Supporting LGBTQ+ Palestinians shouldn't mean pinkwashing the occupation

Supporting LGBTQ+ Palestinians shouldn't mean pinkwashing the occupation
Comment: To be a good ally means listening, and Palestine's LGBTQ+ community is telling you they don't want your solidarity if it involves pinkwashing the Israeli occupation, writes Nick McAlpin.
6 min read
23 Aug, 2019
Al-Qaws is a Palestinian LGBTQ+ organisation [Facebook]
On Saturday 17 August, Palestinian Authority police announced in a seemingly now-deleted statement that they would be banning all events organised by al-Qaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society.

The ban came after al-Qaws, who are a local, pro-Palestinian LGBTQ+ advocacy and support group, revealed via their Facebook page that they had held an event in the conservative West Bank city of Nablus earlier this month. They have since declared their intent to continue their work, despite the prohibition.

A spokesman for the PA police, Louay Arzeikat, claimed that al-Qaws' events "go against and infringe upon the higher principles and values of Palestinian society that have sustained it throughout history."

He also called on citizens to report anyone involved with the organisation's activities, 
alleging they "sow discord and undermine Palestinian society's peaceful state of affairs."

Make no mistake - this ban is utterly reprehensible. It is a disgraceful instance of homophobic and transphobic oppression which not only disrupts LGBTQ+ activism but puts queer Palestinian lives at risk.

Following the police statement, 
al-Qaws explained on social media that since the ban they had been inundated with an unprecedented number of threats of "violence and prosecution". Moreover, the prospect of being informed on to the authorities, who have declared their intention to work to prosecute alQaws' organisers, must be nothing short of terrifying.

Al-Qaws doesn't oppose Palestinian values, nor does it attempt to spread division in Palestinian society

What's more, the justifications the police have given are nonsensical. Al-Qaws doesn't oppose Palestinian values, nor does it attempt to spread division in Palestinian society. In fact, the group has a longstanding record of upholding the very highest principle sustaining Palestinian society - that of resistance to the Israeli occupation.

Although it is surely of little consolation to those targeted, a small modicum of good has come of this tragic situation. Namely, it has invigorated the necessary debate about LGBTQ+ rights in Palestine and the wider Arab world. Reactions have been mixed at all levels - from commenters on social media through to newspaper editors. And while expressions of bigotry are wholly unacceptable, it is unfortunately only through a process of dialogue like this that views can change.

Some expressions of solidarity, however have not been with the purest of intentions. We would be wise to heed pro-Palestinian US Representative Ilhan Omar's caution about attempts "to equate [LGBTQ+ rights] with the occupation or use [them] as a distraction."

In particular, the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, a cornerstone of Israel's propaganda efforts, published a tweet criticising the PA's treatment of al-Qaws and its activists. They contrasted this with Israel, where "the biggest Pride Parade in Asia is held… every year." Alongside this tweet was a photo bearing a caption claiming that "Israel remains the number one destination for Arab LGBTQs escaping persecution."

The intent here is clear: to pinkwash Israel's subjugation of the Palestinian people and occupation of their land. Pinkwashing is a strategy adopted by pro-Israeli commentators and Israeli institutions to present an image of Israel as a bastion of tolerance towards the LGBTQ+ community, amid a sea of supposed Palestinian and Arab hatred towards them.

Read more: Palestinian Authority bans events by local LGBTQ+ organisation

In doing so, they attempt to whitewash or obscure Israel's crimes against Palestine, by painting a picture of Israel as a progressive nation whose societal fabric simply wouldn't allow such abuses. 

Any measure taken by Israel that might tarnish its image - like the construction of the 
Apartheid Wall - must surely then be justified, as under the pinkwashing narrative Palestine appears a dangerous, backwards country that must be defended against.

But as noted by one user replying to the Ministry of Strategic Affairs' tweet, the reality is much more complex than that.

Firstly, Israel's record on LGBTQ+ rights is not as rosy as the propagandists would have you believe.

In 2014, 
The Guardian reported that Israeli intelligence operatives "blackmail" queer Palestinians in order to "turn them into… collaborator[s]," under the threat of being forcibly outed. It is no doubt this exploitation of Palestinian queers that helps reactionaries in the police force depict them as "foreign agents."

Furthermore, just last month the Israeli Education Minister, Rafi Peretz, expressed his
support for "gay conversion therapy", stating that he had performed it himself. He did later retract his comments, however, this came after significant media and political pressure. Despite this incident, Peretz retained his ministerial post.

Crucially, Palestinian society cannot be summarily dismissed as queerphobic.

Although conservative religious and cultural norms mean that LGBTQ+ identities are a contentious matter there, support for al-Qaws and the wider queer community has been forthcoming from civil society.

Over the past few days, two separate joint statements defending al-Qaws have been released by a total of 18 Palestinian civil society associations. One of them was published in English, on behalf of the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council (PHROC). The statement decries the Palestinian Civil Police's actions, demanding that they promote "human rights principles, including the indivisibility of human rights, in respect of the international treaties to which the State of Palestine has acceded."

Despite the high-profile messages of solidarity coming out of Palestine, the largely pro-Israeli western media has chosen to ignore this fact, reporting almost exclusively on the ban.

Israel's record on LGBTQ+ rights is not as rosy as the propagandists would have you believe

This glaring omission serves only to reinforce the harmful, inaccurate pinkwashing narrative. And any column inches not devoted directly to the prohibition seem to revolve around using al-Qaws' plight as a stick with which to beat US Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

The two Muslim congresswomen are both vehemently pro-Palestine, and Tlaib is Palestinian-American, making them prime targets for the anti-Palestinian media. They have been blasted by the right-wing Washington Examiner for allegedly practising "blatant hypocrisy," in "supporting an illiberal Palestinian Authority government over our Israeli allies" and by Fox News for using the PA ban "as an opportunity to again criticize Israel."

Fox article also makes a factual error in asserting that the PA has banned all LGBTQ+ activities in the West Bank, when in fact the ban applies only to al-Qaws.

Of course, this doesn't justify the PA's actions whatsoever, but this false claim, intentional or otherwise, has the effect of further strengthening the pinkwashing narrative.

Much of the faux solidarity offered to al-Qaws is itself pinkwashing, existing only to promote Israel's virtue at the expense of Palestine

In response to the PA's actions, and requests for comment by the right-wing media, Omar and Tlaib both shared an al-Qaws Twitter thread which outlines five ways in which you can support Palestinian queers.

The thread is pro-Palestinian, anti-colonial, and cautions heavily against pinkwashing. In effect, therefore, the congresswomen are being attacked for amplifying LGBTQ+ Palestinian voices because those voices belong to the "wrong kind of queer."

This is self-evidently queerphobic and evinces that much of the faux solidarity offered to al-Qaws is itself pinkwashing, existing only to promote Israel's virtue at the expense of Palestine. After all, these very same media pundits always seem to conveniently forget that, to use al-Qaws' words, there is 
no "pink door" in Israel's Apartheid Wall through which "Palestinian queers can escape the military occupation."

So, before you declare your unwavering allyship to Palestine's queer community, think! To be a good ally means listening, and Palestinian queers are telling you they don't want your solidarity if it involves pinkwashing.

Nick McAlpin is a freelance journalist and Cambridge UK Masters scholar on the University of Cambridge’s MPhil Social Anthropology programme. He writes about Middle Eastern and British politics and social movements, with a focus on Palestine.

Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.