Words by Hazem G.
Artworks by Qaduda
“You would thrive as a queer activist under Hamas.” I’ve encountered this sarcastic statement in the endless social media discussions, once I express my stance against the bombardment of Gaza. As a queer Palestinian in diaspora, it implies that my two identities cannot coexist. While these “contradicting identities” have always existed in queer spaces, particularly Muslim and Arab ones, the queer Palestinian identity comes under direct fire under Israeli occupation.
A Brief Introduction
This “conflict” did not start on October 7th or even with the Nakba of 1948; it began with the establishment of Zionism in 18971 and the gradual migration of Jews to Palestine throughout the first half of the 20th century. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, when the British government announced its support to establish a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, which was under its Mandate post WW1.2 My grandfather recalled his involvement in the resistance movement against British colonization at that time, and spoke of Jews as his quiet and peaceful neighbors, especially those who fled Nazi Germany on ships with banners pleading, “The Germans destroyed our families; please don’t you destroy our hopes.” In 1948, British-sponsored Zionist militias ethnically cleansed 531 towns and villages, displacing an estimated 750,000 Palestinians, and the state of Israel was born.
Artwork by Qaduda, based on image of a refugee ship caught by the British. The banner reads: The Germans destroyed our families – don’t destroy our hopes.” It is estimated that 70,000 Jews arrived in Palestine prior to 1948 under the Aliyah Bet (illegal immigration) program. Another 50,000 were rounded up by the British and placed in detention camps. (source)
75 years later, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, celebrates this as the birth of a “vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East” that “made the desert bloom.” This is despite this “vibrant democracy’s” building of an apartheid wall spanning 708 kilometers and establishing a robust colonial system that oppresses Palestinians through a myriad of techniques, no matter whether they live in Gaza, the West Bank, or “inside.” Unsurprisingly, this is backed by the West.
Despite this context, Palestinian identity is deeply rooted in practices of remembrance. Born on the outskirts of the refugee camp, our heritage was every-present on the walls painted with the Palestinian resistance. And even on his dying bed, my grandfather recalled the olive groves of his youth, and hallucinated his mother harvesting olives from the tree. The olive tree remains a symbol of our resilience, connection to the land, and collective heartache.
Fragmented Circumstances of LGBTQ+ Rights in Palestine
Existence and resistance are intricately interwoven in Palestinian societies, like the embroidery of a Palestinian dress. LGBTQ+ Palestinians find themselves within this intricate fabric, facing challenges rooted in the Palestinian struggle and their own quest for acceptance.
This struggle to navigate identity has become increasingly complicated as the state of Israel has taken up “pinkwashing” practices to cover for its politics of apartheid. Pinkwashing involves the strategic presentation of Israel as a “gay-friendly oasis,” including by queer activists, and serves the dual purpose of projecting Israel as the beacon of liberalism (among the West) while framing LGBTQ+ Palestinians as potential collaborators (within Palestinian society), which furthers a “divide and conquer” method while coercing LGBTQ+ to become informants. It should be understood as another iteration of orientalist narratives, now repurposed to serve nationalist agendas of a new colonizer.
These pinkwashing strategies are enacted on a state and everyday levels, and produce tangible fear. A friend from the West Bank shared that “it affects everything, from how we use dating apps to how we connect as a community. When I’m on these apps, I’m constantly attentive, trying to figure out if someone’s from a settlement. Where I live, feeling safe only extends about a kilometer. I block them right away if I suspect they are, scared that they might recognize me.” He continued, “now and then, we hear stories. Someone goes on a date they arranged on an app and ends up blackmailed. They’re forced to either become informants or face being outed to their family and community.” This fear doesn’t leave him when he’s outside of Palestine; he is always on guard, worried about the possibility of falling into a trap set by a Mossad officer.
Screenshot of a tweet from The State of Israel’s official Twitter account.
