Conversations about the Israel-Hamas conflict have started to dominate public debate all over the world, with many taking a clear stance and voicing their opinion.
However, the events on October 7 were not a beginning, as the Palestinian situation is one of the world’s longest continuing conflicts. Its history precedes Hamas, involves several other actors - including other Western and Arab countries - and counts various failed attempts at resolution.
Activists and human rights groups from the region and worldwide have long condemned what was happening in Gaza, even when it wasn't open warfare. Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine and the ruthless policies of land confiscation, illegal settlement and dispossession have been taking lives and forcing thousands of Palestinians to leave their homes for over 50 years. The Israeli authorities have forcibly evicted entire communities and demolished tens of thousands of houses and structures, leaving many homeless.
Moreover, Israel’s military rule in the occupied territories has deeply affected Palestinians’ daily lives, including how they travel to work or school, go abroad, visit relatives, or even simply access electricity or clean water.
After Hamas launched its attack in October, Israel not only targeted thousands of air strikes against Gaza, but also cut off deliveries of food, water and medical supplies in the area.
In light of the situation, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, Francesca Albanese, said that Israel’s response to Hamas’s attack had gone well beyond the limits of international law and that the government was seeking to “justify what would amount to ethnic cleansing” in the name of self-defence.
While governments around the world seem reluctant to openly condemn Israel’s siege on Gaza, people have been much more vocal, coming together to call for a ceasefire and to advocate for Palestinian liberation. Solidarity marches are taking place in cities all over the world, with thousands of participants calling for a stop to the violence taking place. In Ireland, in places such as Dublin and Cork thousands took to the streets in support of Palestine in organised marches taking place over several weekends.
All around the world, queer people are among the loudest protesters. Many Pride flags fly at these marches for Palestine, showing clearly where the support of the LGBTQ+ community lies: with the Palestinian people caught in the crossfire.
Amid all of this, many queer folks have been met with a particular brand of retort: that being queer and supporting Palestine are paradoxical because same-sex activity has been illegal in the country since 1936, under the British Mandate Criminal Code.
The argument has been so common that Israel itself is using it to counter support for Palestine. After the marches started around the globe, the State of Israel’s official X account shared images of queer people protesting and mockingly commented: “Looking forward to seeing Hamas raise the rainbow flag across Gaza as a thank you for your solidarity”. Another post showed two Israeli soldiers waving a Pride flag on the sites of destruction caused by air strikes with the caption: “The first ever Pride flag raised in Gaza”.
These examples are certainly not the first time that Israel has exploited LGBTQ+ rights to project a progressive image as a nation that defends freedom, diversity and human rights. Many activists all over the world have denounced the deliberate pinkwashing strategy that the Israeli government employs to conceal its violations of international law and human rights and its politics of occupation and apartheid in Palestine. Launched more than 20 years ago, the pinkwashing campaign attempts to juxtapose a progressive image of Israel against a racist portrayal of a supposedly backward and “uncivilised” Palestinian society to distract from the fact that Israeli authorities keep depriving Palestinians of basic human rights.
These portrayals completely fail to address how Israel purports to secure human rights that are routinely violated along racial and ethnic lines. It also fails to take into account the existence of queer Palestinians and the fact that they are among the people that Israel is displacing, incarcerating and now killing during the siege.
“You cannot have queer liberation while apartheid, patriarchy, capitalism and other oppressions exist. It’s important to target the connections of these oppressive forces,” said Ghaith Hilal, an activist from the organisation Al Qaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society. This grassroots organisation has operated in Palestine since November 2007, running community centres and events dedicated to queer people in several cities and rural areas, including Haifa, East Jerusalem, Jaffa and Ramallah in the West Bank. They also operate a national support helpline and create campaigns to help change public discourse. Challenging the colonial borders and internal fragmentation imposed by Israeli authorities, Al Qaws’s main goal is to build a unified Palestinian LGBTQ+ community “that practices self-determination and strives toward a de-colonised Palestine”.
“All political work intersects with issues that are sometimes dismissed as too personal, apolitical, or irrelevant to anti-occupation and de-colonial organising, such as homosexuality and queer identity, non-normative gender, and so on,” reads a statement on their website. “Our commitment to supporting and strengthening Palestinian queer/LGBT communities cannot be separated from our vision for a self-determined Palestinian society free from all forms of oppression.”
Their vision is built on anti-colonial and queer-feminist values and, by tackling intersecting forms of oppression, the organisation seeks to dismantle the social and political structures that not only harm minority groups in Palestine, but also prevent broader social justice.
As it’s clearly demonstrated by the tireless work of Al Qaws, the presence of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in a country does not mean that a queer community doesn’t exist there. Since the start of the siege on Gaza by Israel, messages from queer Palestinians have begun to appear on the website Queerying the Map, an online platform where LGBTQ+ folks from all over the world share their stories of romantic, platonic or otherwise, encounters. In these messages, queer Palestinians have shared poignant stories and memories since the violence escalated in the Gaza Strip.
“My biggest regret is not kissing this one guy. He died two days back. We had told how much we like each other and I was too shy to kiss last time. He died in the bombing. I think a big part of me died too. And soon I will be dead. To Younus, I will kiss you in heaven.”
“I’ve always imagined you and me sitting out in the sun, hand in hand, free at last. We spoke of all the places we would go if we could. Yet you are gone now.”
“Pls know despite what the media says there are gay Palestinians. We are here, we are queer. Free Palestine.”
After receiving backlash for supporting Palestine through his online activism, queer Jewish influencer Matt Bernstein shared a message he got from a gay man in Gaza. Explaining what the situation is like for the queer community in the region, the man said: “Gaza is like lots of religious communities, pre marital sex is not very welcomed here. In case if any couples get caught doing it, they don't jail them, they inform their families about [it] since Gaza community is a big family society.”
“It's the exact same thing for gay sex, they would inform your family and the family will act accordingly,” the man continued. “I'm not saying it's rainbow and the families usually will accept. Yes, the person might be forgiven or kicked out of the house or even killed. And from what we see it's the same thing for all queer people around the world.
“So yes, queer people in Gaza might struggle to survive and yes, we don't have Pride. And I'm gonna be honest, we didn't even try to have one. Because the right of having a queer Pride comes after some basic rights are fulfilled. If we have power and time to fight for rights, we will fight for our freedom just for the mere fact we are Palestinian.”
He concluded, “So yes I'm gonna fight for our kids and people to be free and safe before fighting for my right to raise a Pride flag in Gaza. Israel government made Gaza an impossible place for queer people to exist. Because when you starve people, kill them, not letting them go anywhere, queer rights will never be a priority even for queer people.”