Last week, 43 reservists affiliated with the Israeli army’s “Unit 8200” – an electronic espionage operation – issued a public letter decrying Israel’s latest attack on Gaza and which states that they would not take part in Israel’s oppression of millions of Palestinians living under occupation.
What generated particular outrage was the letter-writers’ revelation that Unit 8200 eavesdrops on Palestinians in order to use personal information to coerce them into collaboration with Israel.
As one of the letter writers explained to The Guardian, “Any information that might enable extortion of an individual is considered relevant information. Whether said individual is of a certain sexual orientation, cheating on his wife, or in need of treatment in Israel or the West Bank – he is a target for blackmail.”
While such extortion – for example against Palestinians from Gaza needing to travel for life-saving medical treatment – has long been documented by human rights organizations, it has been rare for it to be acknowledged in this manner by those tasked with doing the extorting.
Understandably, this has generated a great deal of interest and outrage. But alQaws – the Palestinian LGBTQ group profiled by The Electronic Intifada last year – cautions against focusing principally or almost solely on only one aspect of Israeli blackmail – that used against people who engage in same-sex relationships.
Such a focus, alQaws warns, can actually strengthen Israel’s pinkwashing narrative – its effort to falsely portray itself as a haven for Palestinians who identify as LGBTQ or who engage in same-sex relationships.
Here’s alQaws’ statement in full, which can also be found on the group’s website:
We write in response to a couple of articles published in the past week in western media, such as “Israel surveils and blackmails gay Palestinians to make them informants” (Mondoweiss),or Corey Robin’s recent post, “Forget Pinkwashing; Israel Has a Lavender Scare.”
Both pieces were written in response to the recent spate of articles, like the ones published in The New York Times and The Guardian, detailing [Israeli army] Unit 8200 veterans’ refusal of reserve duty due to their rejection of Israel’s surveillance and blackmail of Palestinians.
We are concerned by the way that these responses single out sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular, as the main and most troubling aspect of Israeli intelligence and surveillance recruitment practices.
Although the responses cite many different vulnerabilities Palestinians face – including lack of medical care – that Israeli “security” forces exploit in order to recruit Palestinian informants, these articles neglect these equally significant vulnerabilities and zero in on (homo)sexuality.
First, singling out sexuality ignores the stranglehold that Israel’s militarized colonial regime has on the lives and privacy of Palestinians more generally throughout Palestine. Blackmailing and extorting an individual on the basis of their sexuality is, of course, a naked act of oppression. But it is no more or less oppressive than blackmailing and extorting an individual on the basis of their lack of access to healthcare, disrupted freedom of movement, exposure of marital infidelities, finances, drug use, or anything else.
Second, singling out sexuality suggests that “sexuality” should be the most important priority for Palestinian organizations – including ours – in our struggle against Israeli apartheid, colonization, and dispossession. It also suggests that sexuality can be singled out from Israeli apartheid, colonization, and dispossession.
This isolation of sexuality as a discrete site of oppression bolsters mainstream LGBT rights discourses which, historically, make this oppression legible only through the frame of purported Palestinian “homophobia” and Israeli “tolerance.”
In this sense, singling out homosexuality strengthens pinkwashing and, in particular, the specific and false pinkwashing narrative of the queer Palestinian who must remain closeted within their community, living in secret, always worried about being outed, and looking to Israel as the all-powerful, all-knowing entity capable of protecting their queer life and rendering it intelligible. Falling prey to this logic only entrenches a false, racist binary that actively frames Palestine and Palestinians as homophobic versus Israel and Israelis as sexually tolerant and liberal.
Indeed, we are dismayed by what we have noticed in the tone of some critical responses to these revelations of Israeli Intelligence Unit 8200’s practices. These responses have a disappointed air, as if they were saying, ‘Behave, Israel, we know you are better than this,’ and more, a triumphant tone in pointing out the hypocrisy of Israeli pinkwashing, but only on a superficial level, ‘Israel isn’t all that progressive on gay issues, if they’re running around extorting gay Palestinians.’ But this is misleading.
The fact is, Israel is a military colonial power that lacks good intentions toward any Palestinian people it controls and such practices of surveillance and entrapment are central to, even constitutive of, the Israeli military state. This chiding discourse re-colonizes our bodies by implicitly suggesting that queer Palestinians look to Israel as our savior, another repetition of a familiar and toxic colonial fantasy – that the colonizer can provide something important and necessary that the colonized cannot possibly provide for themselves. This is a risky path and we as local groups need to remember that these notions can easily affect our own actions and vision.
Israel is well aware that using sexuality as tool of extortion and entrapment strengthens the fabricated link between non-heteronormative sexualities, practices, and identities and Israeli colonial oppression in the eyes of a broader Palestinian public. Indeed, this pervasive linking of non-normative sexuality and Palestinian collaboration has become a term and identity of its own in the Palestinian imaginary and reality: isqatat [publicly discrediting a person on supposedly moral grounds].
While it is sometimes true that Israel succeeds in using sexuality as a lever to coerce some Palestinians into becoming collaborators, this is not the primary way in which collaboration is enlisted, nor is it the only option for living a viable queer life in Palestine. This false connection with Israel and collaboration associates queer people with treason, dishonesty, untrustworthiness, and fraudulence, and therefore works to substantiate a very specific kind of homophobic fear within Palestine.
Understanding “homophobia” in colonial contexts demands accounting for colonialism in order to understand homophobia, rather than positing homophobia as a timeless universal of all societies or the specific property of Arab and/or Muslim societies. In our work, we struggle constantly to resist and dismantle this oppressive stereotype that links queer people in Palestine with Israel, and instead to promote the complex understanding of “homophobia” that emphasizes its relationship with colonialism.
Finally, Israel is interested in portraying itself as positive, progressive, liberal, and democratic by, on the one hand, expressing its support for LGBT rights/people and, on the other, by presenting itself as queer Palestinians’ savior. Within this strategy, if Palestinians are going to have any access to or practice of “non-normative sexualities,” Israel is going to make sure it is somehow involved, so it can control and marshal those people and behaviors to serve its own interests.
This is true whether it is exploiting occupied people’s fears in order to make them collaborators or taking credit for progressive politics within Palestine vis-a-vis sexuality. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture: the issue of queer Palestinian collaborators is not about (homo)sexuality any more than it is about being progressive. It’s about colonization.
Yes, the surveillance of sexuality in its totality (including but not limited to homosexuality) in Palestine is socially, politically, and psychologically significant – but it is the symptom of a much larger problem. Moreover, capitalizing on Israel’s gross mistreatment of queer Palestinians by bolstering mainstream LGBT rights discourses is a further colonization of Palestine and queer Palestinians. Concentrating on sexuality alone, no matter how well-intentioned, ultimately shores up Zionism by re-entrenching the connection between Israel and LGBT/queer, even if it is supposedly to call out Israel’s hypocrisy in its exploitation of queer people to serve state interests.
This is yet another illustration of the fact that, as alQaws, Palestinian Queers for BDS, and pinkwatchingisrael.com have long maintained, pinkwashing is ultimately about Zionism and the upholding and furthering Zionism, not LGBQ people or queer liberation.