Out and Down and Living in Israel

Published in: May-June 2003 issue.


‘I  DON’T WANT to live this life,” says Doodi, nineteen, as he smokes a cigarette and looks out onto Nachalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv. “If I could get a real job, I would. I don’t want to be a prostitute.”

Israeli society once thrived on the employment of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, the territories Israel has occupied since the 1967 War. A “real job” has not been a possibility for Doodi or others like him since the onset of the Al Aqsa Intifada in October of 2000. According to the Palestinian National Authority State Information Service, more than 130,000 Palestinians per day crossed legally and illegally into Israel to work before the Intifada. The Israeli government’s crackdown on Palestinians from the occupied territories—including incursions that have killed or maimed more than 24,000 Palestinians—now threatens employers and workers alike with heavy fines and jail time, reducing the number of Palestinian workers in Israel to fewer than 40,000. Meanwhile, following Israel’s attacks on the Palestinian infrastructure, its continuing policy of curfews and closures, and its periodic demolition of government and economic centers in the occupied territories, unemployment looms at more than sixty percent in the West Bank and nearly eighty percent in Gaza.

Doodi repeatedly looks at his cellphone, anticipating a call from one of his regular clients. He prefers solicitations from his regular clients so that he does not have to spend most of the day walking through one of several public cruising areas in Tel Aviv where Israeli men know they can find male prostitutes, including young Palestinian men like Doodi.

Doodi has plenty of clients these days. Israel’s demand for commercial sex is brisk even as access to legitimate employment for Palestinians in both Israel and the occupied territories declines. Human rights groups throughout Israel report that solicitation of prostitutes—including male prostitutes—has become relatively normalized within general Israeli society in the last decade, and demand for prostitutes has increased correspondingly. In a seminar on the trafficking of women held by the Ministry of Security on July 31, 2001, one Knesset member estimated that Israelis made more than one million visits to prostitutes in the year 2000; current estimates by anti-trafficking groups indicate that the number of solicitations continues to rise unabated.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers says that most of the prostitutes found within Israel are poor women from former Soviet countries who were lured into Israel through promises of high-paying jobs and greater social freedom, only to be forced into prostitution once they arrived. Although most Palestinian male prostitutes enter Israel willingly, a similar pattern can be detected: Palestinian men from the occupied territories follow promises of employment and sexual freedom into Israel, only to find all avenues of self-sufficiency closed to them. The only available survival option is prostitution.


Being Gay under Koranic Law

Israel’s largest gay and lesbian organization, Aguda, estimates that between 350 and 450 gay-identified Palestinian men, mostly under the age of 26, live illegally inside of Israel. Many of these young men find that prostitution is their only means of survival. But survival in Israel means more than just economic livelihood for these men. The majority of them fled personally life-threatening situations in the villages and refugee camps of Gaza and the West Bank—life-threatening not just because of the devastation of Israel’s occupation, but life-threatening because of the myriad factors surrounding their existence as homosexuals in Muslim-dominated Palestinian society.

Doodi, for example, was born and raised in a Muslim village outside of East Jerusalem. “My family beat me after they knew I was a homosexual,” he says. His brothers and father repeatedly beat him using their fists and boards whenever he came home. They burned him with cigarettes, which still scar his hands and forearms. When he came home with tattoos three years ago after a night out with a boyfriend, his parents, believing that it was some sort of “gay Jewish symbol,” had his brothers burn it off with hot irons, leaving a large scar on each of his upper arms.

One day in February of 2002, Doodi says he came home and his family said they would give him one last chance to change before they killed him. “They dragged me out onto the street and they started to shave my head in public so that everyone would know I was a homosexual,” he says. “My brothers beat me badly; they left a scar on my face and stabbed me.” Doodi says he had seen other men who were alleged to be homosexuals killed in his and neighboring villages while people watched and did nothing. After the public beating and head-shaving, Doodi said he knew he could never go home again.

Doodi’s stories of violence are not unique. Shaul Gannon, an organizer with Aguda, says that most gay-identified Palestinians he talks with fled out of fear for their lives after experiencing extreme familial violence, often sanctioned by the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). Dima Aweidah-Nashashibi, Deputy Director of the Women’s Counseling and Legal Aid Center (wclac), which serves Palestinian women in the West Bank and Gaza, says that since the Oslo Accord, the P.A. has based all laws concerning personal and family issues on the shariah, as derived from the Koran; and the family and personal court system is now dictated by traditional religious codes.

Some young Palestinians claim that the application of these laws has led to a form of imprisonment at the hands of the P.A. that includes torture, rape, and even death. They claim they were sent to “re-education camps” or “boarding reform schools,” located outside of Jenin and Dar Yunis Refugee Camps, under P.A. jurisdiction and administered by local Muslim clerics. The camps are presumably for minors who have been found guilty of a crime in a family court, including the commission of “indecent acts.” The official “re-education” program consists of several months of Koranic study for fifteen hours per day along with training in a trade skill. But many young men say that both guards and other inmates were encouraged to assault the young men who were interned there both physically and sexually.

