On his avatar on an instant message app, Jamil looks like a happy young man, with glasses and a trendy haircut. But Jamil (not his real name) says he lives in a state of constant fear, and his most cherished dream is to leave his homeland and break free from his family. The 21-year-old student from the Gaza Strip is gay and lives a double life: an open one, as a diligent student, the youngest child in his family, busy helping his elderly parents with everyday tasks (shopping, making sure the electrical generator works and there’s water in the house) – and a secret one, a large chunk of which is spent on dating apps and fake accounts on social networks.
Jamil says he first recognized his sexual orientation at the age of 14, when he traveled abroad and met there, for the first time in his life, an openly gay person. When he returned home, he started searching the web and the social networks, looking for people like himself. He says he only came to the conclusion that his homosexuality wasn’t “some kind of a psychological disease” about two years ago, after some gay friends convinced him to accept himself.
“First of all, you talk through a fake [social media] account or on an app that keeps your identity secret,” Jamil says, in a telephone interview. “And then, one of you will work up the courage first, and send pictures of himself. After you’ve talked like this for a while, you may decide to meet. But the person you are talking to could be an [undercover] officer from Hamas in Gaza. You should be careful. You need to talk to this person first – for example on Skype. And he needs to convince you that he is not from Hamas.”
Jamil explains that for a Gaza resident, it’s not difficult to recognize a Hamas agent when you encounter one. Although Hamas is always on the lookout for gays and it monitors the social media, the organization has some blind spots – for example, Jamil assumes, they are not familiar with certain apps that gay men in Gaza can use to get to know each other and chat with people, some of them Jews, from Israel or the West Bank.
Asked what he discusses with people from Israel, Jamil says that many are anxious to hear about life in Gaza, and in particular what it’s like for a gay person there. Political issues come up too, of course. One of his correspondents, a Jew, wanted to know, for example, what Jamil thought about the firing of rockets on Israel from Gaza. Jamil says he responded that he was sorry about innocent people getting hurt.
“Once I spoke with a guy who told me that he’d been born in the vicinity of Khan Yunis prior to the Israeli withdrawal [from Gaza] in 2005,” he says. “He described how much he loved the area, and still remembers every moment from his time there. He said that he still has a gift that he received from a friend of his father’s, a Palestinian from Gaza.”
A young Israeli Jew who was in touch with Jamil via one of these apps (and who also requested anonymity) told me that they talked about politics, about Jamil’s life and his family relationships – but not only about these things.
“We discussed the erotic power of soldiers,” recalled the Israeli. “I was sure I’d encounter total hostility and disgust, but Jamil said, if I remember correctly, that he would have liked to sleep with an Israeli soldier. And there are also the completely regular things that gays do on apps like these, talking about what we like in bed. And we may also have sent each other a few naughty photos.”
In order not to arouse suspicion, gay men in Gaza don’t create any kind of clubs or groups. When they meet, they do so one on one, at a café, a restaurant or along the promenade by the sea – and try not to be seen together at the same place more than once. They can also meet at home, assuming, of course, that there are no family members around.
Jamil says he doesn’t know any lesbians and suggests that it would be much harder for women in the Strip to engage in a same-sex relationship. “There are too many restrictions on girls, things that are controlling them,” he says. “Women don’t dare to talk about those things, even among themselves.”
Like the other Abrahamic religions, Islam prohibits homosexual relations. Sharia, Islamic law, which is based on both the Koran and on the Hadith (sayings attributed to the prophet Mohammed and people who were close to him), looks askance at all homosexual acts, says Dr. Nessia Shemer from Bar-Ilan University’s Middle Eastern history department.
“Historically,” she explains, “Islamic jurists disagreed about the punishment homosexuals deserve. Some of them claim it must be the death penalty, while others say that’s not the case, and that one should distinguish between different circumstances.”
