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Monday, 26 February 2007

Capitalism on the kibbutz

Many Israeli collectives shunning system of financial equality

BOSTON GLOBE | February 26, 2007
By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

KIBBUTZ DEGANYA ALEPH, Israel -- Yoya Shapiro sat on the veranda of her house, gazing across the manicured lawn of Israel's first kibbutz, or collective farm, founded by her parents and 10 other pioneers in 1910.

It was a unique experiment in communal living, rigorous socialism, and strict egalitarianism, and it thrived for decades on a spectacular site looking out at the Sea of Galilee and the imposing Golan Heights rising from the far shore.

But last week, Shapiro joined 320 fellow kibbutzniks in a vote that finally ended the financial equality among members that was a cornerstone of the ideology hewn during those early years of agricultural labor.

With that decision, Deganya joined a growing number of the nation's 270 kibbutzim in adopting many of the trappings of free-market capitalism, including differential wages and the ability to own private property. The vote ended nearly a century in which members worked according to their ability and received food, goods, clothes, and services according to their needs. Under the new system, kibbutz members keep their salaries, but pay taxes into a fund for common services such as health, education, and cultural events, as well as a support fund for poorer members.

As of December 2006, 61 percent of kibbutzim were paying differential salaries to their members and more than 20 percent had decided to transfer ownership of kibbutz houses from the collective to the members who live in them. At Gan Shmuel, north of Tel Aviv, the kibbutz leased large tracts of agricultural land to developers for a shopping mall and McDonald's. At Ein Gedi on the Dead Sea, the kibbutz guest house is now managed by an outside company that employs kibbutz members.

The privatization process began several years ago, but the symbolic importance of the change at Deganya rekindled a debate over whether the kibbutz movement could survive the inexorable march of capitalism.

"This is the end of a phase in the ideology of the kibbutz as we have known it until now," said Shlomo Getz, director of the Institute for Research on the Kibbutz and the Co-Operative Idea at Haifa University. "It's a very big difference. The kibbutz has changed over the years, just as people mature over time, but the change we are seeing now is very dramatic.

"The kibbutzim still have some characteristics that do not exist in any other place," said Getz. "They are no longer purely socialist or communes, but there remain some unique traits, including systems of mutual help and the practical responsibility of the community to its members. I expect the next step will be to divide the ownership of the communal assets, turning members into shareholders. It has already happened in two or three places."

At Deganya , the supporters of the reforms see the changes as inevitable, but not fatal.

"I voted in favor, but reluctantly," said Shapiro, who was born a few yards from her present one-story home in 1921, in what was then British-ruled Palestine. "I've lived here all my life and I know what my parents wanted. I felt like I was doing something against them, but I also felt it was necessary. I could see that the young people like these changes, and since they are going to live here in the future longer than me, I felt I had to go along with them."

The reforms were first introduced a year ago for a yearlong trial, which was approved by more than 65 percent of the members. Last week, 85 percent voted in favor of making the change permanent.

In the early days, members worked, studied, and did their laundry together as a collective. There was no food in their homes, since they all ate in a communal dining hall. Shapiro said she used to return from cleaning the laundry with a different blouse each week, and clearly recalled the day she was first presented with clothing tagged with her own name.

Until last year, members received their income from the central kibbutz coffers, strictly budgeted according to marital status, the number of children, and special needs like health or education. The basic income was equal for the kibbutz general secretary, a farm laborer, a hotshot lawyer -- or those who didn't work at all. Most members were assigned jobs in rotation, sharing menial tasks and being voted into positions of responsibility. Some worked outside the farm, but handed their salary to the kibbutz.

Now members can earn differential incomes and manage their own bank accounts. Those who work outside keep their earnings. The kibbutz has calculated a minimum wage and anyone earning more than that is taxed at a rate of 20 percent for services including health care and education, which are still provided on a collective basis. The wealthier members also pay into a crisis fund and a health fund to support the weaker members.

"I think it will save Deganya in the short term," said Allan Shapiro, 79, Yoya's husband, who immigrated to Israel from New York in 1955. "When we voted for the trial last year I was worried that the lack of equality would threaten social solidarity among the members, but that didn't happen. Now I see the reforms have come to institutionalize changes which had already taken place."

