For gay Palestinians, Israel offers a chance at survival

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tel aviv | 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 gay at age 16.

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. 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 gay men in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where sodomy carries a jail term of three to 10 years.

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 bathhouses. 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 all right — on condition that she doesn’t tell his father and brothers 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 Palestinian Authority is, quite simply, deadly,” Gonen said.

Israel’s preoccupation with security also means that the runaways 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 Palestinian Authority-controlled areas, Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International said. “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 is to seek haven abroad.

In Israel, covertness is a way of life for Palestinian runaways. The really lucky ones adopt a new identity altogether.

A 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 a quiet Tel Aviv suburb. “With any luck, I’ll go unnoticed until there is peace,” he said.