What a Transgender Woman's Death Reveals About Palestinian LGBTQ Community in Israel

Zehava fled the West Bank to escape abuse and prostitution. But in Israel, she was left without basic rights – even welfare institutions offered no solution. ‘They said her appearance was not feminine enough'

Vered Lee
Bar Peleg
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People protesting violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community in Tel Aviv, in 2019.
People protesting violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community in Tel Aviv, in 2019.Credit: Meged Gozny
Vered Lee
Bar Peleg

Zehava’s body was found by police in a public park in Haifa on Friday, October 8. The 22-year-old transgender woman was found hanging, in grave condition, and was rushed to the hospital. She died two days later. The police believe she committed suicide.

Zehava’s life and tragic death have turned a spotlight on the hard lives of members of the LGBTQ+ community who lack permanent residency status in Israel. Life as a transgender woman in Israel is full of difficulties in any case, and there is a shortage of frameworks where members of the community can find support. But for those who lack residency status, life is nearly impossible, given the lack basic rights such as work permits, health insurance or the ability to open a bank account. All of these concerns, compounded by the fear that her residency status would not be renewed, brought Zehava to the edge of the abyss, welfare activists say.

“The state of Palestinian LGBTQ+ asylum seekers is shocking,” says Nina Halevy, an activist in the Gila project for transgender empowerment in Israel, who was working with Zehava. “The state allows them to stay here grudgingly and under impossible conditions, but they have no way to live. They’re allowed to be in the country, but they have no rights. What can they do? How can they survive? It’s the government that pushes them into prostitution. They deliberately provide insufficient aid.”

Zehava was already living in the street as a child. As a teenager she was sexually abused and exploited several times. A field worker who aided her recounted that Zehava had been forced into prostitution at a young age and had been blackmailed and threatened when she tried to object. In 2018, when she was 19-years-old, Zehava fled from a Palestinian city to Israel, and asked to be recognized as a victim of human trafficking. She was arrested several times for illegal residency and indicted four times. She was deported back to the Palestinian Authority, returned to Israel and was arrested again. A social worker attempted to get her a residency permit given her at-risk status as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

“I want a permit to work in Israel. I’ve asked everyone, the police, the court – three times – but no one will help me,” Zehava said in court in January 2020, after being charged with living in Israel illegally. “I can’t go back to the [Palestinian] territories. If I go to prison, I’ll stay there for several months. When I’m released I’ll go back. I want to enter Israel. Nobody can give me a permit, everyone says they can’t help me, so who can help?” Her plea went unheeded, and the court sentenced her to three months in prison.

Several months ago, The Aguda – The association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, requested a residency permit for Zehava from the welfare coordinator in the Civil Administration, arguing that she was under threat in the Palestinian territories. The welfare coordinator met with Zehava, and she received a residency permit for welfare reasons, which was valid until the end of October.

A demonstration in support of Arab members of the LGBTQ+ community in Haifa in 2019.Credit: Amir Levy

“Everytime the renewal date on her residency permit approached, Zehava would become very distressed – depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts. She would drink to oblivion for days straight just to numb the anxiety,” Halevy said.

If the fear of expulsion wasn’t enough, like other Palestinians living in Israel for humanitarian reasons, Zehava did not receive a permit to work legally in Israel. In August The Aguda turned to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Ghassan Alian, and noted that Zehava had requested a work permit back in May, but received no reply. Alian did not respond to a request for comment.

Halevy met Zehava in January 2021 while she was staying in Gag Havarod – an emergency Welfare Ministry shelter for young LGBTQ+ people. She stayed there for about four months, the maximum permitted time. “It’s a particularly cruel ticking clock for the Palestinian young people,” says Halevy. “It’s impossible to complete any rehabilitation process in just four months.”

On the brink of being thrown out into the street, Zehava was given a hotel room for two months as a donation through the Tel Aviv LGBT Center. “She stayed there without work, without money for food, cigarettes or clothes. She was frustrated and very alone,” says Halevy.