Realizing that the kibbutz could not be sustained by agriculture alone, Deganya built its first factory in 1967 . Today, its diamond-tipped machine-tool manufacturing plant, Toolgal, provides 70 percent of the kibbutz 's revenues, alongside 300 milk cows and 200 acres of fields producing bananas, dates, wheat, avocado, corn, and soy .

Among the reasons for the reforms at Deganya was the slow exodus of younger kibbutzniks. The Shapiros' son, who left Deganya to practice law and is now a judge, is among the 50 percent of young people who have left the kibbutz. The total population of the country's kibbutzim peaked at 124,000 in 1994 and has since fallen to 115,000; as a proportion of the growing Israeli population, kibbutz residents have fallen from 4.2 percent in 1952 to 1.7 percent in 2004.

Kibbutzniks express mixed feelings about the reforms.

At Kibbutz Gvat in the Jezreel Valley, similar changes were introduced in 2004. Paz Israeli, 31, who was born at Gvat and is now kibbutz secretary, said he would have preferred things to stay the same.

"Most of the people on the kibbutz wanted the change in order to be like people in the city," said Israeli. "They wanted to get more money in the bank at the end of the month if they worked harder. People just wanted more for themselves.

"I'm an old-fashioned guy; I would have liked better to stay in the old system. There is a value to living and working in a place where there is a larger ideal than just providing for yourself. I don't think it's the death of the kibbutz," he said, "but it is transforming into something very different."

Sunday, 25 February 2007

The HBO 'Treatment'

A popular Israeli TV series about therapy is getting a translation

BOSTON GLOBE | February 25, 2007
By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

TEL AVIV -- Hagai Levi, creator of the first Israeli drama series adapted for US television, has proved that less is more.

Israeli life is hardly lacking in daily drama. There is the horror of suicide bombings, the pain of war, the challenge of ending a 40-year occupation and finding peace with the Palestinians -- not to mention a raft of domestic corruption and sex scandals that in the past month alone have triggered the resignation of the country's justice minister and the start of impeachment proceedings against the president.

But "In Treatment," Levi's multi-award-winning daily half-hour drama series that has been snapped up for adaptation by HBO, has not a single gun, bomb, corrupt politician , or suicide bomber anywhere on the screen. Instead, it boasts a single indoor set in which the only action is two people sitting and talking to each other .

HBO will air 45 English-language episodes five nights a week in the fall, starring Gabriel Byrne as a taciturn but effective psychotherapist and Dianne Wiest as his therapist guide and confessor.

"In Treatment" became a television and social phenomenon in Israel, sweeping the Israeli television awards for best drama series, best director, best screenplay, best actor , and best actress, and attracting huge audiences in this tiny country.

Critics at Israel's three largest newspapers competed for superlatives to describe the show. Haaretz called it "the most important achievement in a drama series ever accomplished in Israel," and said it "proved that minimalism in television can generate maximum quality." Maariv said it was "the closest thing to literature to be found nowadays on television." Yedioth Ahronoth said it contained "the most sublime, refined dialogues ever to be seen on an Israeli screen."

Boston audiences can get a taste themselves on Tuesday, when the Boston Jewish Film Festival screens four episodes at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The format is deceptively simple and potentially boring. Each day in the week is dedicated to one patient's therapy session with Ruben, a 50-something psychotherapy counselor who, it soon transpires, is having some mid-life issues of his own.

On Monday, he treats an attractive single woman wondering whether to marry her boyfriend, whose highly charged erotic tales threaten to play havoc with Ruben's own fragile libido. On Tuesday, it's the turn of an air force pilot plagued by collateral damage -- the only scenario where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intrudes but which will be adapted for a US story line. Wednesday is devoted to a teenage gymnast and Olympic hopeful whose recent brush with death may have been self-inflicted, and Thursday brings a bickering couple toying with the idea of aborting a pregnancy after five years of fertility treatment.

Little wonder that Friday evening finds Ruben seeking the guidance of 60-something Gila, his own mentor and therapist, where it soon becomes clear he's not quite the level-headed fo nt of wisdom his patients might expect.