These days, however, the most influential Islamic Sunni jurist, Qatar-based Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, asserts that the punishment for homosexuality must be the same as for prostitution – namely, death, stresses Shemer. In many Muslim states, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is persecuted and people accused of it are executed.
In modern Palestinian society, homosexuality is highly stigmatized and condemned. M., a Palestinian psychologist living and working in Germany, who spoke with Haaretz on condition that he remain anonymous, says that the society’s negative attitude toward homosexuality is not necessarily connected to Islam itself, but rather to the culture and the notion of masculinity. “Islam obviously plays a role,” says M., “but even people who are totally secular reject homosexuality.”
Homosexuals cannot live openly in any Arab society in the Middle East, including in Gaza, the West Bank and Arab cities and villages inside Israel, but this doesn’t mean of course there are no gay men and women in those societies. Moreover, according to M., the taboo on any sexual activity outside of marriage leads many young men and boys to have their first sexual experience with peers of the same sex.
“This phenomenon is hushed up, and if it gets noticed, the family will hurry to marry off the boy,” he says, adding that there are also reports about men in polygamous families who encourage their wives to have sex with each other in order to see their own sexual fantasies acted out – a practice that is of course also banned by the religion.
Unlike the West Bank, where homosexuality is not officially prohibited by law, in Gaza, a law left over from the era of the British Mandate prohibiting homosexual acts is still formally in place. But the social taboo, which subjects active gays to persecution by both their families and the authorities, is more significant than the legal ban. Last year, a high-profile Hamas commander, Mahmoud Ishtiwi, was tortured and shot dead after being accused, among other things, of being gay.
Jamil tells about a friend who was imprisoned for three years for being gay, under false accusations of conspiracy with the Palestinian Authority and espionage. He himself spent a month in jail about two years ago – after posting a statement on Facebook in favor of gay rights in Gaza. He was accused of anti-government publication, put on trial and finally released after paying a 500-shekel (about $143) fine. During his imprisonment, Jamil says, he was subject to sexual harassment. “A security man tried to harass me verbally and physically. I threatened to expose him. Eventually he left me alone.”
Despite the danger and the social opprobrium, Jamil describes the gay community in the Gaza Strip as “huge” and claims that the number of people who are secretly involved in gay relationships is increasing. “I know about 150 gay guys in the Strip. I met them all during the past four years,” he writes in an instant message. In a telephone conversation, he adds that it’s hard to keep a secret in Gaza; rumors spread there quickly, and everybody knows everything about everybody.
“People in Gaza love to talk about each other. It’s a closed area, no one has much to keep himself occupied, so they spend most of their time gossiping,” he says.
Despite this, he says he’s trying to keep his own secret and is convinced that his family doesn’t know about his orientation – except for one of his brothers, who got suspicious some time ago. “You shouldn’t have these thoughts,” Jamil quotes his brother as warning him. “These thoughts are not connected to us. I’m trying to protect you. The situation in Gaza is not good.”
Eventually, Jamil adds, his brother started to threaten him and took away his cell phone. He only gave it back after eight months, when Jamil promised he would end all of his gay-related ties. The brother is busy with his own life right now and Jamil feels that for the time being, he has more space. But that situation could change.
“I’m trying so hard to get out of Gaza,” Jamil says. When asked whom he fears more – his brother or Hamas – he says “both.”
Jamil knows of some eight gay men who fled the Strip in recent years. As far as Jamil knows, at least half of them crossed the Egyptian border in Rafah, paying bribes of thousands of dollar to the guards, before continuing by sea to Europe, with the help of smugglers. “I don’t have the courage to do that,” Jamil admits. His dream is to get out via the Israeli border, and to head to Jordan until he’s ready for the next step.
When asked if he wouldn’t feel lonely and lost, being such a distance from his family and everything he’s used to, he explains that his personal safety matters more than the threat of loneliness.
“It’s too bad people cannot accept me,” he says. “You get your values from your family and from the society around you. But I can’t deal with values that do not see me as a normal person.”