Shock, questions after the grisly killing of Palestinian gays

JERUSALEM – The severed head and torso of a 25-year-old Palestinian man were discovered on the side of a road in the occupied West Bank, police said Friday, confirming gruesome details of a killing that shocked Palestinian society.

But reports that the victim, Ahmad Abu Murkhiyeh, was a gay man who feared persecution for his sexuality and had sought asylum in Israel two years ago turned the horrific crime into a socially and politically explosive case.

It was unclear how Abu Murkhiyeh ended up in Hebron, the conservative West Bank city from which he had reportedly fled. Palestinian police officials told The Associated Press on Friday that Abu Murkhiyeh’s head and torso were found near his family’s house.

Col. Loay Irzekat, a police spokesman, said authorities arrested a Palestinian acquaintance of Abu Murkhiyeh as a suspect in the killing, but declined to attribute a motive or elaborate on their relationship pending the investigation.

Palestinian social media was gripped by the gruesome killing, but silent on the issue of Abu Murkhiyeh’s sexuality. Homosexuality remains deeply taboo in the Palestinian territories, where traditional norms play a prominent role in social and political life.

Still, there was plenty of outrage across the West Bank. Graphic footage taken of Palestinian youths encountering Abu Murkhiyeh’s dismembered body on a hillside spilled through WhatsApp groups, sparking shock and horror before being taken down.

“This is a very ugly crime,” an elderly relative, also named Ahmad Abu Murkhiyeh, told Palestinian radio station Al Karama. “Something like that shouldn’t be discussed.”

Abu Murkhiyeh’s family released a statement of condolence offering blessings and asking for privacy after “this heinous, unprecedented crime that rocked the homeland.”

The family claimed that Abu Murkhiyeh lived and worked between Hebron and neighboring Jordan, where his late father was from.

As news of Abu Murkhiyeh’s death spread, a markedly different version of events emerged from Israel. LGBTQ organizations and shelters that help gay asylum seekers said they knew he was gay and desperate to escape the Palestinian territories where he was a target.

Rita Petrenko, founder of Al Bait Al Mokhtalef, an Israeli gay rights organization that caters to the Arab community, said Abu Murkhiyeh’s fears were evident when they met in 2020.

“He told me that people not only in his family but in the village wanted to kill him,” she said, adding that he fled to Israel when news of his sexual orientation spread through Hebron two years ago. “He was afraid of his brothers, his uncles, his cousins.”

Abu Murkhiyeh bounced around from shelter to shelter, scraping by at occasional restaurant jobs in Tel Aviv, Petrenko said, while she helped him apply for resettlement to Canada.

He had no prospects in Israel. With temporary status, he was barred from working until last July, when Israel began issuing work permits to Palestinians who have sought refuge because of violence and persecution for their sexual orientation, Petrenko said.

“The situation was terrible for all of them,” said Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset who petitioned the Supreme Court to grant gay Palestinian asylum seekers work visas.

Israel often promotes its tolerance in matters of sexual orientation, despite the rejection of homosexuality in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. But Tel Aviv is proud of its reputation as a top destination for gay and lesbian travelers.

Critics accuse Israel of “pink-washing” and say it uses such tolerance as a way to divert attention from its open occupation of the West Bank, now in its 56th year, and its harsh policy toward the Palestinians.

Just hours before Abu Murkhiyeh was killed Wednesday, he was speaking with volunteers at his shelter in Tel Aviv for a regular check-in, Petrenko said. There was nothing wrong. The next day, the story of his beheading dominated the media.

There was an outpouring of anxiety from Tel Aviv.

“We are heartbroken… will always remember you, Isu,” said Elem, a group that helped Abu Murkhiyeh, addressing him by a nickname. “We will never stop fighting so that others like you can live freely like any other human being. .”

At the shelter where he most recently stayed, staff lit a candle for Abu Murkhiyeh during a solemn vigil on Friday.

Petrenko said she had no idea how he showed up in Hebron. “He never felt safe,” she said.

Gay Palestinians tend to be cautious for fear of attracting unwanted attention from their socially conservative society and backlash from the authorities. In 2019, Palestinian Authority police prevented gay and transgender rights groups from holding events in the West Bank and threatened to arrest participants.

Homosexuals within Israel’s Arab minority have also faced violence and ostracism in their communities.

West Bank Palestinians like Abu Murkhiyeh have long entered Israel to live openly. There are nearly 100 such Palestinians living under asylum, said Mara’ana-Menuhin, the lawmaker, but the number is likely far higher.

“It’s not like these people come out at all. They’re found and they’re hunted,” said Hila Peer of Aguda, an Israeli LGBTQ rights organization. “Ahmad’s case is just another example of how bad the situation is , and how seriously dangerous it is.”

Associated Press writers Isaac Scharf in Jerusalem and Eleanor Reich in Tel Aviv, Israel contributed to this report.