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Queering Palestinian Solidarity Activism

Yoshie Furuhashi

A BRITISH gay rights direct action group OutRage! claims that gay and lesbian activists were attacked by "an angry, screaming mob of Islamic fundamentalists, Anglican clergymen, members of the Socialist Workers Party, the Stop the War Coalition, and officials from the protest organisers, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC)" (OutRage! Press Release, "Gays Attacked at Palestine Rights Protest: Attempt to Silence Debate on Murder of Gays," May 15, 2004). The incident concerning the OutRage! zap action has been sensationalized by Nick Cohen ("Saddam’s Own Party," The New Statesman, June 7, 2004), accuracy of whose report is questioned by a left-wing blog Lenin’s Tomb: ("Cohen’s Own Party," June 04, 2004). I’ll set aside the question of whether those who did not welcome OutRage!’s zap action were actually "Islamic fundamentalists, Anglican clergymen, members of the Socialist Workers Party, the Stop the War Coalition, and officials from the protest organisers, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC)," pending more reports on the same incident. Instead, I’ll ask a more general question of how non-Palestinian GLBT activists should participate in Palestinian solidarity activism, the question that has been scarcely addressed among Palestinian solidarity activists.

According to the OutRage! press release, OutRage! and the Queer Youth Alliance joined "a rally for free Palestine" by carrying "placards reading: ‘Israel: stop persecuting Palestine! Palestine: stop persecuting queers!’" (May 15, 2004). While I agree with OutRage! spokesman Peter Tatchell that "[f]reedom for Palestine must be freedom for all Palestinians - straight and gay," why carry placards that falsely allege that it is "Palestine" as such that persecutes all queers for the mere fact of their sexual identity or practice alone, while ignoring how the Israeli occupier’s recruitment of collaborators reinforces homophobia? From an Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem’s report on "the responsibility of Palestinian political organizations and their activists for the torture and killing of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with the Israeli authorities during the Intifada" as well as "violations of human rights by the Israeli authorities in the recruitment and operation of collaborators in the territories" ("Collaborators in the Occupied Territories: Human Rights Abuses and Violations," January 1994, p.1), we learn that some Palestinian political organizers charge the Israeli Security Services of using isqat, which means "exerting pressure, usually through sexual means, in order to recruit collaborators," for instance, "plant[ing] collaborators to have homosexual relations with minors in detention. The latter are then threatened with exposure if they do not cooperate" - the charge which B’Tselem cannot find evidence to prove or refute but regards as having "wide implications for interrogations, confessions, and executions of suspected collaborators" (B’Tselem, pp.23, 25).

In contrast to B’Tselem, Tatchell is quoted as saying in the OutRage press release: "Gay Palestinians live in fear of arrest, detention without trial, torture and execution at the hands of Palestinian police and security services. They also risk abduction and so-called honour killing by vengeful family members and vigilante mobs, as well as punishment beatings and murder by Palestinian political groups such as Hamas and Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement" (May 15, 2004). The way Tatchell puts it makes it sound as if Fatah and Hamas arrest, detain, torture, and execute any and all gay Palestinians based on their homophobia alone when straight Palestinians have nothing to fear from them. He also conflates "honor killings," which are akin to domestic violence, with killings carried out by political organizations, thus introducing further confusion. Homophobia can indeed raise its ugly head in the Palestinian organizations’ punishments of suspected collaborators:

• On August 25, 1990, Qaher Mahmud ’Awwad ’Odeh, age 24, the son of the mukhtar of Qusrah village in the Nablus District, was killed by masked men from the Fatah. According to an investigation carried out by B’Tselem in the village in August 1993, it appears that ’Odeh was brought by his kidnappers to a cave in the mountains, where he was interrogated and beaten for hours on grounds that he had passed information to the GSS, set cars of village residents on fire, and conducted homosexual relations with young men from the village. In the middle of the interrogation ’Odeh’s interrogators left the cave to have a rest, leaving him tied-up inside. When they returned, they found him dead. (B’Tselem, p.90)

• Nabil ’Abd al-Hamid Jawadat was married, with one son and one daughter, and worked as a vendor of soft drinks and ice cream in the market of the Nusseirat refugee camp. As far as is known, there were no implicating rumors about him. He was known as an ordinary man who tended to keep to himself, and had no close friends. In the second year of the Intifada he was arrested on suspicion of throwing stones at soldiers. He was sentenced to prison, and spent four months in the Ketziot camp in the Negev. During this period he joined the Fatah Organization in the prison. After his release, he resumed his regular routines.

Jawadat was kidnapped by unknown assailants in the area of the market on the evening of October 11, 1993. Two days after he was kidnapped, the Fatah, Popular Front, and Communist Party organizations proclaimed in messages on the camp’s walls that they condemned the kidnapping. The Hamas did not take part in the condemnation.

Three days after the kidnapping a protest meeting was held outside Jawadat’s house, following a call by the Fatah Movement. On October 15, 1993 his body was discovered in a black plastic bag in the village of a-Zaweida. There were indications of brutal torture. Attached to the bag was a circular of the ’Iz a-Din al-Qassam cells. The circular detailed a number of reasons for Jawadat’s killing: collaborating, engaging in isqat, conducting homosexual relations, taking part in firearms exercises and going on operations with the army, and shooting at youths.

