‘No pride in occupation’: queer Palestinians on ‘pink-washing’ in Gaza conflict

<span>One of two images of Israeli soldier Yoav Atzmoni that was posted on Instagram by the Israeli government in November 2023 with the caption: “The first ever pride flag raised in Gaza”.</span><span>Photograph: @stateofisrael/instagram</span>
One of two images of Israeli soldier Yoav Atzmoni that was posted on Instagram by the Israeli government in November 2023 with the caption: “The first ever pride flag raised in Gaza”.Photograph: @stateofisrael/instagram

When Daoud, a veteran queer activist, recently walked past rainbow flags hung for Pride month in the old port city of Jaffa, a historic centre of Palestinian culture, he was overcome by a wave of revulsion.

The most famous symbol of LGBTQ+ liberation has been so co-opted by the Israeli state that to a gay Palestinian like him it now serves only as a reminder of the horror unfolding just 60 miles south.

Last November, Israel’s government posted two images from Gaza on its social media account. One shows Israeli soldier Yoav Atzmoni, in battle fatigues, in front of buildings reduced to rubble by Israeli airstrikes. He holds a rainbow flag with a hand-scrawled message: “In the name of love”.

In the second he poses beside a tank, grinning as he displays an Israeli flag with rainbow borders. “The first ever Pride flag raised in Gaza,” the caption for both images reads.

At the time, Israeli attacks had killed more than 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza, including more than 4,000 children, according to Gazan health ministry figures. The toll has now risen to over 37,000, and more than a million people are on the brink of famine.

“I saw the disgusting use of Pride flags in Gaza,” said Daoud, a Palestinian citizen of Israel whose name has been changed. He asked for anonymity because Palestinians have faced arrest and persecution for expressing solidarity with civilians in Gaza and criticising the war.

“Now, in this period when terrible death looms over all of us, I can’t see the Pride flag any other way. It really turned my stomach seeing them; it was revolting,” he added.

Daoud’s reaction is shared by many queer people around the world, said Phillip Ayoub, professor of international relations at University College London, who researches the intersection of politics and LGBTQ+ rights.

“That cognitive disconnect of seeing what else is in the image – ­rubble that was people’s homes – then seeing the flag being displayed in a celebratory way. It is a massive violation to people who have fought for their rights under this flag.”

Those images from Gaza are part of a long-running international campaign that critics call “pinkwashing”because they say it aims to bolster the Israeli state by linking it with queerness, presenting it as an explicit counterpart to a Palestinian identity depicted as exclusively and violently homophobic.

It exploits global support for LGBTQ+ rights to further an Israeli ultranationalist political agenda and legitimise the oppression of Palestinians, said Sa’ed Atshan, chair of the department of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College and author of Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique.

This messaging was driven not by genuine enthusiasm for LGBTQ+ rights from a government that includes a self-proclaimed “fascist homophobe” as finance minister, he said, but was deployed strategically for political ends.

“The Israeli state has different audiences,” Atshan said. “If it is addressing LGBTQ-friendly domestic audiences in Israel or globally, then it whips out this pink-washing discourse trying to portray Israel as a gay haven.”

For homophobic audiences, including at home and Christian Zionists abroad, “it presents a homophobic discourse about religious conservatism and adherence to ‘family values’ and revulsion towards queerness”.

When Rauda Morcos, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who is a human rights lawyer and award-winning activist, heard that Tel Aviv planned to mark Pride this year, she was stunned. “Is there no sense of humanity to realise that there are people being bombed every day in Gaza by your own country [Israel]? And you’re calling for Pride and equal rights for queer people? Who cares at the moment if you have equal rights [as queers]? I honestly don’t care, because if we don’t have equal rights as humans, it doesn’t matter.”

Morcos says she was taken back nearly two decades to 2006. That year there was an Israeli attack on Gaza, and as head of a Palestinian queer activist group she campaigned for a boycott of the WorldPride parade hosted by Jerusalem Open House.

“What wrong timing, what bad timing. Not only then but now,” she said. “In fact, it’s always the wrong time and it’s always the wrong topic, because ‘there is no pride in occupation’, whether it is 2006 or now.”

The scale of death and destruction in Gaza has made the struggle for queer rights less urgent for many LGBTQ+ Palestinians. “For me now, the Palestinian flag should be raised, not the Pride flag,” Daoud said.

