In Limbo – Palestinian gays

Rami (© Eric Beauchemin)

Homosexuality is illegal under Palestinian law. Gays and lesbians have been imprisoned because of their sexual orientation. Human rights groups report that the Palestinian Authority has also tortured homosexuals. No one knows the exact number because most victims are too ashamed to come forward and tell their stories. Even if they did, they would have no one to turn to to seek redress.

NLGJA/Siegenthaler Excellence in Radio Award in 2005

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: August 8, 2004


Throughout the Moslem world, homosexuality is a taboo, punishable in several countries by death. In the Palestinian occupied territories, women or men who have sex with people of the same sex face imprisonment and torture. They are also rejected by their families and the rest of society. Several hundred Palestinian gays and lesbians have fled to Israel. Because they’re Palestinian, they’re illegal and they cannot obtain asylum in Israel. No other country wants to accept them either. Eric Beauchemin reports on these Palestinians in limbo.

We are living under Islamic rules and according to the Koran, it is something which is prohibited, which is forbidden, and this is why the Arab laws mention that gays must have to be punished.

Bassem Eid is the director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.

According to the Palestinian basic law, these people supposed to face trial and be sentenced, and we know about some cases of gays people who were arrested in the past, who were tortured by the PA and also they were sentenced.

One of the torture victims of the PA or the Palestinian Authority is Rami. He fled to Tel Aviv after being tortured when he was 16.

I was arrested by the Palestinian Authority. They suspected my boyfriend was gay and they thought I was too. They held me for three weeks and tried to force me to admit that I’m gay. The police held me in a cell about 1 metre by 1 metre and only 2 metres high. I could sit but I couldn’t really rest. I didn’t have a bed, only a blanket. Sometimes, I had to wait for hours until they’d take me to the toilet. Several times, they threw me into the sewer and held me there for hours to make me confess. I can show you all the scars I have here on my head, my chest and my legs. They beat me, they kicked me. They tortured me by hanging me up for several hours by my hands or feet. They put my hands on a hot toaster to burn them. I couldn’t do anything because my hands and legs were tied.

No one knows how many gays and lesbians have been tortured by the Palestinian Authority. Most victims are too ashamed and afraid to come forward. Gays and lesbians have also been tried by Palestinian courts. Bassem Eid recalls the case of a 16-year-old boy who was convicted to 1½ years imprisonment in the Gaza Strip. This teenager will not only have a criminal record. He and his family will be tainted forever.

Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group
Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (© Eric Beauchemin)

The whole family will be in troubles, not only the gay himself. And unfortunately, the society, even he was sentenced, even that he was punished, then it will come to the turn of the society to punish the family. And this is how such families become isolated families from the society, even that all of them are completely innocent people. EB: But can that boy actually live in Gaza or does he have to flee? Would something happen to him after he serves his sentence? I think that it’s much better for him to leave the area where he is living because after his release, he will not only come under the pressure of the society but even the pressure of his family. And these people, you know, they have the fear of their life, and the best way for these people, if they would really like to continue living, they must have to find another place to live in and to secure their life. EB: Would it be possible for him to go to the West Bank or would he face the same problems there? No, he would face the same problems. You know, under the Palestinian Authority rule, these people couldn’t function, and these people couldn’t have their own life.

Gays don’t only have to contend with stigma. Most other Palestinians suspect them of collaborating with the Israeli occupation forces. But according to Shaol Gannon of Agudah, Israel’s main gay lobbying group, they’re also being recruited by the intelligence services of the Palestinian Authority and armed groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

We would find a lot of Palestinian homosexuals is telling us stories when they come here and in their testimonies that it’s not just the Israeli security recruit them as spies. It’s also the security of the Palestinians who is doing the same. The Palestinian security was trying to raise agents against Hamas and the Jihad. The Jihad and Hamas did the same to blackmail. This is a very unpleasant situation. It puts the Palestinian gays in the middle.

Amnesty International brochure
Amnesty International brochure

After three weeks of torture, I was ready to admit that I was gay, but one of the investigators took pity on me. He knew that my uncle had been coming to the police station. So he said that if my uncle raised bail, he would release me. Two hours after I got home, people from Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, came to my house. They were wearing masks and said they needed to start an investigation. My mother and my uncle told them that I wasn’t home. After that, my older brother said he’d give me money so I could go to Israel. He told me that if the Palestinian Authority picked me up again, I would probably get out alive. But if Hamas took me, I’d be dead. My younger brother is a Hamas activist and he told my family that he wants to deal with me. So my big brother gave me money and told me to leave.

Rami was lucky. Most gays who flee to Israel arrive with little more than the shirts on their back, says Shaol Gannon.

The majority of the homosexuals who are coming to Israel, they are teenagers, mostly from 14 to 22. Poor, they don’t have money. Most of them just have an identity card. They barely speak a little Hebrew. They don’t speak English. They don’t speak French. They don’t have a passport. And again they are stuck between all sides. It’s not like they made a crime in the Palestinian territories and run away here. The only crime is that they want to be alive.

I had burns on my hands and a lot of other wounds. I stayed at an Israeli friend’s house for five months while I recovered. Then I started looking for work. I couldn’t speak Hebrew, so I couldn’t get a good job. I worked in restaurants cooking and washing dishes and in the construction industry…anything just to survive. One of my older brothers has been trying to find me. He says that no matter what, he’s going to kill me. I have to keep on changing my phone number. Some of my relatives and friends have warned me that they’ve seen someone looking for me. A couple of days ago, I saw one of my older brothers hanging around here in Tel Aviv. He was asking people where I’m staying, where I am now.

