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The Palestinian Authority (PA), the body mandated to govern the occupied Palestinian territories, caused an outcry when it banned a Palestinian group advocating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights (LGBTQ).
It has since rescinded the ban but not before opening up significant debate on the issues facing LGBTQ people in Palestine as well as LGBTQ Palestinians in Israel. Capitalizing on the discriminatory move raises questions about ‘pinkwashing’ the occupation.
Spokesperson for the PA police Louay Arzeikat said pro-LGBTQ activities “go against and infringe upon the higher principles and values of Palestinian society”, and that groups like al-Qaws “sow discord and undermine Palestinian society’s peaceful state of affairs”.
The rights group founded in 2001 operates throughout the occupied West Bank and much of Israel. It condemned its injunction in a statement on social media, stating, ‘This backlash paves the way for unethical media practices to thrive by adopting and feeding violent discourse that is gaining traction and legitimacy in social media.’
It added, ‘We believe that the police and Palestinian society at large should focus on combatting the occupation and other forms of violence that tear apart the sensitive fabric of our society and values, instead of prosecuting activists who work tirelessly to end all forms of violence.’
The ban was criticized both nationally and internationally, with civil society groups releasing at least 18 statements, according to Nick McAlpin, a researcher and journalist who focuses on Palestinian political organizing and progressive social movements. The most prominent of these statements was released by a dozen members of the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council (PHROC) encompassing al-Haq, the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and others. The United Nations Human Rights Office in the Occupied Palestinian Territory also publicly condemned the move.
Although the ban was rescinded, al-Qaws does not believe this goes far enough and said the PA should release a statement condemning hate speech and violence as the initial restriction unleashed a backlash against the group, although abuse and discrimination against the LGBTQ community is not uncommon in the region.
The PA’s ban came a week after al-Qaws held a discussion in Nablus, three weeks after a Palestinian teenager was stabbed and severely wounded outside a shelter for gay and transgender youths in Tel Aviv.
Homosexuality is not explicitly illegal in Palestine but there is also a dearth of legal protection, said McAlpin. “Police are able to make use of this confusing legal situation to criminalize queer Palestinians, often with generic reference to morality and values, as was the case with al-Qaws’ previous ban.”
Criminalization in this context takes place through arbitrary arrest and questioning, according to McAlpin. A 2018 Amnesty International report on human rights in Palestine said that al-Qaws had documented five cases of arbitrary arrest of LGBTQ activists who were ill-treated while other LGBTQ people were also arbitrarily arrested and questioned by security forces.
A history of police harassment has also been seen against gay men who are blackmailed into spying for the PA.
The situation in Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist Hamas group, is even starker as ‘homosexual acts’ can result in a prison term of up to ten years and have left those imprisoned stigmatized and shamed.
Many LGBTQ Gazans live clandestine lives, with overt homophobia preventing civil society from openly campaigning on LGBTQ issues. In 2016, a case involving the execution of a Hamas leader for ‘moral turpitude’, a Hamas term for homosexuality, prompted Human Rights Watch to raise concerns about the case, which involved torture and other allegations that were eventually dropped.
There is, however, a lack of research around the issues facing LGBTQ people in Gaza. Some news reports suggest Gazans use dangerous methods to flee across borders or take irregular routes into Europe. There is also a perception that Hamas seeks out gay Gazans on dating apps.
Conservativism has spurred homophobic attitudes in the West Bank. In the past, Palestinians felt rejected as seeking refuge in Israel and asylum in other countries remained tricky, although a report from 2003 claimed hundreds of gay Palestinians had fled to Israel, risking detention or deportation.
More recently, there has been increasingly open support of gay and transgender rights, as seen when hundreds of protestors took to the streets in the Israeli city of Haifa after the stabbing of the teenager in July.
“This is a historic moment,” Widad Assaf, a Palestinian activist at the protest, told +972 Magazine, “Violence against LGBT people occurs all the time, but it took time for people to take to the streets.”
In the same article, another queer activist described how he was doubly discriminated against as Arab-Palestinians already face state exclusion, but a different gender identity attracts societal intolerance as well.
There was an uptick in hate speech directed at al-Qaws, according to the group’s director Haneen Maikey, but at the same time there was a wave of support for the group on social media, with users criticizing the police crackdown.
Condemnation also came from US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who tweeted: ‘LGBTQ rights are human rights and we should condemn any effort to infringe upon them. But we should also condemn any effort to equate this with the occupation or use this as a distraction.’
This did not stop some elements capitalizing on the ban, for instance by trying to call out Omar for supporting Palestine.
Israel, meanwhile, has reportedly drawn attention to what it claims is its progressive stance towards LGBTQ+ issues. Others have dismissed this as a clear example of pinkwashing, as Israel has a history of queerphobia against Palestinians.
Like the PA, Israeli intelligence agents have reportedly blackmailed Palestinians using their sexuality as leverage to turn them into collaborators. “Because of this, groups like al-Qaws have been described as ‘foreign agents’,” said McAlpin.
In July, Rafi Peretz, Israel’s education minister and leader of a small far-right party, came under fire for supporting ‘gay conversion therapy’ despite it being scientifically and morally dubious. Peretz said his comments were taken out of context.
“Israel is attempting to create a binary where it [Israel] is pro-LGTBQ+ rights, and Palestine and Palestinians are opposed to them,” said McAlpin. “This is part of the pinkwashing strategy, which attempts to hide Israel’s abuses of the Palestinian people behind a progressive portrait of the country.”
Gay marriage is still illegal in Israel, and homophobia and transphobia are reportedly prevalent among religious and conservative groups, including within the government.
This pinkwashing narrative is both dangerous and inaccurate, according to McAlpin, and serves to marginalize Palestinian queers. “It is built on a vastly exaggerated version of Israel’s record on LGBTQ+ rights and is used to obscure the heinous systemic violence and domination imposed by Israel on Palestine.”
By understanding and rejecting the pinkwashing narrative, others can support LGBTQ Palestinians, according to information on al-Qaws’ website. It also stresses that people should realize that colonialism, patriarchy and homophobia are connected forms of oppression.
LGBTQ rights in Palestine are still in their infancy although society is changing. The PA’s reversal of the ban on al-Qaws indicates that institutions in Palestine will respond to pressure although such clampdowns have not only harmed LGBTQ people; activists believe they also hurt the fight against the Israeli occupation.
In the same vein, LGBTQ Palestinians in Israel suffer discrimination on two counts: for being queer and Palestinian.