Tarek’s story, which was supplied in translation by Aguda, is instructive. Tarek was taken to the camp in Gaza and describes his ordeal: “During my own jail time I was subjected to beatings with belts, clubs and was forced to sit on bottles which were inserted into my rectum. I was hanged by the hands, I was deprived of sleep and when I finally did sleep, my limbs were tied to the floor.” This treatment lasted for the first two months of his six-month internment; the abuse was lessened during the last four months, but did not stop.

The brutality of Israel’s occupation has normalized Palestinian society to extreme violence; domestic violence is not talked about. Familial violence has increased as a consequence. The family is considered the basic unit of social organization in Muslim society. Tradition permits men to do whatever they deem necessary to ensure the honor of their families. Aweidah-Nashashibi claims that the P.A.’s institutionalization of traditional Muslim ideas of family honor within Palestinian society helped set the stage for the allowance of extreme violence against women and others—including homosexual men—perceived to jeopardize family honor in any way. Fearing that they might be abused or even killed by a family member with the tacit support of their local communities, young Palestinians who are identified as homosexuals leave their homes for Israel in order to avoid the consequences of their alleged dishonor. “Palestinians know that it is a shame to their families to be labeled as a homosexual,” says Aweidah-Nashishibi. “It makes sense to me that men who feel they have shamed their families or who feel that their actions might bring shame to their families would run away.”


The Flight to Israel

Running away into Israel, however, is hardly a panacea. Gannon says that at this point, Israel refuses to accept any requests from gay Palestinians seeking asylum on the basis of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s statement that “accepting even one request from a Palestinian for asylum would open the floodgates and provide a major security risk.” Such an attitude prevents gay-identified Palestinians from legally accessing any of Israel’s social services.

Members of mainstream gay Israeli organizations (including Gannon, who says he supports the Israeli government’s overall policy toward the Palestinians*) have yet to challenge the Israeli government’s policy toward Palestinian asylum seekers in general, reflecting an overall Israeli unwillingness to confront seriously the contradictions inherent in Israel’s occupation policies and its self-image as a proponent of basic human rights. (A notable exception is the Israeli feminist gay and lesbian group Black Laundry. Formed in 2001, Black Laundry has help organize several anti-occupation protests and regularly participates in the weekly Women in Black demonstrations in Tel Aviv.)

But gay Israeli men say that Palestinian prostitutes show them “another side” of Palestinian men that they are not used to seeing, justifying an exception for certain Palestinian men. As Gannon himself put it, “These boys are not ‘security threats’; they are nice, sweet boys. These boys don’t even care about the political situation; they just want to be loved.”

Amitai is a 44-year-old gay man who says that he enjoys soliciting Palestinian men. “I like the Arab prostitutes because they show us that there is another way for the Palestinian and the Israeli man to relate to each other than as enemies in a war. … For the [gay]Arab man, he does not say he wants to see Israel destroyed because he knows that if there was not [sic]Israel then he would have no place to go to be free.”

“Most Jewish men only know Arab men that they met while they were in the army,” says Paolo, 39, who served in the IDF during the war with Lebanon. “But I am never afraid that the [gay]Arab men I see will be that way [violent]. … They are not hostile toward us and we are not afraid that they will try to hurt us. … It is good for them to see [us], and it good for us to know that Arab men can be friends with Jewish men.” Neither Amitai nor Paolo say they know any gay Palestinian men who are not prostitutes, and both of them say that they do not socialize with Palestinians outside of their sex-for-money interactions. “It is not about politics,” said Paolo. “That is why we can be friends and not be afraid of each other.”

Aweidah-Nashishibi claims that domestic violence in the occupied territories rises in direct proportion to Israel’s violence against the Palestinians. Additionally, the confluence of circumstances that force most gay Palestinians into prostitution in Israel only compounds the already prevalent stigma of collaboration associated with prostitution and homosexuality in the eyes of Palestinians.

This perception is both reinforced and exploited by Israeli military tactics that aim to ensnare Palestinians into collaboration. No representative of the Palestinian Authority would comment to me on allegations of P.A. complicity in abusing the rights of gay men. One P.A. representative claims that “there is no such thing as a gay Palestinian; if he is gay then he should go to Israel.” But P.A. representative Ali Sawaftah says that one of the biggest problems confronting the P.A. security forces is that, in addition to offering poor Palestinians money, Israel frequently uses prostitutes to blackmail Palestinians into supplying the Israeli Defense Forces with information.

According to the P.A., after a man has been arrested he is subjected to psychological and sometimes physical torture until he agrees to provide the Israelis with information. Once he agrees, the military agents reward him with a trip to a brothel or offer him a prostitute, including a male prostitute. The Israelis photograph the encounter, and then threaten to use the photos against him should he ever refuse them a request. (In Haifa I spoke with a female prostitute who said that she had been involved in such operations. Palestinian men would be brought to a room that had cameras in the ceiling. When she tried to run away from her pimp and the police caught her and returned her, her pimp threatened to send pictures of her with Palestinian men to her family in Russia.) “This is a very powerful weapon for the Israelis, because they know that it will dishonor the man and his family,” said Sawaftah. “They also know that any mention of a Palestinian man seeing a prostitute makes people think he must be a collaborator.”

