JERUSALEM -- Homosexuality is now legal in the land of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Israel's parliament, the Knesset, Tuesday repealed an Israeli law dating back to British Mandate-era Palestine that had declared as illegal sex between consenting adults of the same gender.
The 120-member body legalized homosexuality in adopting a package of sex and sex-crime laws, which included harsher sentences for rapists, Knesset spokeswoman Sarah Yitzhaki said Wednesday.
Although no one had ever been prosecuted for homosexual activity in Israel's nearly 40-year history, the old law had provided a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Left-wing Knesset members had sought for several years to repeal the homosexuality law, but were opposed by religious groups. There were no members of Israel's small religious parties on the Knesset floor during the vote Tuesday.
Gay rights activists hailed the move, which ended a 10-year struggle to make homosexuality legal in Israel. The package of laws was sponsored by Shulamit Aloni of the Citizens Rights Movement, a small leftist political party which has three seats in the Knesset.
'This is not only the repealing of the previous law, it is the cancellation of prejudice and humiliation,' said Mark Tenenbaum, chairman of the Society for Protection of Individual Rights, a Tel Aviv-based gay rights group founded in 1977. It has 300 members.
A spokeswoman for Aloni said no Israeli had ever been prosecuted under the old law because Israel's legal adviser instructed judicial authorities several years ago not to use it.
Tenenbaum said although it had never been used, the law hung over the heads of Israel's homosexual population, which he estimated to be at least 10 percent of the nation, or 425,000 Israelis.
'Now things are clear, and instead of working against the law we can work much more about the social problems of gays in Israel,' he said. 'All the problems of gays with the society, with the family, the problem of young people, the problem of gays in the army.'
Although homosexuals may not be banned from the Israel Defense Forces because of their sexuality, Tenenbaum said gay soldiers carry a stigma and rarely admit their sexual identity.
Ultra-orthodox Judaism prohibits homosexuality, which according to the Bible was among the reasons God destroyed the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. A town called Sodom exists in modern day Israel, in the Negev Desert, and archaeologists believe the site of the biblical city of Gomorrah is beneath the Dead Sea.
The new sex and sex-crime laws also provide a maximum 20-year jail sentence for rapists, an increase of six years, and ban journalists from reporting the names of alleged rape victims.
The legislation also nullified a law that declared sex between minors illegal. Instead, children under 16 may legally engage in sex if they are no more than two years apart and both agree.