But what Israel depicts as “the reality” for queer Palestinians people starkly contrasts with their lived experiences, as they navigate a complex intersection of queer identity and national struggle. Queer Palestinians do face persecution from “both sides,” but this must be seen in the context of occupation and a 16-year siege on Gaza. Under this system, Palestinian society is fractured, subjected to intricate systems of checkpoints and restrictions, and ruled over by a discriminatory legal system that treats them, at best, as second-class citizens. And, for better or worse, Palestinian political parties feel pushed to consolidate a cohesive Palestinian identity based on a narrow set of values.
The situation varies in different contexts. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority cracks down on queerness in defense of “traditional values,” which has led to bans on LGBTQ+ organizations and fueled public hostility. In Gaza, we see the criminalization of same sex conduct. Within Israel’s borders, queer Palestinians navigate a landscape of systemic discrimination. Their queer identities compound the discrimination they already experience as being of Palestinian heritage, rendering them second-class citizens twice over. The same extends to those who seek asylum within Israel’s borders for SOGI issues.
The Response of the Global North
The most recent spike in violence in Gaza and the West Bank has exposed a dichotomy: Western governments, while championing human rights, often compel Palestinians to perform a “victimhood theater” to garner a fragment of sympathy. This is an indignity that further victimizes an already besieged people. The expectation that Palestinians must justify and showcase their suffering to a skeptical world adds a layer of psychological trauma to the physical one caused by conflict.
We continue to see international NGOs, including queer INGOs, demonstrating a selective silence in the face of the atrocities in Gaza despite the abundance of evidence that clearly depicts Israeli aggression and Palestinian subjugation. As with many governments of the Global North, this silence not only undercuts claims of the universality of human rights, but it reveals the uncomfortable dance between advocacy and political convenience.
We are at a point where organizations, governments, and individuals either demonstrate courageous solidarity or sit in silent complicity.
At this historical juncture, LGBTQ+ movements’ response — or lack thereof — will be remembered. The plight of queer Palestinians is not merely a footnote in the broader narrative of conflict, but a critical lens through which to view the struggle for human rights in the region. Their fight for bodily autonomy and integrity is inseparable from the collective Palestinian pursuit of liberation. It is a fight against an occupation that seeks to divide, against societal structures that silence, and against a global narrative that obscures the multidimensional reality of their lives.
This current moment — inflamed by the Netanyahu government’s aspirations for annexation and ethnic cleansing — requires intersectional solidarity that transcends borders and the confines of identity politics. The Global North, with its significant influence over Israel through diplomatic relations and military aid, has the capacity to advocate for a peaceful resolution, a now controversial demand. Yet, its potential remains stifled by the prevailing narrative that “unconditional support” for Israel, no matter the growing list of human rights violations. It also remains stifled by the Western tendency to perpetuate harmful homonationalist3 narratives, as we saw with reductionist media coverage of queer lives in the Middle East during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
We are at a point where organizations, governments, and individuals either demonstrate courageous solidarity or sit in silent complicity. Solidarity, one that aims to dismantle the machinery of both Israeli and Palestinian oppression, requires overcoming these divisive Eurocentric approaches. It requires recognizing the interconnection between identities and struggles for dignity and freedom, rather than choosing which victims are “worthy” along a Western rubric.
Asserting Intersectional Solidarity
In the face of such multi-layered challenges, our response must be nuanced yet assertive. The path forward is one of vocal and unequivocal support for the rights of all marginalized communities.
The intersectionality of Palestinian queer experience calls for solidarity that transcends the mere acknowledgement of their struggle, and advocates for Palestinian liberation and queer liberation together. It requires listening to queer organizing in/from the region and Palestine, such as @queersinpalestine, rather than making assumptions on their behalf. And, it requires queer and human rights advocacy groups to harness the influence they have with Western allies of Israel to apply pressure to stop the occupation, genocide, and discrimination.
We – whether we are human rights defenders, queer activists, NGOs, or allies working locally and globally – must extend our fight for equality and champion a vision of a world where rights are a given, and not simply a privilege granted by the powerful.