Open homosexuality is a social and religious taboo almost everywhere in the Middle East. In Iran and most Arab countries, same-sex acts are illegal and punishable by imprisonment, flogging or sometimes death. Even in countries where homosexuality is not specifically outlawed, such as Egypt, generalized laws against ‘immorality’ are used to target gay men.
The notable exception is Israel, where same-sex relations between men became legal in 1988. Four years after de-criminalizing homosexuality, Israel went a step further and is now the only country in the Middle East that outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The law has certainly made its impact felt, requiring the military to treat gay and lesbian members of the armed forces equally and, in one celebrated case, forcing El Al to provide a free ticket for the partner of a gay flight attendant, as for the partners of heterosexuals. And in 1998 Israel’s tolerance of sexual diversity attracted worldwide attention when the transgender Dana International won the Eurovision Song Contest.
In an essay on Israel’s gay history, Lee Walzer, author of Between Sodom and Eden (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), explains:
The reasons for gay and lesbian political success during this period from 1988 through the mid-1990s were many. Chief among them was the fact that gay activists pursued a very mainstream strategy, seeking to convince the wider public that gay Israelis were good patriotic citizens who just happened to be attracted to the same sex.
This strategy, pursued until recently, reinforced the perception that gay rights was a non-partisan issue, unconnected to the major fissure in Israeli politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict and how to resolve it. Embracing gay rights enabled Israelis to pat themselves on the back for being open-minded, even as Israeli society wrestled less successfully with other social inequalities.
Across the Green Line in the West Bank and Gaza, however, the picture is very different. The penalty for same-sex acts under Palestinian law is not entirely clear, though in practice this is less significant than the extra-judicial punishments reportedly meted out by the authorities and the threats that gay men face from relatives intent on preserving family ‘honour’.
Writing in the New Republic (19 August 2002), Yossi Halevi described the case of ‘Tayseer’, a Palestinian from Gaza, who was 18 when an elder brother caught him in bed with a boyfriend. His family beat him and his father threatened to strangle him if it ever happened again. A few months later, a young man Tayseer had never met invited him into an orange grove for sex:
The next day he received a police summons. At the station Tayseer was told that his sex partner was in fact a police agent whose job is to ferret out homosexuals. If Tayseer wanted to avoid prison, he too would have to become an undercover sex agent, luring gays into orchards and turning them over to the police.
Tayseer refused to implicate others. He was arrested and hung by his arms from the ceiling. A high-ranking officer he didn’t know arranged for his release and then demanded sex as payback.
Tayseer fled Gaza to Tulkarem on the West Bank, but there too he was eventually arrested. He was forced to stand in sewage water up to his neck, his head covered by a sack filled with faeces, and then he was thrown into a dark cell infested with insects and other creatures he could feel but not see . . . During one interrogation, police stripped him and forced him to sit on a Coke bottle.
The key ingredients of Tayseer’s story are repeated in other published accounts given by gay fugitives from the West Bank and Gaza: a violent family reaction, entrapment and blackmail by the police coupled with degrading improvised punishments. The hostility of families is a predictable response from those who regard homosexuality as a betrayal of ‘traditional’ Arab-Islamic values. This attitude is by no means unique to the Palestinians, but while it may be possible in some Arab countries to take refuge in the anonymity of big cities, the Palestinian territories are small, with mainly close-knit communities where it is difficult to hide.
Religious condemnation of homosexuality found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam derive mainly from the biblical story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom, which also figures in the Qur’an. In recent decades progressive Jews and Christians have increasingly questioned traditional interpretations of scripture and moved towards acceptance of homosexuality, at least within stable, loving relationships. As for Islam, however, the trend has generally been in the opposite direction – partly because of the weakness of secular or progressive religious currents but mainly because political conditions have led to a growth of religiosity and recourse to supposedly traditional Arab-Islamic values.
Historically at least, the view that homosexual acts should be punished by execution is a feature of all three monotheistic religions. Britain applied the death penalty for sodomy over several centuries – originally on the basis of ecclesiastical law – up until 1861.
