By nearly all accounts, Ahmad Abu Murkhiyeh was easy to like. The gay Palestinian man living in Israel was possessed of a soft-spoken intelligence that he applied for the benefit of others.
But back in his native Hebron, hatred lurked. Years of abuse from his family and general intolerance in Palestinian society had led him to flee in 2020. Life in Israel was precarious, but nominally safer.
Then last month, Abu Murkhiyeh turned up back in the West Bank, in a grisly video that showed him being beheaded by an unidentified assailant. The suspect, understood to be a Palestinian, was arrested and questioned, but has not been named; all signs point to him having been motivated to murder by Abu Murkhiyeh’s sexual identity.
Even before his life was cut short, the 25-year-old had been suspended in a kind of limbo familiar to other gay Palestinian men in Israel.
Forced to flee their homes for fear of being killed over their “sinfulness,” dozens of gay Palestinians have sought the relative safety of Israel, though just getting there is a journey fraught with peril. For those that make it out of the West Bank, what awaits them is an existence filled with dizzying uncertainties and life-threatening hazards on top of the traumas they have survived.
Homosexuality remains deeply shunned in Palestinian society. A 2019 Arab barometer poll found that only 5% of West Bank Palestinian respondents said society should tolerate homosexuality, the lowest number in the Arab world.
Gay Palestinians speak of savage beatings, forced isolation, murder attempts at the hands of family and myriad other forms of persecution against them because of their sexual identity.
For years, Abu Murkhiyeh suffered beatings at the hands of family members, according to those who knew him. In 2020, the attacks reached such frequency and intensity that he felt he had no choice but to flee to Israel and cut off all ties with his family.
It’s still unclear how and why Abu Murkhiyeh found himself back in Hebron, where he met his grisly end on October 6 in an act captured on video and uploaded to social media by his alleged killer — a way to “make an example” of him, sources believe.
The murderer was arrested within the hour by Palestinian police. People in Israel who had been close to Abu Murkhiyeh are all but certain he was kidnapped. Some allege, without evidence, that his family played a role in the murder.
“No way in hell!” his friend Ariella Menaker, an LGBT activist, exclaimed when asked if he had ever willingly set foot in the West Bank after escaping to Israel.
His family insists that he had been residing in his father’s native Jordan — a claim belied by a paper trail that documents Abu Murkhiyeh’s presence at various Israeli shelters for at-risk LGBT individuals — and that he had returned to Hebron for a visit to his maternal relatives.
The Abu Murkhiyeh family could not be reached for comment.
The slaying was covered in media outlets around the world as a gruesome manifestation of homophobic hatred, even while Palestinian reports drew a veil over his sexual identity and life in Israel. For some of Israel’s supporters, the tragedy provided ballast to the idea that the country forms an oasis of progressive values in a benighted Middle East, giving refuge to those cast out by the bigots next door.
People familiar with Abu Murkhiyeh’s life in Israel, and with Israel’s dealings with gay Palestinians generally, paint a more nuanced picture. Israel is a safe haven, but a deeply flawed one, they say, pointing to a myriad of laws and regulations seemingly aimed at making sure non-Jewish asylum seekers do not get too comfortable.
From temporary permits that need to be renewed several times a year or even every month, to a law (which was canceled in June) that banned gay Palestinian asylum seekers from working in Israel, forcing many of them into sex work, life in Israel can be especially hard for gay Palestinians, who make up only about 90 of the approximately 30,000 asylum-seekers in Israel.
“We’re not talking about waves of LGBT Palestinians waiting on the other side of the fence seeking to enter the State of Israel,” said Ibtisam Mara’ana, a former Labor MK who led the push for a law that allowed Palestinians who fled to Israel to work. “We’re talking about a few dozen people.”
Adi Lustigman, a human rights lawyer who frequently handles asylum cases for gay Palestinians, said several factors keep Palestinians who identify as LGBT from seeking help from Israel.
“It’s not so simple, culturally or psychologically,” she said. “First, they need to get to the stage of being able and willing to seek out assistance, when all they’ve heard is rumors about what happens in the custody of Israeli authorities. Second, they must be ready to out themselves as gay or trans in front of those same authorities.”
“There are a lot more people in danger who don’t reach out,” said Lustigman.
Through the breach
Telling the story of Abu Murkhiyeh’s life before his arrival in Israel is a complicated task; he was not one to rake over the past.
