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Queer Palestinians speak out: “If I return, they’ll shoot me in the leg”

August 17, 2020
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#LGBTQ refugees, #Israel, #Palestinian authority, #asylum seekers
by:Tomer Aldubi
Many dozens of LGBTQ+x Palestinians are forced to flee from their homes and families due to their sexual identity. They often cross into Israel illegally and live under inhumane and impossible conditions. We spoke with three queer Palestinians about their fears (“Only god helped me escape, otherwise I would’ve ended up in the grave long ago”) and existential distress (“Even a dog lives better than I do. A dog has a home and someone who cares for him”).

When Ahmed’s family discovered he was gay, he started running towards the Israeli border - the only place that will save him from guaranteed death. In less than an hour, while his family was searching for him throughout the village, Ahmed had already been interrogated by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). He never told anyone about his sexual orientation, but at that point it was the only way for him to survive.

After the IDF granted him permission to enter Israel, Ahmed slept at hostels and hospitals, and for several months now has been sleeping in the streets of a big Israeli city. Using the basic Hebrew that Ahmed (alias), 32, had taught himself, he now exposes the secret he had managed to hide from his surroundings for years. “I thought I’d be able to hide the fact I was gay for my entire life. I never thought they would find out, but it happened. God helped me escape and if I hadn’t, I’d be long dead.” 

“Even a dog lives better than I do,” he says about his intolerable life in Israel, “A dog has a home and someone who cares for him. It can get food and a place to sleep in and wash off. I get nothing. Never before in my life had I reached a situation like that, and I’m still ashamed to ask for help.”

But he had no other choice than to leave his old life behind and try to start a new chapter - as impossible as it is - in Israel. “For Muslims, where I come from, if you steal - that’s tolerable, if you committed any sort of crime it’s tolerable. In the big city, if they find out someone is gay - maybe they’ll accept it. But where I’m from they kill gays in order to tell the world that they solved the problem, meaning that they, in their family and village, have nothing to do with that person. Where I was born, they think that a gay person makes the entire family dirty, and that no one would marry my sisters. My family must clear the family’s name and that’s why they want to kill me.” 

Over three years ago, the family of Amir (alias), 25, discovered he was gay. He escaped to Israel’s territory and has since been staying here, migrating from place to place, without a permanent home. “When they discovered, I told the family that it’s a disease and that it will pass, but it didn’t help and I had to flee.”

Over the past three years, Amir had been returning to the Palestinian  National Authority territory, hoping that enough time had passed for him to be able to live there among his family or in a different West Bank city. During one of his attempts to return, his cousin fired four gunshots in his direction as “a warning to frighten me.” He then realised he would not be able to return to the Palestinian National Authority and he must try to get by in Israel. He fabricated a new identity, and told any person he met that he was an Israeli Arab who was born in Israel. “When I’m in Israel, I try to understand how people grow up here, how they speak and live. I was even in relationships with Israelis but it went nowhere because I have no status here.” 

Why are you afraid to tell people you’re Palestinian?

“It will make people feel that I’m weak and can be taken advantage of. I can’t turn to the police, either, and lodge a complaint if something happens to me. Enough gays already have offered me drugs, money, and sex and tried to hurt me. But I’m strong, and will never allow anyone to feel superior to me and that they can take advantage of me.”

Israel’s most marginalised and weakened demographic 

Ahmed and Amir are merely two out of many dozens of queer Palestinians from the West Bank who have no other option than to flee for their lives. They often enter Israel illegally and are forced to live far away from their homes, families, and sources of income, with no legal status or basic rights and under inhumane and impossible conditions. 

LGBTQ Palestinians, most of whom are gay, are the most marginalised and weakened demographic in Israel. They are being disproportionately discriminated against, even more than other stateless populations, such as African asylum seekers. Their exact number is unknown: the Israeli government claims that there are 150 queer Palestinians in its territory, but various NGO’s maintain that there are many dozens more, and that some of them have been living in Israel with no rights for 15 - 20 years. 

After entering Israel, LGBTQ Palestinians are assisted by NGO’s to apply for a permit to remain in the country. Their application is examined by the welfare coordinator at the Israeli Civil Administration, which handles cases of Palestinians who face tangible threats to their lives or basic liberties. In instances where there is no security-related objection by the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) or the Israeli Police, the Civil Administration, which operates under the  Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), issues them a residence permit for “welfare needs.” 

With this permit, they are allowed to remain in Israel for a time period of one to six months. Afterwards, they must knock on the gates of the Civil Administration and apply for an extension of the permit and provide an explanation for why they aren’t immigrating to a third country. 

This permit has been issued for queer Palestinians since 2014, which was when the Israeli decided it is bound by the non-refoulement principle, according to which a country is prohibited from deporting from its territory a person who faces likely persecution based on their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Despite that, according to Israel, “there is no factual basis to the claim of threat in [the West Bank] due to sexual orientation.” Israel further claims that their asylum requests “stem from [queer Palestinians’] desire to enjoy the more liberal lifestyle in Israel.” According to a source in the IDF, “this is a provisional permit whose purpose is to save lives and is granted out of an intent for Palestinians not to settle in Israel [...] they are requested to arrange themselves an immigration solution in a third country.”

Dr. Yael Barda, a faculty member at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University, is of the opinion that “The Israeli system grants very few entry and residence permits. The State of Israel receives the Palestinians on the condition that they will leave Israel, and this is a direct interest of the state.” 

