Saber Kushour apologises as he asks his guests to move the plastic chairs on his breeze-block balcony a little closer to the door to his house. If he were to sit where they are now, he explains, the electronic tag attached to his ankle would set off an alarm.
Kushour’s edginess is understandable – he is recalling a 15-minute encounter almost two years ago which he says “has destroyed my life”.
Last week the married father of two from east Jerusalem was sentenced to 18 months in jail for the “rape by deception” of a Jewish woman who claimed she would not have had sex with him had she known he was an Arab. What might have been a tawdry episode – casting neither Kushour nor the woman in a favourable light – exploded into a debate in Israel about racism, sexual mores and justice.
“I am paying the price for a mistake that she made,” Kushour, 30, told the Observer. “I was shocked at the sentence – it shows a very vivid and clear racism.” The message from the judge, he says, was that “because you are an Arab and you didn’t make that clear, we are going to punish you”.
In his verdict, Judge Zvi Segal conceded that it was not “a classical rape by force”. He added: “If she hadn’t thought the accused was a Jewish bachelor interested in a serious romantic relationship, she would not have co-operated. The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price – the sanctity of their bodies and souls.”
At his home in Sharafat, where he is confined while awaiting an appeal, Kushour tells a different story. The woman has not been identified and has not gone public with her account.
Kushour was buying cigarettes in September 2008 when an unexpected opportunity presented itself for a casual sexual encounter. “Any person in my shoes would have done the same thing,” he says.
A woman in her 20s struck up a conversation as he left the shop to return to his job delivering legal papers around Jerusalem by scooter. “She said ‘you have a nice bike’ and other things which I don’t remember.” Within minutes, he says, he realised that her interest was not confined to small talk.
Kushour speaks fluent, unaccented Hebrew, as do many Palestinians living and working in Jerusalem. The woman asked his name and Kushour replied “Dudu” – a common Israeli name. “Since I was a kid everyone calls me Dudu – even my wife calls me Dudu. It’s a nickname.” At no point, he says, did the woman – who gave her name as Maya – ask if he was Jewish, although he has acknowledged that he said he was single.
The pair went to a small roof area in a nearby office block. “When we were having sex, she was worried that someone would see us, but she never told me to stop. She was more than willing – she initiated it.”
It has been suggested that Kushour presented himself as a bachelor interested in a long-term relationship. If that had been Maya’s concern, Kushour points out, she might have asked him more about his background. After the brief encounter, Kushour tapped Maya’s mobile number into his phone and left. “I didn’t treat her like garbage – this is what she wanted.”
Unknown to him, Maya contacted the police after the encounter to lodge a complaint. Kushour says he doesn’t know how or when she realised he was not Jewish. The woman was given a medical examination, presented in court, which showed, according to Kushour, no signs of force or injury.
Six weeks later Kushour was idly flicking through numbers in his mobile’s address book. “I saw ‘Maya’ and I thought ‘who is Maya?’ I had already forgotten about her. I rang the number to see who it was, and then I realised it was the girl. I said ‘Can I see you?’ and we arranged to meet.”
Maya didn’t show up and didn’t respond to Kushour’s calls and texts. But, crucially, she now had a vital piece of information for the pursuit of her complaint – his contact details.
Three days later Kushour received a phone call from the police. “They told me I had a problem and to come to the police station.” He was interrogated for five to six hours, without a lawyer.
In the final hour of questioning, the police began to mention a rape claim. Eventually Kushour was handcuffed and taken to a cell. Over three days the questioning continued. “This was the hardest moment of my entire life,” says Kushour. “I didn’t have a clue what they were going to do.” On the third day, Kushour was taken to court – by this time represented by a lawyer found by his brother – and charged with rape. He spent the next two months in prison and since then has been electronically tagged and confined to his home. The case came to court last week. His lawyer has told him that, because of the publicity surrounding the case, the appeal may be expedited. In the meantime, says Kushour, “I can’t leave the house, I can’t work, I can’t feed my children.”
Kushour’s conviction has transfixed Israel. Some see echoes of a primeval – and racist – instinct to protect “our” women against outside marauders. Others are outraged at what they see as a blatant injustice, pointing to a backdrop of widespread, systematic and – some say – growing discrimination against Arabs who make up 20% of Israel’s population.
“This is a most amazing decision by the court,” says Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute. “Deception is one thing – but to be convicted of rape?” It has, she says, “struck a sensitive chord in the Israeli mainstream of Arabs pretending to be Jews.”
The issue of identity is paramount in a land where both communities regard each other with suspicion and hostility.
Yuval Yonay, a sociology professor at Haifa University, in one of Israel’s few mixed cities, says Kushour’s behaviour “might be improper but it is not rape”.
He says that in 16 years of teaching at a university where 20-25% of the student population is Arab, he has “never even heard of a mixed relationship”. Discrimination against Arabs is, he says, evident at all levels.
Some have defended the verdict. “We all have different characteristics, and it is a person’s right to have sexual relations with a person knowing the facts about those characteristics,” Dana Pugach of the Noga Centre for Victims of Crime told the Israeli daily Haaretz.
Kushour says he has had a lot of support over the past week from Israeli Jews. “The problem is not with the people themselves, but those in power,” he says. “I just want justice.”
Whatever the outcome of his appeal, his brief encounter with Maya has turned his life upside down. His relationship with his wife has been severely tested. “I asked her last night to forgive me. She said yes, but I can see the pain and hurt in her eyes.”