In the West Bank, their lives are in danger and the threat often comes from their closest relatives. When Israel agrees to help, which is the best-case scenario, that help is conditional. Ninety-one LGBTQ Palestinians have been given residency permits for humanitarian reasons, but they are living on borrowed time and don't get work permits or health insurance. There are sentenced to a life of exploitation, sometimes even resorting to prostitution. Why does Israel not allow them to take legal jobs? A petition was filed on the matter three years ago, but the state has yet to respond. A Shomrim report for Pride Month

No pride, no work, no rights: LGBTQ Palestinians in Israel are caught in a trap

In the West Bank, their lives are in danger and the threat often comes from their closest relatives. When Israel agrees to help, which is the best-case scenario, that help is conditional. Ninety-one LGBTQ Palestinians have been given residency permits for humanitarian reasons, but they are living on borrowed time and don't get work permits or health insurance. There are sentenced to a life of exploitation, sometimes even resorting to prostitution. Why does Israel not allow them to take legal jobs? A petition was filed on the matter three years ago, but the state has yet to respond. A Shomrim report for Pride Month

In the West Bank, their lives are in danger and the threat often comes from their closest relatives. When Israel agrees to help, which is the best-case scenario, that help is conditional. Ninety-one LGBTQ Palestinians have been given residency permits for humanitarian reasons, but they are living on borrowed time and don't get work permits or health insurance. There are sentenced to a life of exploitation, sometimes even resorting to prostitution. Why does Israel not allow them to take legal jobs? A petition was filed on the matter three years ago, but the state has yet to respond. A Shomrim report for Pride Month

Fadi Amun

Adrien, now in Canada. Personal photo

June 9, 2022

Summary

P

ride Month is like a litmus test for members of the LGBTQ communities living in Israel and the occupied territories. In Tel Aviv, it is celebrated passionately, with wall-to-wall backing from City Hall and the public. In Jerusalem, it causes an outpouring of rage and those participating in the parade are ever fearful of violence. In the peripheries, Pride Month is a lot more restrained and, in some small towns, the number of participants can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And what is happening on the other side of Israel's separation barrier? There, it's a story of persecution and life-threatening danger, even from the closest relatives of LGBTQ Palestinians.

"When I was 14 years old, I dropped out of school and started working with my father in constructions," S., originally from Jenin, tells Shomrim. "Shortly after that, I met a boy and we started dating. His friends videoed us kissing and extorted me into having sex with them. I refused, so they sent the video to my parents, who beat the crap out of me, breaking several bones and ribs. I barely made it to the hospital in Nablus. I moved to Israel through a breach in the barrier and I slept rough for three months, hiding out in the hills."

For Palestinian LGBTQs, obtaining a residency permit to remain in Israel for humanitarian reasons is almost impossible. Some of them relate how, when they approached the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories (COGAT), they were met with obtuseness and bewilderment. The situation has become so dire that there are now people who help LGBTQ Palestinians prepare for the questions they will be asked. "A clerk who is totally oblivious to the sensitivities that exist in the West Bank is going to determine their fate," one of those people explains to Shomrim.

S., for example, who was unable to return home but could not stay in Israel, found himself violating the law. He got his hands on a forged Israeli identity card in Ashkelon, where he found work in a factory. "I was picked up by the police in Ashkelon and they took me back to the West Bank, but I went back to the factory. Shortly after that, I was jailed for six months for being an illegal resident," he says.

From prison, he was released back into the trap. "I moved to a town in southern Israel, where I met a guy who helped me a lot. In exchange, he wanted to have sex with me. I didn't refuse." By the time he moved to Tel Aviv, he was selling his body. "I didn't have any money. I reverted to prostitution for around a week. I stood on Har Zion Boulevard and people would pick me up. Now I am working illegally in Tel Aviv. I hope to go to Australia, where I could live with dignity."

I. in Tel Aviv. Photo: Fadi Amun
"My story began when my father caught me red-handed with a boy in our house in Amman. He beat me badly and even cut one of my fingers off that night as a warning: If I continued to meet men, he would cut off my penis," I. tells Shomrim.

Accidental criminals

According to figures recently presented to MK Ibtisam Mara'ana (Labor), there are currently 91 Palestinian LGBTQs in Israel who have managed to convince COGAT that their lives would be in danger in the West Bank. The number of Palestinian LGBTQs living in Israel without a permit is a mystery, with estimates ranging between dozens and hundreds. COGAT has not responded to a request from Shomrim for the number of permit applications it has granted and how many it has turned down.

A lucky few have been granted what is known as a "welfare permit" – a document that allows them to remain legally in Israel for a period of three months. Still, it does not grant them the right to work in the country or benefit from health insurance, leaving them to rely on the kindness of others. With no legal right to work, they are forced to do so illegally. Those who cannot find work, or are not able to perform arduous physical labor, often turn to prostitution. If they contract a sexually transmitted disease or become addicted to drugs, they are not entitled to state-sponsored healthcare.