“He was an intelligent man but very quiet… He was a normal person but people who have been through trauma all have their own psychological issues,” said Rita Petrenko, founder of al-Bayt al-Mukhtalif (The Different House), a center for the empowerment of Israel’s Arab LGBT community, where Abu Murkhiyeh frequently volunteered and participated in discussion circles.
No one was able say exactly how he escaped from the West Bank or which episode in the series of violent acts by his family members convinced him to take that step. Despite the beatings from relatives, “he didn’t like to speak ill of them,” Petrenko said.
According to Petrenko, Abu Murkhiyeh first fled to Ramallah, but was swiftly tracked down by his family.
There are no authorities, Israeli or Palestinian, that persecuted gay individuals can turn to from Ramallah or anywhere else within the West Bank should they feel themselves in danger.
Agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have made the PA responsible for “welfare issues” in its territory, which includes protecting LBGT people and other minorities. Agents of the PA, however, are not immune to the homophobia infecting their society.
Lustigman gave the example of a client who was beaten up by PA police after he’d crossed into the West Bank through the Qalandiya checkpoint near Jerusalem. Her client had naively volunteered the information that he had been in Israel taking refuge from abuses he faced as a gay man.
Thus, the safest option is to simply make a break for Israel, utilizing the same illegal crossing points used by Palestinian laborers who sneak through, over, or under the West Bank security barrier. This is an option available almost exclusively to West Bank Palestinians, given the relative laxity of Israel’s West Bank barrier compared to Gaza.
Israel has spent $4.2 billion on the sprawling barrier, which comprises a wall in some parts and a fence in others, but it’s far from impenetrable. Palestinians clamber through narrow breaches in barbed wire, climb 26 feet up and back down walled sections with rickety ladders and fraying ropes, or crawl through drainage ditches that spit them out inside Israel.
Military officials for years turned a blind eye to the thousands going through the fence for work in Israel, because in their view, the relatively higher wages workers earned on the Israeli informal labor market and then brought back with them to the West Bank served to ease the pressure on the economically depressed territory.
“Going into Israel illegally is scary because there is some military presence, but not as difficult as you might expect,” said Meirav Ben-Ze’ev, who works on the issue of Palestinian asylum seekers at HIAS Israel, an organization providing aid to persons displaced by war and persecution.
However, since a rash of terror attacks in the past year, some of them carried out by Palestinians who entered Israel through holes in the fence, the Israel Defense Forces has stepped up efforts to patch up the barrier and has stationed more guards at many points, making the crossing more fraught.
Hypothetically, gay Palestinians could apply for work permits, wait for them to come through, get caught overstaying in Israel, then under interrogation explain their predicament in hopes of winning temporary permission to remain.
But work permits are only given to married Palestinians at least 25 years old. And securing such permits entails a lengthy wait time, making them irrelevant for those looking to flee quickly — the situation in which many LGBT Palestinians find themselves, especially if they have already been outed.
In one case documented in a HIAS Israel report, a man bearing the pseudonym Zain described how his family promptly locked him in a room upon discovery of his sexual identity. He overheard them behind the door discussing the “most correct way” to kill him, so he slipped out the window and hid in the West Bank for several days before making his way to Israel.
Gay Palestinians desperate to flee the West Bank could go down one final escape route: working with Israeli security forces. Israel maintains a special body, the Committee for Threatened Individuals (CTA), that pushes through the asylum claims of those endangered in the Palestinian territories because they have collaborated.
These are just about the only Palestinians eligible for permanent residency in Israel — but even that requires the sign-off of the prime minister and represents a privilege granted to a select few who have passed on invaluable knowledge.
Israel’s security agencies have been accused of identifying gay Palestinians through surveillance and then using that information to pressure them into pawning their eyes and ears to the Israeli intelligence services.
Veterans of the IDF’s vaunted 8200 intelligence gathering unit penned a letter of dissent against the practice in 2014. They had trouble reconciling the extortion of gay Palestinians with the unit’s putative LGBT-friendliness. 8200 puts on a yearly drag show, graced by the presence of its commanders.
“If you are homosexual and know a wanted person, Israel will make your life miserable,” one of the signatories told the Haaretz news outlet at the time. “During my training, we actually learned to memorize Arabic words for ‘gay.’”
Because the practice is fairly well-known, gay Palestinians who remain in the West Bank or Gaza are looked upon with suspicion, compounding the stigmas they face due to their sexuality.