Today, Islamic law is widely interpreted in the same way by many prominent and widely respected scholars, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the leading Shi’a cleric in Iraq, whose fatwa advocating death for liwat (sodomy) was posted in Arabic on his website. A number of gay men have been systematically murdered in Iraq recently and campaigners say the fatwa provided religious sanction and encouragement for the killings.
Four years ago in Israel, a prominent rabbi, David Batzri, also advocated the death penalty. ‘Homosexuals and lesbians are not only a sickness,’ he told Maariv newspaper in February 2002. Last year, during the gay pride parade in Jerusalem, a religious extremist attacked three marchers with a knife and reportedly told the police he had come ‘to kill in the name of God’.
Of course, there are important differences between Israel and the Arab countries – particularly in the reaction to such views. Rabbi Batzri’s remarks caused public outrage and the man who attacked the Jerusalem parade was promptly arrested. In Israel, religious figures and their legal opinions carry far less weight, and the rights of gay people are protected by the state.
For gay Palestinians who feel persecuted at home, the obvious escape route is to Israel, but because of the political conflict this can be fraught with difficulties. As far as most Palestinians are concerned, fleeing into Israel is a betrayal of their cause, while gay men who remain in the Palestinian territories also come under suspicion.
‘In the West Bank and Gaza, it is common knowledge that if you are homosexual you are necessarily a collaborator with Israel,’ said Shaul Gonen, of the Israeli Society for the Protection of Personal Rights (‘“Death Threat” to Palestinian Gays’, BBC, 3 March 2003). Bassim Eid, of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, explained:
In the Arab mindset, a person who has committed a moral offence is often assumed to be guilty of others, and it radiates out to the family and community. As homosexuality is seen as a crime against nature, it is not hard to link it to collaboration – a crime against nation (‘Palestinian Gay Runaways Survive on Israeli Streets’, Reuters, 17 September 2003).
Regarding gay men as politically treacherous is not unique to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. There are parallels here with Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, when gay men engaged in secret government work were treated as a particular security risk. In the popular imagination, this may well have been seen as an intrinsic part of their psychological make-up, although the fact that their sexual activities were illegal did expose them to the possibility of blackmail by Soviet agents.
Equating homosexuality with collaboration makes it extremely dangerous for Palestinians to return home after fleeing to Israel. One man told Halevi in the New Republic of a friend in the Palestinian police who ran away to Tel Aviv but later went back to Nablus, where he was arrested and accused of being a collaborator:
They put him in a pit. It was the fast of Ramadan, and they decided to make him fast the whole month but without any break at night. They denied him food and water until he died in that hole.
There is little doubt that some – though by no means all – gay Palestinians are forced by their precarious existence to work for Israeli intelligence in exchange for money or administrative favours such as the right of residence; both Eid and Gonen said they knew of several. Others, meanwhile, are coerced into undercover work for the Palestinian authorities; one 19-year-old runaway stated in an interview with Israeli television that he had been pressurized by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade to become a suicide bomber in order to ‘purge his moral guilt’, though he had refused (‘Palestinian Gay Runaways’, Reuters, 17 September 2003).
Estimates of the number of gay Palestinians who have quietly – and usually illegally – taken refuge in Israel range from 300 to 600. Although Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and recognizes same-sex partnerships for immigration purposes, it does not welcome gay Palestinians – mainly because of security fears. This often leaves them trapped in an administrative no-man’s-land with little hope of finding a proper job and constantly at risk of being arrested and deported. Some try to disguise themselves by wearing fake military dog-tags and even Star of David medallions.
‘The Palestinians say if you are gay, you must be a collaborator, while the Israelis treat you as a security threat,’ Gonen told a news programme (‘Palestinian Gays Flee to Israel’, BBC, 22 October 2003). But even if they are neither collaborators nor a security threat, they can easily become targets for exploitation by Israeli men. ‘They work as prostitutes, selling their bodies unwillingly because they have to survive,’ Gonen said:
Sometimes the Israeli secret police try to recruit them, sometimes the Palestinian police try to recruit them. In the end they find themselves falling between all chairs. Nobody wants to help them, everybody wants to use them.
Brian Whitaker is Middle East editor of the Guardian. His book, Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, is published by Saqi Books.