Opinion

After Palestinian LGBTQ Ban, Israel Extends Helping Hand

Daniel Pomerantz Contributor

In the wake of a Palestinian Authority police ban on organized activities by LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) groups, Israel has offered a helping hand to those affected, two American Congresswomen have weighed in, and a local Palestinian advocacy group has shifted attention to “the occupation.” Who will be the winners, who will be the losers, and what will happen next?

The most immediate impact of this police crackdown has been on Al-Qaws, a Palestinian organization that advocates on LGBTQ issues in Palestinian society. Al Qaws has always faced an uphill battle, as Palestinian society overwhelmingly rejects homosexuality. The Palestinian government technically keeps a 1936 British Mandate law on the books that criminalizes homosexuality with a punishment of ten years in prison, but in practice, the result for LGBTQ Palestinians is more frequently arrest, torture, blackmail and sometimes even execution. (RELATED: Chicago LGBT March Flies Palestinian Liberation Organization Flags After Kicking Out Jewish Marchers In 2017)

Since the police announcement, members of Al Qaws have received hundreds of threats and hate messages from Palestinians, especially through Facebook. One member of Al Qaws told the Jerusalem Post, “The attack on us is unprecedented … they are calling us traitors and corrupt people and many are calling for our execution. We are afraid for our lives.”

In response, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem tweeted, “I would like to officially invite the LGBTQ group from the West Bank to hold their event in #jerusalem or closer to home in one of the Jewish community centers in Judea and Samaria. This should not be happening to you and Israel stands with you #LGBTQ.”

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL – AUGUST 01: Israelis and members of the gay community attend an anti-homophobia rally on August 1, 2015 in Jerusalem, Israel. Thousands of people took part in rallies across Israel to protest Thursday’s stabbing attack at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade and the West Bank arson attack in which an 18-month-old Palestinian infant was killed. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

There has been some minor pushback against the deputy mayor’s statement from more conservative voices in Israel, including one critic with a small twitter following who replied that Hassan-Nahoum should “be careful” as the Al-Qaws group supports BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, an anti-Israel movement). In fact, Al Qaws does support BDS and its efforts to boycott Israel, yet paradoxically, the organization originally formed as part of Open House, an Israeli LGBTQ advocacy organization, and continues to maintain active locations in Israeli cities, such as Haifa and Tel Aviv.

In an exclusive interview with the Daily Caller, the deputy mayor responded to the various criticisms, saying “we have to be above that,” and that while she has no direct connection to Al Qaws, “if they came to me I’d certainly help them to find a meeting space.” Nahoum-Hassan adds that despite the group’s support for the BDS movement, Israel should nonetheless try to help because, “We’re not solving the conflict by alienating people.”

Open House, a prominent Israeli LGBTQ organization, expressed a similar offer. CEO Ofir Erez told the Daily Caller, “We will continue to give services to all who need.” Erez added that an exercise of police power is especially disturbing because it sets an example to society at large. “If the [Palestinian] police act that way, it may encourage people on the street to act that way as well…it is important not to close our eyes to what is happening.”

Israel is often a destination for LGBTQ Palestinians fleeing from their government. The status of Palestinian LGBTQ asylum seekers is the subject of much debate and litigation in Israel. Nonetheless, Tel Aviv annually hosts one of the larger gay pride parades in the world, and is recognized by Culture Trip as one of the world’s most gay friendly cities.

Al Qaws issued a statement on Twitter stating, “The police claimed [Al Qaws] goes against ‘traditional Palestinian values’ accusing us as ‘foreign agents.’” The statement continued, “We believe that the police and Palestinian society at large should focus on combatting the occupation…instead of prosecuting activists.” U.S. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib weighed in on Twitter as well, with Omar, tweeting that this issue should not be allowed to serve as a “distraction” from the “occupation,” a charge sometimes called, “pinkwashing.” It is not clear whether Al Qaws and Omar were referring to the official Palestinian definition of “occupation,” which refers to all of Israel. (RELATED: Al Jazeera Falsely Claims A Palestinian Four-Year-Old Was Questioned By Israeli Authorities)

The Israeli LGBTQ organization Open House is no stranger to the charge of “pinkwashing,” but states firmly, that the group is not engaged in deflecting from or toward any issue beyond their specific mission. According to CEO Ofir Erez, Open House does not engage in “hasbara” (public diplomacy on behalf of Israel) nor does it work with the government on issues unrelated to its mandate. “There are a lot of social and political issues in Israel, and there are plenty of other organizations that deal with them,” says Erez, but he adds, “there are [LGBTQ] people in need right here and now. We give services to the community and our interest is only what is best for the people in the community.”

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL – AUGUST 01: Israelis and members of the gay community attend an anti-homophobia rally on August 1, 2015 in Jerusalem, Israel. Thousands of people took part in rallies across Israel to protest Thursday’s stabbing attack at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade and the West Bank arson attack in which an 18-month-old Palestinian infant was killed. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

This week, under pressure from Members of the UK Parlaiement, senior Palestinian diplomat to the UK Husam Zomlot stated, “Palestine honours and respects the dignity of all Palestinians and does not discriminate or tolerate any form of discrimination.” He elaborated that Palestinian Authority police spokesman Louay Arzeikat’s statement reflected only his personal views and was “removed at the instructions of the government.”

As of publication time, HonestReporting’s Arabic language research division has not been able to find any mention of this decision by Palestinian press or government, which calls into question whether Zomlot’s statement reflects a real policy change, or merely a toothless statement made for the benefit of UK lawmakers.

It seems the Al Qaws organization is not taking any chances: it has not scheduled public events, published original content, or released updates to its web site since the police ban.

The unasked question by all parties and much of the media is: why are we talking about Israel at all? Beyond Jersulem’s official and private offers to provide a safe space, Israel is essentially powerless to impact this issue directly: despite charges of “occupation,” Israel’s level of control in the disputed territories is primarily limited to security matters, whereas the Palestinian residents are citizens of the Palestinian Authority government, and subject to its laws.

One explanation for this non-sequitur may be that by invoking the essentially unrelated issue of Israel, the activists attempt to refute the claim that they stand against “traditional Palestinian values.” Indeed, invoking Israel even gained Al Qaws support from U.S. Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar.

Al Qaws urged the Palestinian police to focus on combatting Israel, yet could not even bring itself to demand that the police protect their own members in the face of death threats from Palestinians. This is to say nothing of the Palestinian police’s frequent arrest, torture and execution of LGBTQ people.

As of publication, the Palestinian anti-LGBTQ police order remains in effect, the death threats are ongoing, and Al Qaws appears to have ceased organizing public events. The organization continues to enjoy open offers from Israeli government officials and private organizations for safe spaces, logistical help and community support. So far, the Palestinian group has not accepted such assistance.

The real losers in this tragic debate are turning out to be LGBTQ Palestinians. To treat the legal and physical oppression of LGBTQ Palestinians as a “distraction” (in the words of Rep. Ilhan Omar), or as something secondary to fighting against Israel (as described in the Al Qaws statement), all but ensures that Palestinian LGBTQ issues will fail to gain the kind of serious support necessary for real change.

Daniel Pomerantz is executive director of HonestReporting, a nonprofit defending Israel from media bias.