"You always said our biggest problem is that we don't have an audience. It's true. There's no one to put in a good word for us. No one to tell us how great we were this session," Ruben tells Gila after one particularly heavy week.

Now this psycho-confession looks set to have the biggest US audience since Woody Allen (and Tony Soprano) made therapy fashionable.

After an initial five-part pilot, HBO was hooked. "We felt 'In Treatment' was unique on several levels, its format, its content, and its execution. For all of those reasons and more we felt it was a excellent fit for our original programming schedule," said Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment.

Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (HBO's "Carnivale," "Big Love") and Mark Wahlberg are the executive producers. Cast members include Josh Charles, Embeth Davidtz, Mia Wasikowska, Melissa George, and Blair Underwood.

The show came to Wahlberg through Israeli actress Noa Tishby, who saw the series on a visit home, contacted the producers and returned to California with a disk of the first five episodes. Tishby was signed to Leverage Management, which also represents Wahlberg, and so the connection was made.

Levi, the show's creator, believes the format is unique. He said he did not know another television drama in which two actors are sitting almost static for minutes on end, with hardly any action, relying almost entirely on the dialogue.

"The actors had nothing to hide behind," he said. "They were almost paralyzed. They could only use themselves and rely on the power of the words. Sometimes we just kept filming, using 20-minute shots instead of the usual few minutes at a time. It was very close to live theater."

The minimalism extended to the production costs, which Levi estimated at about one-quarter of a regular half-hour drama.

"Every episode was shot in a single day, which contributed to the tension," said Levi. "It was like simulating real treatment. Each actor had their day of the week and we filmed it chronologically, just like the characters in the story."

Levi and his chief scriptwriter, Ori Sivan, had just ended an intense creative conference on the upcoming second season, which took the form of a long walk in the cool evening air through the hip Shenkin neighborhood of Tel Aviv, where smart sidewalk cafes attract the cream of the city's bubbling creative class.

The HBO deal has catapulted Levi and Sivan to the pinnacle of Israel's media fraternity, although they say the money involved is modest -- "not millions" -- and neither will be retiring or ordering his yacht just yet. Levi is an executive producer on the HBO series and Sivan said the English scripts and characters are as close to the Hebrew originals as the trans-Atlantic transfer would allow.

Levi said the idea for the show was based on his own experience of psychoanalysis, while Sivan said he had never been through it himself, but both his parents were therapists.

The writers tried to ensure the authenticity of the script by bringing on board psychotherapist Roni Baht as an adviser. They soon found themselves at odds with their chosen expert.

"He did a brave job fighting with us," laughed Sivan. "We found that therapy and scriptwriting are very similar. The role of the therapist is to be in conflict with their patients. Roni was always encouraging us to go to a deeper involvement. He said the original scripts were too light, not brave enough. He said the therapist had to ask much more direct questions than we originally wrote."

The quality of the script was sustained by recruiting such screenwriters as Yael Hedaya, an Israeli novelist who helped shape the character of the young single woman whose Monday sessions set the tone for the week. Hedaya will be at Tuesday's "In Treatment" screening.

Levi and Sivan, both 43, studied together at Tel Aviv University film school and graduated in 1990. Levi is now head of the drama department at Israel's largest commercial television channel. His previous credits include several award-winning documentaries and series, among them the longest-running drama ever aired on Israeli television. Sivan has written several successful series while Nir Bergman, another co-director and co-writer, wrote and directed the acclaimed feature film "Broken Wings."

In the last 15 years, Israeli television has mushroomed with the birth of two commercial channels and cable channels commissioning original drama. "In Treatment" was originally produced for the HOT cable channel and then aired on Channel 2, the country's largest commercial broadcaster.

"Now there is an industry and money, which is attracting good people," said Levi.

And in a country of just seven million where everyone seems to know each other, movie and television benefit from complete cross-fertilization between the two genres.

"There is a total mixture," said Sivan. "Israeli academy award winners, writers, directors and actors move freely back and forth between film and television."

The cable broadcast attracted a staggering one million video-on-demand downloads and the commercial broadcast won impressive ratings. The series entered everyday conversation and was instantly included in university curricula on psychology.

