Words by Keegan O’Brien
Featured artwork by Mothanna Hussein

Four-year-old Asem Khalil Abed Ammar, his nine-year-old sister Iman, and his 13-year-old brother Ibrahim are just three of Operation Protective Edge’s casualties.

They were blown apart during an attack by the Israeli Defense Forces in the 20 July Shujaiya massacre, which left dozens murdered and the entire community flattened.

Since 7 July, at least 1,800 Gazans have been slaughtered. Each of them with a name, an age, and a life story.

The scale of destruction extends far beyond that, though. More than five thousand Gazans have been severely wounded and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. And most of Gaza’s children suffer some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Schools, hospitals, housing projects, refugee camps, and even UN designated shelters have not been spared the destruction. Entire neighborhoods have been razed to the ground as Israel has brought Gaza’s infrastructure to the brink of total collapse; no place is safe.

Israel and its supporters in the US government and the corporate media would have us believe that this highly uneven conflict is justified because the only democratic society in the Middle East has the right to defend itself. The existence of some legal reforms for LGBT people in Israel is regularly touted while promoting this idea.

But while Israel has relationship recognition policies, and it allows gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to serve openly in the military, those things matter very little when we’re talking about issues of war and occupation.

At the end of the day, promoting Israel as a gay paradise is ultimately just a publicity blitz. It’s an effort used by Israel to demonize and scapegoat Palestinians as backward and homophobic, and portray Israel as progressive and tolerant, in order to justify the country’s horrific tactics.

Artwork by Mothanna Hussein

The most recent example of Israel relying on this racist trope to save its own image was the initial attempt to blame the murder of Muhammad Abu Khudair, the 16-year-old Palestinian boy who was tortured and then burned alive in July, on his own family, with claims that the family had committed an “honor killing” because he was gay. However, three young Israeli men, from Orthodox Jewish families, have been charged with the crime.

Israeli and Palestinian societies both contain homophobia and transphobia. Even Israel has an influential religious right that advocates for anti-LGBT policies and has a record of violently attacking pride festivals. “Gay-friendly” Israel also has no issue when it comes to allying itself with and supporting brutally repressive, illegitimate anti-LGBT governments in the Middle East, such as Egypt’s former dictator Hosni Mubarak or the monarchy of Saudi Arabia.

Most importantly, this PR campaign omits one simple, glaring truth: Israel is an apartheid state. But don’t take my word for it, here’s what Holocaust survivor and Jewish Palestine activist Suzanne Weiss had to say: “The Palestinians are victims of ethnic cleansing and apartheid … The Israeli government’s actions toward the Palestinians awaken horrific memories of my family’s experiences under Hitlerism: the inhuman walls, the checkpoints, the daily humiliations, killings, diseases, the systematic deprivation.”

So why is Israel even concerned with promoting itself as a supporter of LGBT rights? Because the country’s got a major PR problem.

To deflect attention away from its horrific and shameful violation of human rights and international law, which growing numbers of people are starting to recognize, Israel has had to find other ways to promote itself as the “only democracy” in the Middle East. And at a time when LGBT people are gaining greater acceptance and visibility in many parts of the world, what better way to do it!

While Israel has been able to hide its crimes from the rest of the world for quite some time, its own atrocious, self-discrediting actions and the rise of the global boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights have struck some serious blows to Israel’s public image in the international ring. Israel’s iron grip on how it is perceived in the mainstream discourse has finally begun to crack.

Nothing illustrates the highly selective and hypocritical nature of Israel’s supposedly “progressive” character more clearly than the experiences of LGBT Palestinians. As the Palestinian LGBT organization Al Qaws has pointed out, there is no special pink route for LGBT Palestinians to get them around the daily humiliation of checkpoints throughout the West Bank. And being LGBT most certainly does not grant protection to Palestinians when the Israeli Defense Forces decide to rain down missiles on their homes, schools, and hospitals in Gaza as it has been doing.

Queer Palestinian solidarity activists call this practice — blatant exploitation of LGBT rights for the purpose of whitewashing the consequences of Israel’s military actions and apartheid policies — pinkwashing.

Photo: Ashraf Amra / APA images

The existence of some legal reforms for LGBT people in Israel does not rationalize its horrific and obscene treatment of all Palestinians — queer and straight. It especially does not justify its recent brutal bombardment of Gaza, which has turned the world’s largest open-air prison into a living hell on earth. The first LGBT delegation to Palestine, which visited in 2012, was right; Palestinian queers can never be free as long as they remain trapped like this. Freedom from occupation is the starting point for any struggle for Palestinian gender and sexual liberation.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned being a queer person in this society, it’s a basic sense of solidarity; we always have a responsibility to stand with those living under the boot of oppression, no matter who’s standing on the necks. The best of our history is about collective struggles against injustice and solidarity among all the oppressed. It’s a movement and history that has no place being used in the service of pinkwashing Israel’s policies.

Keegan O’Brien is a queer socialist activist and writer, and a graduate student in education at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His writings have also appeared in The Nation, The Rainbow Times, The New Civil Rights MovementSocialistWorker.org, and the International Socialist Review. This article is also featured on electronicintifada.net within the consent of the writer.