According to Aguda, about 300 Palestinian men have fled to Israel. The number of lesbians is much smaller. It’s far more difficult for women to travel on their own, says Shaol Gannon, and they face considerable pressure from society.

Under the Arab culture, the woman is not entitled to a will of her own. She’s the property of the man. If for a man it’s OK not to get married by the age of 30 or 40, to a woman it’s almost impossible because at the age of 20, 22, people start wondering what is wrong with you? Why aren’t you married? So to consider that a woman would like a woman and to live with another woman, it’s unbearable. I have a good friend. She’s not even a lesbian, but she’s 42. She lives in Tel Aviv. She’s hiding all the time. She’s straight but she didn’t want to get married. By the age of 23, she had to leave the village and run away for her life because people says she’s a whore. We have been facing 8 times lesbians from the West Bank coming to us. One time it was 2 lesbians who were caught in action and they run away with their underwear. And the whole village and the family was running after them. 400 people was running after them with swords and knives and wanting to kill them.

Gay and lesbian Palestinians who manage to flee live in Israel’s main cities such as Tel Aviv and Haifa. The large numbers of Arab-Israelis there mean that they are less likely to stand out. Nevertheless, they live in constant fear of the Israeli authorities.

One of the problems we’re facing is that the Israeli government wants to deport them back. First of all it’s against all what I know about international laws. You cannot deport someone to a place that he would surely die or would be tortured. The Israeli Supreme Court has already decided three times about it that a man could not be deported, but the problem is not in the court because in the court we do succeed to help them stay in Israel, temporarily stay in Israel. The problem is in the street. Every policeman can arrest someone as an illegal alien and deport him without trial and without arresting him even.

Aguda has met with the Israeli Interior Ministry and the security services to try and find some solution for the young men and women who’ve already fled to Israel. International organisations are also trying to negotiate at least a temporary respite for these Palestinians, says Daniel Weishut of Amnesty International.

Daniel Weishut, Amnesty International
Daniel Weishut, Amnesty International (© Eric Beauchemin)

Amnesty intervened and wrote letters on behalf of specific people to authorities in order to help them stay in Israel. EB: Have you succeeded in doing that? In one case we did. In one case, someone received a temporary residence in Israel and he’s still here in Jerusalem. EB; But the problem is it’s temporary. It’s not a permanent residence permit. That’s true. It’s very difficult for a Palestinian now to get a permanent residence in Israel whether you’re gay or not.

These young people find themselves in legal limbo because of the legislation in the occupied territories and Israel’s security measures. The international community, says Shaol Gannon, has also been very reluctant to help them out of this legal black hole.

The majority of the European countries are telling us ‘well, does he have $20,000? or that he can arrange himself?’ We say, ‘no, the man run from his house with his underwear and maybe without shoes even. So how can he have $20,000. He’s a teenager! Nobody is protecting him. They ask if he has a passport. He cannot have a passport because he has to go back to his family or to his village or to his town and then he would be murdered. So, he doesn’t have a passport either. So, usually when we are applying to the embassies, they are telling us that you have to go to the agency of refugees in the UN. And when we apply to them, they say, well, under the law and the refugees convention, Israel is occupying the West Bank, so you should go to Israel because she is responsible by this convention. Israel is saying in this same convention it is saying that if you are in conflict or dispute with another country, you don’t have to give them asylum or refugee status. And again we find them falling between all chairs.

Nonetheless, over the past five years a dozen Palestinian gays and lesbians have been accepted by the European Union on humanitarian grounds. Many more still live in fear in the occupied territories or illegally in Israel. Bassem Eid realises that the human rights of these Palestinians are being violated. But these abuses, he says, pale in comparison to what’s happening to the majority of Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group
Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group

I think that the Palestinians are suffering from so many reasons right now and probably, the homosexuals and the lesbians is the smallest topic right now, which nobody wants to add it, you know, to the Palestinian suffering here. If the situation will calm down a little bit, I believe that this issue must have to be raised publicly and more and more awareness should have to be spreading among the Palestinian society.

According to Daniel Weishut of Amnesty International, the taboos are enormous.

In the Arab world, homosexuality or any sexuality outside of the marriage is a problem. It’s not supposed to happen. So that means changing the whole society, changing the society’s attitudes to sexuality in general. That may happen, but that will it take many years, and that’s the same whether it’s in Palestine or in Saudi Arabia or in other countries in the Arab world, and we should take into account that there are still many countries in the Arab world where there’s a death penalty on homosexuality.

Since Rami arrived in Israel 5 years ago, he’s been deported 15 times. Each time, he’s managed to make his way back to Israel. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult because of the security wall which Israel is building around the occupied territories. By the next of this year, the West Bank and Gaza will be completely sealed off.

I am afraid, really afraid. One of the last times I was deported, the Israelis left me on a deserted road. I saw a lot of people from my village and they started asking me what I was doing there. I don’t speak very good Arabic anymore, so they started saying that I was a collaborator. I was afraid they would kill me. I fear my brother and Hamas more than the Israeli police, because if the Israelis catch me, they won’t kill me. They will just arrest me. But Hamas will surely kill me. EB: Do you feel like you’re being punished because you’re gay? Yes. I just want to live a normal life. When I put my head down on a pillow, I don’t want to have to be afraid that the police will enter my house and arrest me. I don’t want to fear that I will be arrested on the street. I just want a normal life.

This week’s Wide Angle was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. I’m Perro de Jong. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.