Hazim comes from Balata Refugee Camp and now lives in Jerusalem, where he helps other gay Palestinian men get into Israel. In his experience, the Shabak, or Israeli secret police, will immediately attempt to blackmail any gay Palestinian they encounter into being a collaborator. He says that the men are sometimes picked up by the Israeli police ostensibly for being in the country illegally, and eventually end up in the custody of Shabak. Shabak threatens to tell their families or the P.A. that they are gay and working as prostitutes in Israel.

When the Israelis are finished with them, they drop them off inside the West Bank or Gaza, where they are then taken into P.A. custody and questioned about how they were able to remain for so long in Israel without being deported. Hazim says he only knows of one man who confessed his real situation to the P.A. after he was dropped off by Shabak. He was found beaten to death, with his genitals mutilated, two streets away from his home the day after he was released by the P.A. police.


Western Imperialism or Gay Liberation?

In the last year, speculation on the sexuality of Arab men became a popular topic for columnists and writers in the U.S., and it remains a focus of the mainstream gay and lesbian press. More often than not, however, American portrayals of the situation confronting Palestinian and other Arab gay men are often inadequate. One example is Yossi Klein Halevi’s article, “Refugee Status,” published in the August 19, 2002, issue of The New Republic. Halevi interviewed Gannon and Palestinian male prostitutes living in Israel, providing graphic details about the abuses they suffered at the hands of the P.A. and Palestinian society. Referring to the treatment that these men received by Israeli officials, Halevi assures the reader that “at least they are beyond the reach of their families and the P.A.” Halevi’s article makes no mention of how Israel’s occupation policies have impacted their lives.

Halevi’s article was cited by American gay publications throughout the country that had already jumped on the Islam-bashing bandwagon. But the story did little to convey the complexity of the story behind the lives of gay Palestinians living in Israel. And while Halevi puts the P.A. on trial for its treatment of those who have been abused because of their sexuality, he makes no reciprocal attempt to challenge Israeli society or its government for condoning the violence that feeds sexual exploitation.

A contrasting problem with representing the lives of Palestinian and other Arab men can be found in Joseph Massad’s Winter 2002 article in the journal Public Culture, “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World.” Coining the phrase the “gay international” in reference to international Western-oriented mainstream gay and lesbian organizations, Massad offers his analysis of how organizations such as ILGA and iglhrc have become cultural imperialism’s most flamboyant emissary in the non-Western world.

Massad’s article does not directly address impoverished and prostituted Palestinian men; if it did, many of his arguments would fall flat on their face. Instead, he focuses on “wealthy, Western-educated … native Arab and Muslim informants mostly located in the United States” as the only Arab men who dare self-identify as gay, and by doing so help destroy the traditional clandestine configuration of Arab men’s same-sex interactions.

“By inciting discourse about homosexuals where none existed before, the Gay International is in fact heterosexualizing a world that is being forced to be fixed by a Western binary,” says Massad. His article lays the blame for the violent backlash against gay-identified Arab men on the “gay international” entirely and only reinforces the notion that gay-identified Arab men are “collaborators” with Western—including Zionist—imperialism. As a result, Massad’s potentially groundbreaking critique of the selling out of gay and lesbian liberation ends up sounding like Stalinist dismissals of demands for the sexual liberation of women and homosexuals as nothing more than a bourgeois aberration. Perhaps more disturbing is his blanket rejection of the existence of impoverished Arab men forced into choosing which part of themselves they will keep in the closet in order to keep their lives.

The reality of the situation is one that needs to be addressed with far more honesty than either writer offers. Efforts to address Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people within the West Bank and Gaza and discrimination against Palestinians within Israel need to go hand-in-hand with calls for recognizing the rights of gay Palestinians within the occupied territories. As long as relationships based on political, financial, and sexual subordination are the only ones possible between gay Israeli and Palestinian men, even the “nice, sweet” gay Palestinians will be forced to fight for survival at an occupier’s mercy. “Some [gay Palestinians]want to stay in Israel because they know that they will be killed in Palestine,” said Hazim. “They want to be able to be gay and not be oppressed. But I am Palestinian and the Israelis will not accept me. I am oppressed as a Palestinian in Israel. I know we are not wanted anywhere.”


*          Gannon, who heads up outreach to gay Palestinians through Israel’s largest gay and lesbian organization, Aguda, was one of the founding members of Gays for Sharon in 2002, which publicly endorsed Sharon’s plans for tougher policies against Palestinians.



Charity Crouse is a Jewish lesbian anti-occupation activist. She interviewed activists in Israel and the West Bank for this essay.


Read More from Charity Crouse