Indeed, one of the attractions of the original production was the quality of the Hebrew-speaking cast headed by Israel's favorite bad-boy film star Assi Dayan -- think Jack Nicholson -- and local movie matriarch Gila Almagor -- the Israeli Judi Dench.

The show's creators are confident that "In Treatment" will hit the same nerves it tingled in Israel.

"America is the homeland of therapy, it is so deep in American culture. People are going all the time and the jargon of therapy is part of the language," said Levi. "They had to do very little to make it American."

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Israel tense over 'the Iranian threat'

As U.N. Security Council ponders new sanctions against Tehran, Jerusalem is watching warily

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, February 18, 2007 - Page A1

Jerusalem -- When the U.N. Security Council considers this week whether to impose new sanctions on Iran unless it abandons its nuclear weapons program, the debate will be watched closely in Jerusalem, where Israeli leaders fear that their country's very existence would be in danger if Tehran succeeds in acquiring the bomb.

Iran has never launched a direct conventional military attack on Israel, which is nearly 1,000 miles away on the far side of the Middle East. But it equips, trains and finances Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza, and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier who advocates wiping Israel off the map -- views that have made him popular with extremists in the Arab world.

Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy defense minister, told a recent briefing of journalists and diplomats that Iran's revolutionary ideology, as expounded by Ahmadinejad, posed a concrete threat not just to Israel, but to the entire free world. He said Iran sees itself as a growing global power "attempting to build a territorial belt from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea."

Officially, Israeli leaders support diplomatic efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program. Sneh stopped short of advocating a military attack, but when pressed by reporters, he pointedly said that "everything should be done in order to stop it."

Israel's own nuclear arsenal is a subject of intense speculation. Officially, Israeli leaders do not admit it exists, but a 2004 survey by Jane's Intelligence Digest estimated that Israel had at least 200 nuclear weapons, including thermonuclear weapons, and a heavily guarded weapons laboratory at Dimona in the Negev Desert.

Iran insists that its nuclear-enrichment program is intended only for energy production, an assertion that the United States and Europe reject. Last year, the U.N. Security Council adopted sanctions against Iran that freeze some of its assets and bar companies from selling to Iran materials and technology that could contribute to its nuclear program. The United States advocates tougher sanctions if Iran does not halt enrichment activities, which Tehran has refused to do.

The policy of the Israeli government has always been that it will never be the first to launch nuclear weapons. Its deterrent capability is based on the widely held belief that it has a significant second-strike arsenal capable of retaliating against any strategic attack on its major cities. The United States has consistently stood by Israel in resisting efforts to declare the entire Middle East a nuclear-free zone.

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned a conference on international security in stark terms about "the Iranian threat."

"For many long years, we have followed Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, in the guise of a civilian nuclear program," said Olmert. "In all the contacts I have had, there has been clear agreement that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons or the material to produce them. ... Those who believe, as we do, that a diplomatic solution is preferable, must now muster their strength to exert pressure on Iran and thus stay the course until change is achieved."

But should the diplomacy fail, Olmert warned, Israel would be left with little choice.

"Anyone who threatens us, who threatens our existence, must know that we have the determination and capability of defending ourselves, responding with force, discretion and with all the means at our disposal as necessary. We will not place the lives of our people, the life of our country, at risk.

"We have the right to full freedom of action to act in defense of our vital interests. We will not hesitate to use it," he warned.

The level of tension is so high between the two states that Israel's Mossad espionage agency has been accused of causing the death of a leading Iranian nuclear scientist in January from gas poisoning.

Ardeshire Hassanpour, 44, a prize-winning nuclear physicist, worked at a plant in Esfahan that produces uranium hexafluoride gas, a key component in the enrichment of uranium. U.S. security consulting company Stratfor and the London Sunday Times suggested his death was a Mossad "assassination."

Mossad has a documented history of killing scientists from countries deemed to pose a grave danger to Israel, including several involved in Iraq's weapons program under Saddam Hussein. But the accusation this time is almost certainly baseless, according to Mossad sources, and goes against all known modus operandi of the agency.

Meir Amit, former head of Mossad, told The Chronicle he thought it was unlikely Israel killed the Iranian scientist, but he called for the assassination of the Iranian president.