“Israeli blackmailing exacerbates homophobia in Palestinian society,” said Sa’ed Atshan, a Palestinian-American professor of anthropology at Emory University who’s written extensively on LGBT issues among Palestinians. “It undermines the collective social fabric by eroding trust and associating queerness with treason.”
Intelligence services never approached Abu Murkhiyeh, as far as friends and acquaintances know. People working with LGBT asylum seekers claimed that the ease of crossing via breaches in the fence had made it more difficult for Israeli intelligence to recruit collaborators by exploiting their sexual identities.
Pleading for their lives
In general, once in Israel, Palestinians fleeing persecution eventually fall into the hands of Israeli police. Brought down to the station, they are given a chance to relate their harrowing experiences.
If they can make a convincing case that immediate deportation would put them in harm’s way, Israel may grant them temporary, renewable permits, but not refugee status.
Tasked with vetting them are social workers at the Civil Administration, a branch of the Israeli army that manages large swaths of the West Bank.
A social worker, known as a “welfare coordinator,” accompanied sometimes by helpers and almost always by a translator, hears out the detained Palestinian before deciding upon the credibility of his story and urgency of his asylum claim.
The determination usually comes down to the social worker’s “gut feeling,” Lustigman charged.
A 2009 Israeli inter-ministerial report that provided guidelines for dealing with gay Palestinian asylum-seekers concluded that LGBT individuals in the West Bank did not face danger as long as their sexuality was not on public display. It warned that asylum applications may be motivated by a desire to “enjoy the more liberal lifestyle in Israel” rather than any mortal danger.
The report’s recommendations have placed a high burden of proof on Palestinian asylum-seekers who claim they’d be harmed or even killed if repatriated.
The social workers often have preconceived notions of what truly endangered asylum-seekers should say and how they should say it, Lustigman said.
But asylum seekers, often still trauma-stricken, are rarely able to arrange their ineffably painful past into a neatly packaged narrative: they sometimes distort timelines, garble details, fixate on irrelevant facts or omit key facets of their stories out of shame. When this happens, the case can often end in deportation, Lustigman said.
“It’s unrealistic to expect that survivors of ostracism, persecution, abuse, exploitation, severe violence and murder attempts will sit all alone across from members of the Civil Administration and speak coherently about their most difficult traumas, exposure to which has brought them into their current state of risk,” Lustigman said.
The social workers also tend to take an adversarial tone when conducting interviews, the attorney charged, and often display a lack of familiarity with the subject matter.
She recalled a recent interview in which a client was subject to irrelevant questions from brusque authorities who fixated on his marriage, which he entered into as a matter of course for a young Palestinian man before coming to terms with his sexuality.
“They kept cutting him off when he tried to explain himself,” said Lustigman.
A Civil Administration spokesperson described the interview process as “sensitive” and “professional.”
“In the context of the process of researching an asylum request, a meeting takes place between the welfare coordinator and the Palestinian individual, as it is necessary for them to get to know each other personally, [for the coordinator] to assess the danger to the Palestinian’s life, and to find a suitable solution to the humanitarian problem,” the spokesperson said. “Meetings of this type must be done face to face in order to have a direct conversation with the Palestinian individual that is sensitive and professional.”
Authorities carry out due diligence research when vetting asylum requests from elsewhere, but not for persecuted Palestinians, Lustigman charged.
“If someone comes from Eritrea, there’s research into the area in Eritrea where he comes from to see if there’s really danger there. With Palestinians, there’s no research body, even though the West Bank is so much closer and it’s easy to check,” said Lustigman.
People from around the globe have the right to apply for asylum in Israel, though the state rejects a higher proportion of such applications than any country in the Western world.
In its history, Israel has granted refugee status to only some 200 asylum-seekers ineligible for naturalization under the Law of Return. That number represents well below 1 percent of those who have come to Israel seeking shelter. Most developed countries accept 10%-50% of asylum requests.
Eritrean and Sudanese nationals who made their exodus through the Sinai desert, usually with the aid of traffickers, account for 91% of asylum-seekers in Israel. When people from those two African countries seek refugee status in Europe, their applications are accepted in 45-88% of cases, depending on the state solicited.
Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of the coalition he is now in the process of forming have described asylum-seekers as economic migrants seeking a more secure financial future rather than refuge from danger.