On the same day the Fatah issued a circular in response to the Hamas circular. The Fatah condemned the act. The Jawadat family, together with the Fatah Movement, set up a condolence tent, where Palestinian flags flew and national songs were played. At the entrance to the tent photographs of Nabil’s body were displayed, showing the signs of the brutal treatment he suffered. [Copies of the photographs on file at the B’Tselem office]. Large numbers of residents visited the condolence tent and condemned what had happened. Supporters of the Hamas Movement did not take part [in the condolence visits and condemnations]. (B’Tselem, pp.111-112)

Homophobia is a factor in only a tiny minority of cases of punishments of collaborators investigated by B’Tselem, however, as is evident in the "Breakdown of Suspicions Leading to the Imposition of Punishments" (B’Tselem, pp.105-106). Arrest, detention without trial, torture, and execution of suspected collaborators should indeed trouble solidarity activists abroad as well as Palestinians in the occupied territories, especially since the majority of suspects, according to "data supplied to B’Tselem by the [Israeli] Ministry of Defense," turn out to have "no connection to the [Israeli] government":

According to data supplied to B’Tselem by the Ministry of Defense, between 35 and 40 percent of those killed were employed by the government, or were in some other way connected to one of the branches of the Israeli administration. The remainder of those killed had no connection to the government. Ten to 15 percent of these were killed for criminal activity, "especially in drugs and prostitution"; and a small number were killed "because they violated the ‘directives of the uprising’" or, for example, sold pornographic video films in defiance of the orders of the Islamic organizations. (B’Tselem, p.1)

It is impossible to address this problem, however, without grasping it - including the context of the Israeli occupier’s use of collaborators - accurately first of all: "The collaborators received preferential treatment from the authorities, and many of them took full advantage of their status. Collaborators, especially those who were armed, frequently used violence against other Palestinians, whether as part of their duties as collaborators or for personal motives. For these and other reasons, which are described in the report, broad sections of the Palestinian population fiercely objected to the activity of the collaborators" (B’Tselem, p.2). Tatchell’s misleading statement makes it difficult for solidarity activists to confront the problem, as his statement leads us to believe that the problem is homophobia and homophobia alone, in separation from both the reality of collaboration and (sometimes paranoid) fear and hatred of collaborators, both of which are logical consequences of the military occupation.

What approach, then, might GLBT activists in Palestinian solidarity movements take? Firstly, as a statement by QUIT! (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism) - one of whose founders is a Palestinian gay man - shows, GLBT activists in Palestinian solidarity movements must reckon with pro-Israeli-occupation propaganda that comes with a seemingly pro-gay twist:

Recently, the queer and mainstream press have reported on three Palestinian gay men who say that they were severely abused and humiliated by Palestinian police. One of the young men reportedly escaped the police, only to be threatened by his own family. They have been living underground in Israel for the last several years, and now Israel is deporting them back to Palestine, where they fear being killed as suspected collaborators.

As queer activists, we condemn the persecution of LGBT people anywhere in the world. This includes Palestine, where many LGBT people experience special oppression living in conservative religious communities, within an oppressed nation.

LAGAI, one of the groups involved in QUIT!, has been actively working for two decades to support queers in north, central and south America, Africa, and Asia. When we first formed, QUIT! took an active role in organizing to support the Egyptian gay men who were arrested in a raid on a gay bar in 2001. We have at times had to struggle for inclusion in the Palestinian solidarity movement, because there were some individuals and groups here who objected to our presence.

We strongly believe that any struggle for liberation has to include queer liberation, because queers are part of all oppressed groups.

However, the story about the three Palestinian men is being used by pro-Israeli gay organizations to suggest that the military occupation of Palestine is justified by anti-gay oppression within Palestinian society. We are outraged by this cynical response to the stories.

Palestine is by no means unique in being a place where gay people are threatened, abused or tortured by the police. It happens in every western society, including in San Francisco. Palestinian queers are also not alone in being in danger in the small conservative towns and villages where their families live, or in being threatened with violence from their own families.

What is unique is that Palestinian queers are prevented from leaving those repressive small towns and from meeting and organizing with other queers by the ever-tightening restrictions on their movement imposed by the Israeli occupation forces. When Israeli soldiers stop young men at checkpoint after checkpoint, telling them no, they cannot travel outside of their villages, they do not ask them if they’re gay and need to leave because they fear violence from their families. Israeli police routinely threaten to "out" queer Palestinians if they do not provide information.

The presence of Israeli occupation forces in Palestine does nothing to help and much to hurt LGBT Palestinians. ("Statement of QUIT! Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism on the Persecution of Gay Men by the Palestine National Authority")

Secondly, queer political organizations that wish to promote debate among Palestinian solidarity activists on the question of treatment of GLBT individuals in Palestinian society should ask themselves if their own groups are not racially exclusive. Looking at the photograph of OutRage! demonstrators that accompanies the aforementioned press release on its website, I can only conclude that the group is predominantly white and male.

This piece first appeared on Yoshie Furuhashi’s blog Critical Montages, 6 June 2004