Similarly to Amir and Ahmed, and other queer Palestinians, Sharif (alias), 22, is also concerned about how to survive in a country that prohibits him from working legally. “In order to get by we must work illegally, and we are being taken advantage of. In the past, I used to for 12 hours for 200 Shekels ($59), and sometimes I wasn’t paid at all and couldn’t do anything about it,” he shares. “The Israeli government doesn’t want us to work only because we’re Palestinians. Our blood is dirty and is like garbage to them and they don’t want any of us to stay in Israel. But what am I going to live off of in the meantime? My permit is valid for a few months, and what will happen afterwards? They will return me [to the West Bank] and I’ll be killed?” 

According to Amit Meir, coordinator of Palestinian applications in the Asylum Seekers Department at The Aguda - Israel’s LGBT Task Force, “the [Israeli] state leaves them with no rational solution, other than immigrating to a third country. But the UN succeeds in finding a third country for two to three cases a year, maximum.” Meirav Ben-Ze’ev, attorney at HIAS Israel, seconds Meir’s claims, stating: “The absurd thing is that on the one hand they tell them ‘find your own way out’, and on the other hand they have no other option but to stay here for an indefinite period of time. Therefore, the solution of resettlement further dissipates the longer they remain in Israel: their exclusion from the job market places them at a high vulnerability to commit criminal offences, engage in prostitution, fall prey to sexual exploitation and drug use, and under such circumstances the UN will not approve their resettlement to a third country.” 

According to sources at the Israeli Welfare Ministry, the country is actively looking for shelter solutions for each Palestinian residing in Israel. But many NGO’s portray a different picture, claiming they do not know of a single case in which the Civil Administration had initiated an attempt to offer shelter to a Palestinian. “Almost all of the Palestinians who turned to us for help had slept in the streets for a few nights, if not longer. From the moment they turn to us, we try to help them shelter. But the bottom line is that most Palestinians in Israel live in the streets or at houses of people they know.”

In Israel, queer Palestinians are forbidden from receiving assistance from the welfare services or government health insurance benefits.  The only possibility at their disposal is paying for a private health insurance plan , which costs hundreds of shekels. Some of the interviewees stated that they have romantic and sexual relationships with Israelis. But concerning HIV, the national programme for treating HIV positive people with no status excludes queer Palestinians holding this particular visa.  

According to Dr. Zoey Gutszeit, head of the Stateless Department at the Physicians for Human Rights NGO, which has, for years, been caring for queer Palestinians at a desegnated clinic, “Many of them experience shame and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to extreme violence they were subject to; some of them have suicidal tendencies as well. Most of them are hesitant to seek help, fearing they will be sent back to the West Bank, and prefer to suffer excruciating pain. They are not eligible for any treatment, from antibiotics and prescription drugs to hospitalisation. During the coronavirus pandemic, their hardships have only exacerbated - they were afraid to turn to Magen David Adom (Red Shield of David) and refrained from showing up at hospitals and testing centres. Lacking any financial means, many of them have no access to medical services, suffer from pains and diseases, and are vulnerable to significant deterioration in their condition that can threaten their lives.”

Eight years ago, when Sharif (alias) was fourteen, his family discovered that he had sex with a man. The Palestinian police arrested them and released them a day later. In the village, people began gossiping about them and their families, and Sharif’s father, as well as other residents, searched for them and wanted to kill them. Sharif managed to flee to Israel and for a month and a half had slept in the streets in Tel Aviv. After his father passed away, he returned to his place of birth, since as the oldest son Sharif was responsible to help provide for his family. 

Three years ago, when Sharif was nineteen, a resident of the village caught Sharif sleeping with his boyfriend and recorded the act. “Everybody wanted to stab me in the face so whoever looks at me will know what happens to gay people,” Sharif recalls. “On the same day I left for Ramallah. But even there they searched for me, so I moved from place to place. Every night I dreamed that people look for me and come to murder me.” He managed to enter Israel and receive a permit to remain in the country, and, as a result, the extended family decided to cut ties with his mother and brothers. 

While he is in Israel, Sharif stays in touch with his mother and dreams about seeing her one day. “she’s 60 already, and I want to be with her. I miss and love her very much, but I know that I cannot go back there. If I return to the village, they will shoot me in the leg. She is very sad because I had to escape and because of the life I live. 

It can be assumed that many queer people in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza are leaving in fear that their sexual orientation and gender identity will be revealed one day, and it is likely that many of them will attempt to save themselves and enter Israel. Their life stories surely moved some social workers and empathetic IDF soldiers who invest their time and energy in trying to help out but who cannot effect change in the policies of Israel. 

In the shadow of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and extreme Islamic ideology, the Palestinians who did not choose their sexual orientation and gender identity, religion or place of birth, are left helpless in their endless survival attempt. Seeing as Israel permitted them to enter its territory, they should be allowed to live in dignity and with status. Yet, the State of Israel continues to refuse to protect their basic rights, and they are forced to live without hope or a future.

With no significant help from Israel in the process of resettlement or the prospect of being recognised as asylum seekers - it seems that the dozens of queer Palestinians living in Israel are here to stay.

An extended version of this article first appeared on Mako

Article written by:
Tomer Aldubi
Embed from Getty Images
When Ahmed’s family discovered he was gay, he started running towards the Israeli border.
Embed from Getty Images
“Even a dog lives better than I do,” he says about his intolerable life in Israel.
Embed from Getty Images
Ahmed and Amir are merely two out of many dozens of queer Palestinians from the West Bank who have no other option than to flee for their lives.