"The state's refusal to grant them the right to work legally pushes them to the margins of our society and exposes them to all kinds of violence and to the exploitation that is so typical of the gray area of working illegally, being employed in slave-like conditions, prostitution and so on," says Rita Petrenko, the CEO of "The Different House"

Rita Petrenko. Personal photo

"The state's refusal to grant them the right to work legally pushes them to the margins of our society and exposes them to all kinds of violence and to the exploitation that is so typical of the gray area of working illegally, being employed in slave-like conditions, prostitution and so on," says Rita Petrenko, the CEO of Albait Almukhtalef ("The Different House"), a nongovernmental organization that supports the Arab LGBTQ community.

Life on the margins of society and illegal employment also includes crowded and unsanitary housing solutions. "I worked illegally in a vegetable shop in Tel Aviv," I. tells Shomrim. "I was paid 150 shekels [US $45] for working a 14-hour day. The owner demanded that I sleep on a mattress on the shop floor. At night, rats would come out of the holes and eat the vegetables. There were many nights that I didn't sleep a wink and I had to work the next day. That was my routine for several months."

"Anyone who does not have a status here can't work since they can't apply for a work permit. In the best-case scenario, they find illegal work and, in many cases, the employers do not pay them and they are constantly exploited", tells Shomrim Tzachi Avraham, who runs a hostel for young members of the LGBTQ community

Tzachi Avraham. Personal photo

Young Israelis from the LGBTQ community who are forced out of their homes have other housing solutions available to them. They can stay with more distant relatives, friends or take advantage of state-provided welfare facilities. The plight of Palestinian LGBTQs is much worse. Tzachi Avraham, who runs a hostel in Holon for young members of the LGBTQ community who do not have families to help them, says that "we currently have one young Palestinian man living with us who does not have an official status in Israel. We aim to help young men and women from the community progress in life and accompany them as they start their adult, independent lives. Anyone who does not have a status here can't work since they can't apply for a work permit. In the best-case scenario, they find illegal work and, in many cases, the employers do not pay them and they are constantly exploited. This Palestinian man sees how the other hostel residents are all working and gets frustrated by his situation and his emotional state deteriorates."

The whole issue is "silenced and underplayed," Avraham adds. "The state recognizes their danger and allows them to cross into Israel but does not give them the very least they need to live in dignity. They feel utterly helpless. This year was the first time the matter was raised in the Knesset, at a committee headed by MK Ibtisam Mara'ana."

MK Ibtisam Mara'ana. Photo: Dani Shem Tov, The Knesset
MK Ibtisam Mara'ana (Labor): "Unfortunately, the state does not accept Palestinian refugees, so the only viable solution is to help these people who need a refugee visa and to relay the request to a variety of third countries".

Indeed, no Israeli government or Knesset has ever addressed the issue – until Mara'ana decided to put it on the agenda as head of the Special Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers. "Two weeks ago, I met with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories," she tells Shomrim. "The welfare permit that Palestinian LGBTQs receive is for a three-month period and I want that doubled to six months. As for work permits, the state's concern is that these Palestinians will settle in Israel. Since these people have no legal way to work in Israel, many of them resort to prostitution, which has broader ramifications. I know, for example, that there has been a spate of AIDS cases. The human rights clinic has detected five carriers in Haifa alone. This is a critical issue that must be addressed."

Another story that highlights the difficulties facing Palestinian members of the LGBTQ community is that of I., who grew up in Jordan in a wealthy family. His mother was born in the West Bank, so he has an identification card issued by the Palestinian Authority. "My story began when my father caught me red-handed with a boy in our house in Amman. He beat me badly and even cut one of my fingers off that night as a warning: If I continued to meet men, he would cut off my penis," he tells Shomrim.

His life of comfort and convenience ended overnight. "I fled from our house to the hospital and from there to the West Bank and on to Israel – after paying 2,500 shekels for a [forged] worked permit for one month. With the help of an LGBTQ activist, I managed to get a temporary welfare permit from COGAT. I have worked in many places in Israel; some never paid me, often my wages were just stolen, and the living conditions were terrible. I can't file a police complaint since, by Israeli law, I am not a legal worker. A year ago, during Operation Guardian of the Walls, Jews in Haifa attacked me. I didn't bother to file a police complaint. The most I have ever been paid was 200 shekels [US $60] for 12 hours of work. If the state gave me a work permit, I could find a more dignified job. This is the life of an enslaved person."

I. in Tel Aviv. Photo: Fadi Amun
"I didn't have any money", S. tells Shomrim. "I reverted to prostitution for around a week. I stood on Har Zion Boulevard and people would pick me up. Now I am working illegally in Tel Aviv. I hope to go to Australia, where I could live with dignity."

