Perilous love divided by other people's politics

Foreign Parts
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Ezra Yitzhak and his partner have a request. They would like to be left alone to get on with their lives as "two gentlemen who simply, and without guilt, love one another". And they would particularly like to be freed from the daily fear that they will be forced apart by other people's politics.

Mr Yitzhak, 49, is Israeli, Jewish and secular. His 26-year-old partner, Mustafa – we have changed his name because to reveal it would endanger his life – is Palestinian, Muslim and religious. They were born within a few miles of one another. They speak the same languages, Hebrew and Arabic; share much of the same history, and work together as plumbers.

Same-sex relationships between Israeli Jews and Palestinians are dangerous and rare; it is rarer still for the couple not only to talk about it, but to campaign – as publicly as they safely can – for the right to live together. The couple's problem is simple. Every time Mustafa sets foot out of the front door of their apartment in west Jerusalem, he is at risk of arrest and imprisonment. He lives in Israel illegally, a risk he says he is prepared to take to stay with Mr Yitzhak.

Before the intifada began 17 months ago, many thousands of Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza were admitted into Israel to work, under a system of government permits. But the numbers have shrunk because of the conflict. Mustafa is among those barred.

His case is complicated by the fact that, like many Palestinians of his age who have lived through conflict, he has served time in Israeli prisons. He was jailed for rioting in the first intifada, for car theft, and – twice – for being in Israel illegally. Last year he was released on appeal after serving only three and a half months of an eight-month term. But he remains on probation, which means the authorities are empowered to send him to prison if he is caught inside Israel illegally.

This is despite a letter the couple have from the head of Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, which states that Mustafa is not a security risk. This was one of the few positive results of a tireless campaign by Mr Yitzhak to get the Israeli authorities to grant a permit to Mustafa.

"People can't understand that we have a normal relationship," said Mr Yitzhak, "We are just two gentlemen who love one another and want to live together. We don't want the world intruding ... We have never been in the closet. We don't understand why people should bother us."

Mustafa agrees. "We believe in what we are doing. We are not doing anything wrong." He gets upset by Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, but sees his partner as one of the Israeli minority who are sympathetic to the Palestinian plight.

The couple have been together for several years, and have signed a civil financial contract, recognising their relationship, before the Israeli courts. Mr Yitzhak pays Mustafa's taxes and national insurance to the Israeli authorities. Yet, so far, they have made little progress in legalising Mustafa's presence in Israel.

"It is safer here for Mustafa," said Mr Yitzhak. "In the West Bank, he would be unemployed and known as a gay. Here he can express himself, because it is more open-minded."

This is an understatement. According to Jerry Levinson, chairman of the Open House gay community centre in Jerusalem, only 50 Arab men, and no women, have dared to "come out" in Israel and the occupied territories, as opposed to many thousands of Israeli Jews. Homosexuality is taboo, and is often met with violence.

The dangers multiply ten-fold for an Arab man known to be in a relationship with an Israeli. Though Mustafa's family is understanding, it would be perilous for him to return home. "I think his life would be in danger," said Mr Levinson.

This week, Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to hold a formal meeting with the leaders of Israel's gay and lesbian organisations. Israel has some of the world's more progressive gay rights laws, a clutch of gay and lesbian pressure groups and a thriving gay media. But this liberal view has yet to percolate through to much of Israeli society, notably the religious right.

There were no journalists present at the meeting. Jerry Levinson called on Mr Sharon to make a public statement supporting the legitimacy of the gay and lesbian community. Then the question of Ezra Yitzhak and Mustafa came up.

The response was not promising. The Israeli premier said he appraised individual cases on their merit. But, Mr Levinson says, Mr Sharon also expressed his fear that this case was another attempt on the part of the Palestinians to infiltrate Israel under the right of return.

It was a depressing setback, but not the end. "We won't give up," Mr Yitzhak said. "These stupid objections from the authorities just make our relationship stronger."