LGBT Palestinians fleeing persecution in the West Bank will be allowed to work in the country, ending years being allowed to reside in Israel but little else, the Israeli government told the High Court on Sunday night.
The restrictions placed LGBT Palestinians in a highly precarious situation, driving many to work illegally under exploitative conditions or to prostitution.
“They had no access to work, to health care, to welfare services. And so what we’d see over time is that their situation would deteriorate. These are people who already arrive here traumatized, after being attacked and persecuted,” said Naama Sabato, a social worker at the Agudah rights group.
The change in policy followed a joint petition by several rights groups, including Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, the HIAS refugee rights nonprofit, and the Agudah.
Although LGBT Palestinians have become more outspoken in recent years, gay rights remain controversial in conservative, religious Palestinian society. Palestinians who come out can face societal rejection or abuse — or, in the worst case, life-threatening danger.
A gay West Bank Palestinian who testified before the Knesset on Monday described how his family had tried to kill him after they learned of his sexual orientation.
“I just want to live a normal life, but I can’t do that without healthcare, a bank account or an official identity card,” said the Palestinian, who requested anonymity.
Israel provides some temporary residency permits for Palestinians fleeing persecution in the West Bank. Most of the passes have historically gone to Palestinians who worked with the Israeli security services. These are eligible for permanent residency in Israel.
Israeli authorities still view LGBT Palestinians’ presence in the country as a stopgap “in order to find a permanent solution in the [West Bank] or in another country,” state attorneys told the court.
Around 90 LGBT Palestinians currently live in Israel on short-term permits which must be renewed every couple of months, according to the Welfare Ministry. Most eventually leave Israel for countries willing to take them in as refugees, such as Canada and Australia, but the process can take years.
LGBT Palestinians, unable to work in the meantime, were particularly liable to be exploited by the sex industry, said Osnat Hitron, an official at the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution.
“The newly announced change in government policy due to this appeal is an important step in allowing these individuals to live in basic dignity in Israel while they seek asylum in a third country, and no longer be forced to sell their bodies in order to survive,” said Hitron.
Labor lawmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana called for Israeli authorities to provide long-term visas for those fleeing persecution, rather than short-term visas that require near-monthly renewal.
“We’re not talking about waves of LGBT Palestinians waiting on the other side of the fence seeking to enter the State of Israel. We’re talking about a few dozen people,” said Mara’ana.
Last October, Zahava, a transgender Palestinian woman from the West Bank, committed suicide after falling through the cracks in Israel’s welfare system.
After being brutally abused by her family, Zahava had fled across the Green Line into Israel. The Israeli military assessed her to be in genuine, critical danger and issued her a short-term permit for the persecuted.
The pass allowed Zahava to remain inside Israel, but gave her no access to work or health care. She bounced back and forth between various shelters before eventually taking her own life.
Sabato, who worked on Zahava’s case, described her as vivacious and capable. “She wasn’t a depressive type, although she had of course undergone trauma. But in her case, [her death] was a function of this harsh reality,” she said.
“I cannot say what could have happened. But it could have been a game-changer for her. As soon as one has the right to work legally, other things begin to fall into place. Suddenly you’re not dependent on everyone else,” said Sabato.
Both the Palestinian Authority, which administers some enclaves in the West Bank, and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, have cracked down on LGBT activism in the past.
In 2019, the PA banned Al-Qaws, a Palestinian queer rights group, from operating in the West Bank. A PA police spokesperson slammed the activists for actions that “infringe upon the higher principles and values of Palestinian society.”