Zehava was living without health insurance or a work permit and at this point no framework could take her in. Fearing that she would end up in the street, Halevy sent her to Alma, a framework for at-risk girls and young women operated by the Elem NGO.

While Halevy says that the staff and young women welcomed Zehava, she was soon removed from the program. The welfare supervisor refused to allow Zehava to stay because “her appearance is not that of a woman.”

A demonstration in support of Arab members of the LGBTQ+ community in Haifa in 2019.Credit: Amir Levy

“That broke Zehava. She thought she had found a home, and a few days later she was told – pack up, you’re moving,” said Halevy. “Now that Zehava is no longer with us, we must go to war – excluding transgender women from female spaces? Pushing them into ghettos? It can’t happen. We deserve social services like the general population.”

Around the same time, the Coalition Against Prostitution sent a letter to Welfare Ministry officials about Zehava’s situation and those of other transgender women. “In a situation where the aid organization cannot provide a solution or transgender women, we are all, the government and civil society, likely to be responsible for abandoning an entire population.”

Zehava moved to Haifa to Elem’s Halev complex. People who were there said she was well received, but found it difficult to fit in and sometimes preferred to sleep in the street. For a while she slept in a public park in Jaffa, and one night she was raped. “We bought food for her, got a donation for a hostel for one night. She tried with all her might not to end up in prostitution,” says Halevy. In the end she returned to Halev in Haifa.

A worker in an anti-prostitution organization said that about two weeks before her death Zehava’s behavior changed, and she asked to be addressed with masculine pronouns. Halevy says it was a survival choice: “Anything that helps keep you alive is part of the toolbox, there’s no judgement. Staying alive is the supreme goal. You can win some other day, but when the conditions and circumstances are uncomfortable, you have to know when to give in.”

People who knew Zehava said that her condition seemed to be improving in the week before her suicide. She had found a job and her employers were willing to hire her without a permit. Sadly, she still chose to end her life.

Attorney Meirav Ben Zeev of HIAS, an organization that helps asylum seekers, represented Zehava in her request to be recognized as a victim of trafficking: “Zehava’s tragedy, who came to Israel hurt and in search of a safe place, is deeply frustrating and painful. When someone flees here in desperate need of hope, seeking a light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel, it is our responsibility, as human beings and as a state, to help them.”

A demonstration in support of Arab members of the LGBTQ+ community in Haifa in 2019.Credit: Amir Levy

“Although there is considerable awareness of the desperate need for rehabilitation and treatment, the necessary help isn’t forthcoming. Zehava’s case illustrates the result of that absence. The shelter system is closed to Palestinian LGBTQs and women. They depend on a ‘welfare’ permit from the Civil Administration that provides no welfare, doesn’t grant them social and medical rights or the right to work or survive,” Ben Zeev said. “Most wait months and years for the state’s help, while depending on aid organizations that also find it difficult to carry out their job due to the nature of the permit.”

In July the High Court of Justice asked the state to explain why it refuses to give temporary work permits to Palestinians who fled to Israel because of their sexual orientation. The State Prosecutor’s representative, attorney Moriah Frieman, said that Palestinians with a residence permit for welfare reasons can request for an individual work permit, and that 14 people have received such permits.

But Justice Daphne Barak-Erez rejected the claim, explaining that an individual permit requires a request from the employer, and sometimes it takes a long time to find one. “What should they do? Steal? Sell their bodies?” asked the judge.

The Welfare Ministry said in response to this article, “We are deeply sorry about Zehava’s death and send our sincere condolences. The ministry does everything possible to provide a humanitarian solution to everyone requesting help from the government, even those whose status is not yet arranged. The deceased was placed in frameworks for LGBTQ+ people and stayed in three of them.”

The ministry wrote that they are doing whatever they can to help the LGBTQ+ community, whose social problems are complex and challenging, including opening several new frameworks, even for those without residency status, but unfortunately these services couldn’t prevent Zehava’s tragic death. They wrote that the complaints about the circumstances of moving her between different frameworks will be examined by the ministry.

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