TEL AVIV, Israel — On a weekday morning in August, Abdul Rawashda, a 27-year-old Palestinian from Hebron, shows me his West Oslo bachelor pad via Skype. It’s a short tour. Rawashda is holding his laptop as he points out every nook and cranny of his studio apartment. “Cozy” is what you’d call it if you were putting up a “For Rent” ad in the paper. “It’s very small,” he said, as though he could read my thoughts, “but I like it.”
It’s a dreary day in Norway despite it being the middle of summer. “It hasn’t stopped raining,” he said, covering himself with a thick blanket. “I’ll never get used to this weather.” From his balcony overlooking the American embassy hangs a Palestinian flag. “I want them to see it every morning when they come in,” he laughs.
It’s a far cry from his hometown in the West Bank, the place he was forced to flee. “I’m happy,” he said. “I love Norway. I have Norwegian citizenship now. I can go anywhere in the world.” Then, he pauses, realizing the irony in his last words. “Except home, of course.”
On January 26, 2010, Rawashda was picked up by the Palestinian secret police in the middle of the night. Cops had gone through his friend’s cellphone, where they found text messages sent from Rawashda that made it clear they were both gay. Next thing he knew, he was in an interrogation room being accused of collaborating with Israel. “I’d never even been to Israel before. But anyone who’s gay is immediately accused of spying for the enemy.”
For the next 16 hours, Rawashda was brutally beaten and tortured. Twelve thugs in uniform dunked his head in a toilet, trying to get him to sign a confession. “It was the worst night of my life. I don’t like talking about it.” When Rawashda refused, they picked up the phone, at 5 a.m., called his dad and told him his son was gay.
“They knew it was my biggest fear. They wanted to punish me.” His mom told him over the phone not to return home because his father and brother were going to come after him. “I had ‘dishonored’ the family.”
With the help of some friends, Rawashda escaped to Jordan, then Israel. He was in awe of Tel Aviv, a gay-friendly city with Pride parades rivaling those in Berlin and Amsterdam. As we chat about his life in Israel, Rawashda tells me to pan the camera so he could see the street behind me. “How is Tel Aviv?” he asks. “I miss it.”
Less than two weeks after finally making it to safety, Rawashda was picked up again, this time by the Tel Aviv PD. “Something was going down, and they were checking people’s IDs.” Rawashda, an undocumented Palestinian in Israel illegally, was taken into custody. Fearing deportation, he appealed to the officer’s sense of compassion. “I cried. I told him if they send me back, my life would be in danger.”
Instead, he was offered a deal: permission to stay, if he became an informant. The irony wasn’t lost on him. “I was almost killed by my own people who accused me of being an informant for Israel, and now Israelis were trying to get me to do it. Everyone just wanted to use me.”
When he refused, Israeli security forces escorted him to the checkpoint. But Rawashda managed to return, time and time again. He’d get caught, cops would send him across the border, and Rawashda would find a way back: a dangerous Sisyphean game he played with Israeli security people for more than two months.
During that time, he met a young filmmaker, Yariv Mozer, who was shooting a documentary called “The Invisible Men,” about gay Palestinians living in Tel Aviv.
“They’re trapped in an impossible situation,” said Mozer. “They can’t go home, because they’re afraid of being killed by their own families, and they can’t get asylum in Israel because of their perceived security threat.”
Mozer, who included Rawashda in his documentary, got him in touch with The Aguda, Israel’s National LGBT Task Force, which was able to help him find a lawyer specializing in asylum cases.
It’s hard to say how many gay Palestinians live and work in Israel. There are no studies on the matter, not that it would help. “When you’re in survival mode, it takes over,” said Anat Ben-Dor of the Refugee Rights Clinic at the Tel Aviv University Law Faculty. “In this case, a big part of that survival is hiding.”