"Personally, I am against assassinating leaders, and all my life I was against it when I was head of Mossad. But Ahmadinejad has crossed the line. With all he is doing on the nuclear front, saying Israel should be wiped off the map and arranging a conference on the Holocaust, where he said it never happened -- from my point of view, he is somebody who shouldn't be with us," said Amit.

True or not, the story of Hassanpour's killing reflects a widespread belief that Israel will stop at nothing to prevent Iran from acquiring the ability to deploy nuclear weapons. Last weekend, Israel successfully tested its Arrow anti-ballistic missile defense system, intended to intercept and neutralize Iranian warheads.

In October, Olmert appointed hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman as his minister of strategic threats -- a newly created position that appears to have Iran as its main focus. "Israel does not have the luxury of waiting with its arms folded until Iran acquires unconventional capabilities," Lieberman warned in a recent interview.

The military option could leap up the agenda if Olmert's government collapses and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins the next election, as currently predicted by opinion polls. Netanyahu has long advocated a military strike against Iran.

"Israel has to assist in the progress of an aggressive international coalition, but it also has to make sure to acquire the means necessary for our defense," Netanyahu said in an interview.

Israeli fears about Iranian intentions were buttressed by former CIA Director James Woolsey, who told the January security conference that "Iran is not remotely interested in nuclear power for purposes of electricity."

He described the Islamic republic as "a theocratic totalitarian movement for which destruction of Israel and the United States is not a policy but its very essence. It defines itself in that way. Saying that it should change its policy with respect to destroying Israel and the United States is like trying to persuade Hitler away from anti-Semitism."

But Iranian analyst Meir Javedanfar, director of MEEPAS, a Middle East political and economic analysis company, and co-author of a new book, "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran," said the Iranian ideological threat was balanced by the pragmatism of its leaders.

"I believe the ultimate goal of Iran's nuclear program is for military purposes, but I do not think Iran will ever risk a first nuclear strike against Israel," Javedanfar said in an interview.

"The Iranian leaders are fundamentalist on the surface, but when it comes to survival they are very pragmatic. They know Israel's second-strike capability and know it is very likely their country will be destroyed. They did not survive eight years of war against Saddam Hussein and 20 years of U.S. sanctions just to see their country wiped out for the sake of attacking Israel," he said.

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Friday, 16 February 2007

Webcams fuel furor over Jerusalem site

Muslims vow more protests near mosque

BOSTON GLOBE | February 16, 2007

By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- Israel activated webcams yesterday at the site of a controversial building project in Jerusalem's Old City as part of an effort to refute accusations by Muslims that the work is threatening the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, who was visiting Istanbul yesterday, also agreed to allow a Turkish technical team to inspect the site.

Islamic leaders denounced the streaming video as "cosmetic," and said they would organize massive demonstrations in Jerusalem after prayers today.

Riots erupted at the site last week after archeologists began excavating a centuries-old ramp leading from the Jewish prayer plaza at the Western Wall up to the Temple Mount compound, known to Muslims as the Haram Al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and the site of two landmark shrines -- the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest site, and the golden-capped Dome of the Rock.

The holy site is in East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War and then annexed. Most countries do not recognize Israeli sovereignty in the area.

Muslim leaders accuse Israel of trying to destroy the mosque by undermining its foundations. In a fiery sermon in Al-Aqsa last Friday, Sheik Ekrema Sabri accused Israel of desecration and said the Israelis were planning "attacks against the mosques."

But the ramp is outside the exterior wall of the Temple Mount compound and ends several yards from the Mughrabi Gate, which leads into the area holy to Jews and Muslims alike.

Part of the ramp collapsed after a snowstorm three years ago, and last week the Israeli government ordered that a bridge be built in its place.

The archeological dig that triggered the demonstrations is the first stage before construction of the bridge allowing access to the Mughrabi Gate, which is about 30 yards above the ground outside the wall.

Earlier this week, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski suspended building work until all parties, including Muslim leaders, had been consulted. But he said the archeological dig would continue.

Yechiel Zeligman, the Israel Antiquities Authority archeologist overseeing the excavation, said the three webcams would broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the authority's website, antiquities.org.

The live feed from three cameras shows workers from the Antiquities Authority digging to uncover ancient buildings and artifacts hidden beneath the surface.