‘They don’t want to start all over again’
Most Palestinians, though, have not the faintest hope of gaining residency in Israel. Those fleeing persecution who pass the vetting process are given temporary permits, to be renewed several times a year or sometimes monthly, and only on condition that they seek resettlement in a third country.
International law calls for refugees to be resettled in their first port of safety, with transfer to third countries reserved as an option for states with limited or strained resources. But Palestinian asylum-seekers in Israel are generally kept waiting for years until another country lets them in, sources told the Times of Israel.
Abu Murkhiyeh was about to begin the process of being resettled in Canada at the time of his death.
Even with the dangers of staying in Israel illustrated by Abu Murkhiyeh’s case and speculation that he may have been kidnapped, experts say resettlement can be a cumbersome process, putting up more hurdles to a secure life for gay Palestinians.
“One of the conditions for resettlement in most places is a clean criminal record,” said Lustigman. “But many of these people lived on the streets, so they have records. This is not because they’re big-time criminals; it’s because of all those little things you do [to survive] when you’re living in the streets.”
She also underscored that resettlement often goes against the wishes of the asylum-seekers, “In Israel they’ve picked up a little Hebrew and found some people to help them. They don’t want to start all over again in Sweden and learn Swedish.”
Petrenko thinks that asylum-seekers should be “given the option” of resettlement if they feel unsafe, but that many of the asylum-seekers, especially ones who came to Israel as adolescents, want to stay.
Abu Murkhiyeh was not among them, though.
“He wanted to leave,” Petrenko said, because he didn’t feel safe in Israel.
While nominally safer, his years in Israel were far from charmed, and he remained keenly aware of how close danger lurked.
During his two years here, Abu Murkhiyeh bounced around shelters for at-risk LGBT individuals.
Since shelters must enforce time limits to meet demand for precious few vacancies, Abu Murkhiyeh’s stay would often run out in one place before a spot in another freed up. Those nights he slept on the streets.
His employment situation was no less precarious.
When he arrived, the law still prohibited gay Palestinian asylum-seekers from working, so he was forced to go underground, winding up in prostitution. Falling into the sex industry is a fate shared by many in his situation, according to experts.
“Sometimes this prostitution means selling their bodies, plain and simple. Other times, someone acts as a ‘sponsor’ who, in exchange for sex, gives them shelter and other assistance. That’s also a form of prostitution, if not as formalized,” Lustigman said.
The law prohibiting them from working was repealed in June, but many in sex work have difficulty disentangling themselves from the exploitative ties that bind them, according to HIAS’s Ben Ze’ev, who said it was too soon to gauge the effects of the rule change.
For Abu Murkhiyeh, the money from sex work kept him from starving for a short while before he resolved to leave that life behind, according to Petrenko. She said that he preferred not to talk about that aspect of his Israeli experience.
Even once allowed to work legally, Abu Murkhiyeh found it hard to convince prospective employers to give him a stable, full-time job. Instead, he continued to work odd jobs at restaurants known for hiring undocumented Palestinians and paying them a fraction of what Israelis make.
The arrangement left him exposed to chance encounters with others from the West Bank working off the books. On one occasion, a Palestinian day-laborer recognized him and beat him up near the restaurant that had hired them both.
His enemies also taunted him from afar. Anonymous callers spewed homophobic slurs and threats at him over the phone.
“You’d think that after a year, a year and a half, people would get tired of it, but the threats were a constant thing,” said Menaker, his friend. “He didn’t feel safe with a long-term number or on social media. He could feel he was being watched.”
No asylum for Palestinians
Even if Israel rarely grants asylum to people from Eritrea, Sudan and elsewhere who seek it, the state also commits not to expel them. In this way, Israel says it conforms to the international legal principle of “non refoulement,” which calls upon countries to refrain from sending asylum-seekers back to the danger they fled.
But Israel, said Lustigman, speaking from her experience in Israeli courts, maintains that those same protections do not apply to Palestinians, who fall into a separate category. Even if they give a Palestinian temporary shelter, authorities can choose to not extend the permit when it comes up for renewal, instead ordering them deported back to the West Bank or Gaza.
“It’s possible to expel people in such a situation, exposing them to danger,” Lustigman said.
In December 2021, Abu Murkhiyeh found himself in such a situation, when his permit ran out but an extension had yet to come through.