The ones who’ve managed to elude authorities are mostly from the West Bank. Few, if any, are from Gaza, partly because of the blockade and partly because Hamas has pushed gays even deeper into the closet. So far no gay Palestinian has ever been granted asylum in Israel. In fact Palestinians, gay or straight, are barred from even applying for refugee status in Israel.
In 2002, Palestinians from The West Bank allegedly used their permits to aid suicide bombers, which led Israel to pass laws limiting the granting of residency permits to Palestinians. Since then, only Palestinians whose lives are in danger because they’ve collaborated with Israel are granted permits.
But experts say even if there was a way for them to apply, many can’t. “To get help, gay Palestinians have to get through incredible hurdles,” said Ben-Dor. “They have to meet Israelis or other Palestinians they trust enough to confide that they’re both gay and living in the country illegally. That person has to then be willing and able to find the right organization that could direct them to the appropriate lawyers, and even then, there is no chance of getting protection against deportation back to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
Not to mention, many of them have never uttered the words “I’m gay” before. “They haven’t even gone through the internal process of coming out of the closet,” said Shai Doitsh of The Aguda. “And we can’t help them unless they come to us and say those words. We, as an LGBT task force, can only help them if they come to us and say, ‘I’m gay.’”
Still, many believe Israel simply isn’t too keen on sheltering any refugees no matter where they come from. Israel’s recent handling of tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, who flooded its southern borders, has been a PR nightmare. Thousands were arrested as soon as they set foot in the country. “When the Sudanese came, Israel considered them enemy nationals rather than refugees. They were put in jail because they were all deemed to be a security risk simply because of their nationality,” said Ben-Dor. “They had no idea what to do with them. Once they realized many of them weren’t necessarily part of the regime but its victims, they released them.” She says she hopes that learning curve will apply some day in the case of gay Palestinians. “Just as Israel learned that not all Sudanese nationals are a security risk simply because of their nationality, it will learn that a Palestinian who seeks protection is not necessarily a security risk.”
Others believe Israel should be more welcoming to asylum seekers, considering it was founded by Jewish refugees.
“This is not the way a democratic country behaves,” said Yohana Lerman, an Israeli lawyer who represents several gay Palestinians seeking asylum. “Israel is dragging its feet. We keep getting the runaround while the issue is passed from committee to committee.”
“We follow the Geneva Convention, just like any country,” said Sabin Hadad, spokesperson for the Israeli Interior Ministry. “But according to international law, being gay is not a reason for granting asylum. We check every case individually.” She said there is also the question of verification. “Anyone can say that they’re gay in order to get asylum. How can we know for sure?”
Ben-Dor said that’s hogwash. “There are ways to investigate these claims. Other countries that deal with this issue train their asylum officers on how to vet people’s stories.”
But not everything is grim. “Surprisingly, movies like The Invisible Men and Out in the Dark [about an Israeli man who falls in love with a gay Palestinian whose family has ties to Hamas] have made a difference,” said Doitsh. “Also, we’ve been working with local authorities, educating them about the issue, so that rather than take them back to the border they call us first.”
Rawashda’s story has a happy-ish ending. Thanks to Israeli lawyers and NGOs, he was granted asylum in a small town in Norway, population 20,000. “I left my country and gave up everything so that I could be gay. Only there were no gay people there. I missed my home, the weather, the language. I was very depressed.”
Eventually, Rawashda moved to Oslo, one of the most progressive cities in the world. He has a boyfriend now, a job, and a tiny, yet homey, place in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city. His relationship with his family is “fine.”
He’s not a fan of Israel. In fact, Rawashda blames the occupation for Hamas and the Palestinian Authority’s treatment of gays, “you need to liberate the people so they can liberate themselves,” he told me, even though the PA’s views are consistent with other Arab countries who have never been under Israeli occupation. But he’s thankful for those Israelis, most of them gay, who took him in and saved his life. “I watch the news now. There is so much fighting back home,” he said with sadness. “If gay people ran that region, on both sides, there would be no war.”