Their only hope: Refugee status in a third country

Between the harsh reactions of their families in the West Bank and Israeli intransigence, the only chance that Palestinian LGBTQs have for a normal life is in a different country. Human rights organizations help these people by meditating and trying to get residency permits in a third country – just as they do for refugees. There is just one significant difference, however. The Palestinians do not have and will never have refugee status in Israel. The state even downplays the extent to which their lives are in danger. A 2014 policy paper prepared by an interministerial team looking into the issue of Palestinians claiming to be in danger determined that "When it comes to the claim of endangerment because of sexual orientation, the existing facts show that there is no basis for such a claim at all and that there is no persecution based on sexual orientation in the Palestinian Authority."

The inter-ministerial team added that the state could not allow LGBTQ Palestinians into the country since they are aided by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. According to lawyers and volunteers who work with the Palestinian LGBTQ community in Israel, this assertion is "a scandal."

MK Mara'ana says that she got the impression that the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories agrees with her about the need to grant work permits to those already holding welfare permits. However, this would only be a short-term solution, she says. "Unfortunately, the state does not accept Palestinian refugees, so the only viable solution is to help these people who need a refugee visa and to relay the request to a variety of third countries."

This, in fact, is the only hope left for Palestinian members of the LGBTQ community in Israel: Getting a refugee visa for a third country. Adrien managed to do just that with the help of Albait Almukhtalef. "I am 19 years old, originally from Hebron," he tells Shomrim. "One day, I came home from Ramallah, and I had apparently forgotten to switch off my computer. My parents saw my conversations with other men. My sister warned me about what had happened and I wiped all of my media. I slept that night at a friend's house. He's also a member of the LGBTQ community. The next day, I crossed into Israel through a gap in the barrier, where a vehicle was waiting for me. I was in touch with an Israeli soldier, a Jew, and he helped me when I asked him. I met someone who helps the gay community in Be'er Sheva, and from there, I continued on to Tel Aviv."

Adrien. Personal photo
"The whole process of approving my request took a year", Adrien tells Shomrim. "My cousin chased after me and even called Amutat Dror. That same day I moved to Haifa for six months, and I worked illegally in bars and restaurants. My life in Canada is a lot easier. I'm learning the language and enjoying life here."

Adrien found shelter at Albait Almukhtalef, a temporary hostel for at-risk youths from the LGBTQ community. They offered him relocation to Canada and helped him file the necessary paperwork. "A few weeks later, I was summoned for a medical as part of the Canadian immigration process. The whole process of approving my request took a year. My cousin chased after me and even called Amutat Dror. That same day I moved to Haifa for six months, and I worked illegally in bars and restaurants. My life in Canada is a lot easier. I'm learning the language and enjoying life here."

Among others in similar situations, Adrien is considered extremely fortunate. A joint petition filed in 2019 by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Physicians for Human Rights, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, and Kav La'oved urged the state and the government to explain why Palestinians who are defined at risk – either for security reasons or because of their sexual orientation – and who are given temporary residence status in Israel, are not afforded a work permit, health insurance or essential welfare services.

Three years have passed since the petition was filed, and there has been no real progress in the discussions. After several postponements, the state is due finally – on June 23 – to respond and explain its considerations. Shomrim will continue to follow developments.

Response from the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories:

“In accordance with the interim Israeli-Palestinian agreement, responsibility and personal authority for a wide range of life issues have been transferred to the Palestinian Authority. In light of this, the basic assumption is that, in cases where a resident of the area claims to be at risk for non-security reasons, the bodies responsible for handling the situation or affording assistance are the welfare and enforcement bodies operating within the Palestinian Authority.

At the same time, in accordance with the conclusions reached in 2014 by an interministerial committee which looked into Palestinians claiming to be at risk due to suspicion of collaborating with Israel, there may be a small number of cases that could be considered extreme, wherein there is genuine concern for the safety of a resident of the area. In these cases, these residents can contact the unit for welfare coordination at the Civil Administration for assistance in obtaining temporary residency in Israeli territory, by means of a welfare permits.

At the current time, the Supreme Court is discussing a petition in which, inter alia, the petitioners want the state to give these at-risk, non-security residents the right to work in Israel, without having to submit any additional requests. The state’s position on this will be presented as part of the hearing, as is customary.

The welfare coordinator, who is a welfare professional, is authorized to examine requests to be recognized as at-risk, and in his professional capacity, he decides that the interview will focus on certain subjects. At the same, we are making every effort to protect the dignity and privacy of the people interviewed by the welfare coordinator.

With regard to your request for figures about the number of welfare permits that have been issued in the past year, we note that you have already submitted a freedom of information request on the matter and a response will be forthcoming.”

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.