Petrenko recalled that he was racked with fear, not knowing if, or when, a life-saving permit would come through.
“We have no way of knowing if it’s going to take four days, one week, two weeks, or even three weeks, as was the case for one young man,” she said of the gap between permits, a constant challenge. “So if there’s [only] a day left on the permit, people already start to tremble.”
Abu Murkhiyeh’s permit came through after four days, once Petrenko intervened with authorities. But it was not before it cost him his job — his employer had bent the rules for someone with no work permit, but not someone in Israel illegally.
Others have suffered worse fates than the loss of a job.
“I’ve had people [in my life] who have been expelled while we were waiting for an extension that had been promised to them,” Petrenko said.
In those cases, she recounted, “they escape back to Israel right away because they have to.”
An administrative error left one man she knew without a permit for a mere three days, enough to get him deported and to stick him with a criminal record that has complicated efforts to find a country willing to resettle him, Petrenko recalled.
“If an asylum-seeker from, let’s say, Russia, didn’t manage to renew his visa, it’s still prohibited to expel him… but from the moment that the police see a Palestinian without a permit, they move to expel him… All they see is that a Palestinian had a permit and now he doesn’t,” Petrenko said.
The exception for Palestinians derives from Israel’s interpretation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, a multilateral treaty that defines who is eligible for refugee status and states’ responsibilities toward such individuals.
The Interior Ministry told the Times of Israel, “Israel looks at asylum requests on a case-by-case basis, according to the circumstances surrounding the request and in keeping with the 1951 Refugee Convention.”
Still, Lustigman insisted that she had worked on multiple cases in which the state argued that the Israeli asylum system functioned under the idea that Palestinians need not apply.
“Everywhere else in the world Palestinians are able to get protection under the 1951 Convention,” she complained. “Only in Israel is the asylum system entirely closed off to Palestinians.”
Israel justifies this with Clause 1D of the 1951 convention, which states that the treaty’s protections do not extend to persons receiving assistance or protection from a UN agency other than the UN Refugee Agency. Palestinians displaced during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence and their descendants are aided by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
The UN says that the 1D clause serves to prevent “overlapping competencies,” though Arab states lobbied for its inclusion so that their refusal to naturalize the Palestinians they host would not constitute a violation of the convention.
Going by Lustigman’s experiences in court, Israel argues that the clause applies to all Palestinians, exempting the state from adhering to the international legal mandate to provide protection for those who have fled their homeland “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted,” if that homeland happens to be the Palestinian territories.
Lustigman noted that most clients she represented “were never assisted by UNRWA as they’re not registered as refugees,” and called the policy of collectively denying Palestinians refugee protection “irrational.”
“Not everyone in the West Bank descends from people who escaped from Israel in ’48. There were obviously people living there before,” she said, adding that UNRWA, unlike a sovereign state, can do nothing to provide physical protection.
For Lustigman, getting the Israeli justice system to rethink its interpretation of the clause is a crucial first step toward fixing the asylum system, which she believes must also be enhanced by more in-depth background research, greater transparency and easier access to legal representation for the vulnerable.
Full of hopes
While Abu Murkhiyeh’s time in Israel was marked by a near-constant state of uncertainty, he still managed to form strong bonds that withstood his peripatetic existence.
Menaker said that Abu Murkhiyeh was “popular, always surrounded by people,” who felt drawn to him because he “was full of hopes and aspirations.” In conversations, he often thought through ideas culled from his extensive reading.
Sociology, Abu Murkhiyeh’s favorite topic of research, could sometimes be easier for his nimble mind to figure out than socializing with Israelis, in light of his situation. Menaker recalled his frustration at times when he was hoping for a fun night out or maybe the start of a meaningful connection but instead ended up facing an “interrogation” about his past and his struggles as a gay Palestinian.
Abu Murkhiyeh was normally discreet about his private life, but he could also come out of his shell. Petrenko recalled being caught by surprise when he sent her a picture of himself embracing a Jewish trans woman he sometimes visited in Jerusalem.
“He looked happy,” she recalled.
Today, his slaying has shaken whatever fragile sense of security the tiny community of gay Palestinians in Israel had — yet another challenge in a seemingly endless roster.
Shortly after the murder, al-Bayt al-Mukhtalif hosted a discussion group for LGBT Palestinians in Israel, held every two weeks. The mood of the group was somber, Petrenko said, but “they’re surviving, as they’ve always done.”