressure to get married,” he said. “A close friend of mine, who is gay, wants to get married because he sees homosexuality as ‘not right’. I know the pressure will come from my family soon, but I’m not going to get married to a woman as it wouldn’t be fair to her.”
Israeli Gay Pride.
It's kind of obvious, but both Saif and Majd dream of moving abroad.
“Staying here, I know that as soon as I finish college, my parents will expect me to get married,” Saif explains. “Going abroad would be the perfect excuse to avoid telling my parents. I’m a proud Palestinian and hope that one day I can come back to help change people’s attitudes, because women’s rights and gay rights need to be constantly fought for around the world.”
For Majd, contentment lies in being able to enjoy the simple pleasures many others take for granted. “We are hiding all the time here,” he said. “I’m an atheist, I’m gay and I’m living in a place I don’t identify with. To walk with my partner, hold hands or sit under a tree together and not be afraid that people will come to beat us up or judge us – that is what I want.”
More from Palestine and Israel:
Watch - Resistance in the West Bank