Israel’s track record on LGBTQ+ rights includes barring discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, recognising foreign same-sex marriage (although it has not been legalised there) and allowing same-sex couples to adopt.

Israel ranks better than most neighbours on the Equaldex LGBT Equality index, in 50th place globally. Palestine is ranked 146th, with consensual same-sex sexual acts legal in the West Bank but not in Gaza.

But the idea that Israel serves as a regional haven for the queer community feels particularly cruel and hypocritical, activists and academics said, at a time when the LGBTQ+ population of Gaza has no more refuge from Israeli bombs than any other Palestinians.

“There is no ‘pink door’ in the wall for queer Palestinians to leave Gaza and make a life in Israel,” said Ayoub from UCL.

“The Israeli rhetoric just makes it even harder for LGBTQ Palestinians, because it reinforces the idea that queerness exists nowhere else … It erases the fact that there are Palestinian activists, queer Palestinians.”

Even for the Jewish majority in the LGBTQ+ community, Israel’s track record on equal rights is outpaced by its official propaganda.

“Palestine is a patriarchal society, and homophobic, but so is Israel. There are more queer rights in Israel than other Middle Eastern countries, but they’re still limited and it’s not a major success story,” Ayoub said.

There is a long, well-documented record of the Israeli security services exploiting the sexuality of LGBTQ+ Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, with devastating and sometimes fatal results.

“During my training course in preparation for my service in this assigned role, we actually learned to memorise and filter different words for ‘gay’ in Arabic,” a member of Israel’s intelligence corps testified a decade ago.

“If you’re homosexual and know someone who knows a wanted person, and we need to know about it, Israel will make your life miserable.”

Last year, a Palestinian from Nablus was publicly executed. He had confessed collaboration with Israel’s domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet, saying they used a video of him having sex with another man to blackmail him into informing.

LGBTQ+ Palestinians suffer widespread discrimination and abuse both in public and in family settings in occupied territories, human rights groups say.

But those who smuggle themselves across the separation wall into Israel from the occupied territories in search of a more queer-friendly environment often find instead racist hostility, bureaucratic red tape and a state of long-term vulnerability.

Queer Palestinians seeking asylum in Israel are regularly barred from healthcare and denied residence permits. They struggle to access shelter and therefore face abuse and exploitation, a “life of hell” documented in a +972 Magazine report.

Long before the current war, Daoud realisedhe had little in common with most queer Israeli Jews. He recalls bringing transgender Palestinians from the occupied West Bank to the beach.

Most had spent their lives barely an hour’s drive away from the Mediterranean but were barred from travelling to its shores by Israeli restrictions. Some, seeing the sea for the first time, were in tears.

“I thought: ‘What do I have in common with gays whose entire struggle is to be able to have their partners from Germany or Spain come to live with them here when I am not even allowed to bring my relative for a visit [from the occupied territories]?’” he said. “It’s not even the same universe.”

The war in Gaza has only sharpened for him an understanding that even if queer Palestinians did not face such radically different problems, there is little room for a joint struggle with Israeli Jews because most value their privilege in a Jewish state over their “shared” queerness.

Many Jewish counterparts in Israel have anchored their claim for equality in their willingness to serve the state and die in its military campaigns, largely directed against Palestinians, he added.

In effect they are saying: “We’re willing to partake in the oppression of Palestinians so [the state] won’t oppress us,” he said. “They got their rights on the backs of Palestinians.”

Yahli, a transgender Jewish woman who, on the day of Tel Aviv Pride, joined an anti-war demonstration under the rallying cry “No blood-washing in our name”, shares this critique of Israel’s mainstream LGBTQ+ community.

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“Many people in the queer community are drawn to the idea of gaining acceptance by being nationally useful and submissive to the state,” Yahli said. “Not because we are human beings but because we are of service.”

That vision of queer national identity was prominent at Tel Aviv’s Pride this month. The usual parade was cancelled for a muted seafront concert that included calls for the release of hostages and celebration of queer Israelis serving in the military, but there was no mention of Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza.

Stories shared at the event included a transgender woman’s decision not to change her official gender identity so she could still serve in the reserves and fight in Gaza.

Morcos is baffled by Israelis who describe their country as a democratic haven for the LGBTQ+ community in a hostile region, particularly when real tolerance rarely extends beyond the limits of Tel Aviv, saying: “How can you boast of your democracy for queers that then oppresses millions of Palestinians?”