"Really, we don't have anything to hide," Zeligman said as he supervised 40 workers at the site yesterday. "We hope the presence of the cameras will show people that nothing here is threatening the mosques and things will quieten down so we can continue our work.

"The ramp ends more than 5 meters from the wall and the gate into the mosque compound, so we are nowhere near the Al-Aqsa Mosque and nothing we are doing here poses any threat to it," he said.

But Sheik Raed Salah, a leader of the radical Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, remained defiant yesterday as he appeared in a Jerusalem court on charges of stirring public unrest and spitting at a police officer during disturbances at the site last week.

"An Israeli court has no authority to rule on issues connected to Al-Aqsa Mosque," Salah said. "Thus any decision made by this court over keeping me away from Al-Aqsa is null and void."

Israeli archeologist Meir Ben-Dov, an expert on the site and a strident critic of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the protests could have been foreseen and prevented.

In 1996, the opening of a centuries-old underground complex of tunnels running 50 yards alongside the Western Wall triggered similar accusations, sparking riots in which more than 90 Palestinians were killed.

Ben-Dov said the Israelis should have consulted with Muslim authorities and agreed on the work, just as he did when the other side of the ramp faced collapse 15 years ago.

"I have been warning the government for nearly two years, but no one would listen," Ben-Dov said.

"The bridge is nowhere near the Al-Aqsa Mosque and does not threaten it physically, but the whole matter has been handled with complete lack of sensitivity for the feelings of the Muslims," he said.

Ben-Dov has been working at the site since 1968 and wrote the standard work on the excavations. He said the new bridge was unnecessary because the ramp could have been repaired easily.

The ramp was created when Ben-Dov and his colleagues excavated on either side of the path leading to the Mughrabi Gate, digging down until they came to the Roman-era road that once skirted the huge Herodian walls of the Temple Mount compound. In 1992, Ben-Dov's group reinforced the southern side of the ramp with a modern wall built from the same Jerusalem stone as the ancient buildings.

"We had a problem, but through discussion and cooperation with the Muslim authorities we managed to overcome it," Ben-Dov said.

Yousef Natshe, chief archeologist at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, said the new webcams did nothing to allay Muslim fears.

"It's a cosmetic act designed to draw away the attention of the people who are concerned about this," Natshe said. "Putting this online doesn't give Israel any legal rights -- the act itself is illegal."

"For two years we have been writing to the Israeli police, to the mayor of Jerusalem, expressing our concern about this planned bridge, but they didn't even acknowledge our letters," he said.

Natshe conceded that the Israelis were probably not excavating underneath the mosque, but he accused them of continuous encroachments.

" This work is being carried out on the approach to one of the historic gates entering the Haram. . . . Maybe it is not physical damage, but it is cultural damage. It is distorting the site," he said.

To view the Israeli webcam, go to antiquities.org.il/home_eng.asp

Monday, 5 February 2007

West Bank gays more at home in Israel

West Bank gays find social life in Israel

They fear new wall will trap them where their lifestyle is taboo

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, February 05, 2007
By Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Ramallah, West Bank — In the center of town in a cafe named Stars & Bucks, a young Palestinian who likes to be known as the Diva Nawal sips a bright pink milkshake and checks out the early evening crowd.

"I'm not the only gay person here, but I'm the only one who's out," he says, exchanging silent greetings with two young Palestinian men at a nearby table. "They're also gay, but nobody knows, and you shouldn't approach them."

When the tall, slim, delicately featured Nawal dons the blonde wig, makeup and tight skirts that transform him into a drag queen, he's ready for his performance -- at gay clubs in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.

A 21-year-old university student with serious professional ambitions, Nawal wouldn't dream of performing in his hometown, where homosexuality, as in the rest of the Palestinian territories, is strictly taboo, sometimes violently so. Last year, a group of gay Palestinians visiting East Jerusalem from the United States were threatened and one of them badly beaten after they announced plans to join an Israeli gay pride rally. The Web site of ASWAT, an organization of Palestinian gay women, says Palestinian society "has no mercy for sexual diversity and/or any expression of 'otherness' away from the societal norms and the assigned roles that were formed for women. ... The Palestinian woman has no right to choose an identity other than the one enforced on her by the male figures in her family and surroundings."

So for Nawal and his friends, the only place where they can pursue a full social life is across the border in Israel.

"I can't be honest about my sexuality with my family because they wouldn't know how to respond, and I respect them too much to want to hurt them," he says. "But the same traditional family values which oppress me in that way also protect me."

Although his mannerisms sometimes attract unwelcome comment in the streets of Ramallah, he adds, "no one will attack me physically, because in our society that means my whole extended family will join together to attack them in return. It preserves a kind of balance."

He does not expect it to continue forever, and knows that after he graduates, he will probably leave the West Bank.

"This is not a free life," he says. "Apart from private parties inside people's homes, the only place where I can really behave as I wish is in Israel. Once they complete the security wall and I cannot reach Jerusalem, there will be nowhere to go. I will have to leave."

He is not alone. Saturday night is Arab night at Shushan, a gay bar in central Jerusalem, featuring a drag show that is part karaoke, part cross-cultural celebration. At the top of the bill is the Iman, also known as the Queen of Sheba, a 6-foot-plus black Palestinian with African roots -- who keeps his sexuality and nighttime drag queen theatrics carefully hidden from his wife and children. The crowd of about 50 this evening is a mix of Israelis and Palestinians, with a spattering of Western expatriates. The deafening music ranges from Tina Turner and Cyndi Lauper to Arab divas Diana Haddad and Boshra.

Freddy A., a 27-year-old bisexual Arab from East Jerusalem, a regular at Shushan, is a veteran of the Palestinian gay scene.

"It's very tough being gay or bisexual because Arab behavior is still dominated by Islamic tradition, where it is forbidden," says Freddy, a hotel worker and the youngest male in a traditional Muslim family of eight children. "It's difficult to be with another Palestinian, and because of Israeli-Palestinian politics it's tough to see someone who isn't part of your community.

"I have one friend in his early 20s who was beaten by his family when they discovered he was gay, and forced to marry," he says. "Now he's not in a good situation. He has turned to drugs and drink."

Of his own family, Freddy says, "One of my brothers and one of my sisters know about me. My father suspects, but I have to hide it from him. It would be too hard for my family. I respect my father. I wouldn't want to hurt him."

He, too, finds a certain degree of freedom in Israel.

"I'm in Tel Aviv every weekend. On that side, they don't care. I have two Palestinian lesbian friends whose husbands don't know about them. To get together, they go to a hotel in West Jerusalem," he says.

In Israel, the status of gays and lesbians is more comparable with Western Europe.

As the British gay magazine Attitude approvingly reported in December: "Workplace discrimination against gay people is outlawed; the Knesset (Israel's parliament) has many openly gay members; in schools, teenagers learn about the difficulties of being gay and the importance of treating all sexualities equally. The country's army, the Israel Defense Force, has many dozens of openly gay high-ranking officers who, like all gay soldiers in its ranks, are treated equally by order of the government. The Supreme Court has ruled that gay couples are eligible for spousal and widower benefits.

"Nearly all mainstream television dramas in Israel regularly feature gay storylines. When transsexual Dana International won the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest as Israel's representative, 80 percent of polled Israelis called her 'an appropriate representative of Israel.' "

At Shushan, gay Israelis and Palestinians mix freely and go home together, although Freddy observes that the broader state of Israeli-Palestinian relations has created tensions that didn't exist before.

"Times have changed," he said. "These days I feel the hatred between both sides even in the gay community."

But compared to gay Palestinians who don't make it to Israel, Freddy and Nawal are among the lucky ones, said Haneen Maikey, coordinator of the Palestinian Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual Project at a Jerusalem gay center.

"It's actually becoming more difficult for gay Palestinians," said Maikey, 28, whose center organizes a Pride rally every year. "It's a collective and closed community in which some parts are very religious with a small village atmosphere. Every step toward coming out will get you another step back to the closet."

But she questions the sense of belonging that gay Palestinians like Nawal and Freddy feel in the Israeli gay scene.

"At some level, they face racism and discrimination because they are Palestinians," Maikey said.

"There is a hidden discrimination with Israeli partners -- a feeling that I can make sex with you, but I can't be seen out with you," she said.