The Palestinian Authority has rescinded a ban on a gay and transgender advocacy group that caused outrage among human rights organizations and fear among some of its members and after a huge backlash.
But rights groups say the PA must go further then withdrawing a police statement that left members of the LGBTQ rights group Al Qaws fearful for their safety.
“I didn’t believe it at first. I thought it was just a rumor until I saw the statement myself,” said Amir, a 21-year-old Al Qaws member from occupied Jerusalem, who preferred not to give his real name.
On 17 August, Palestinian Authority police spokesperson Louai Irzeqat issued a statement targeting Al-Qaws (“The Rainbow” in Arabic), claiming the group goes against “traditional Palestinian values” and called on citizens to report “suspicious figures attempting to provoke and harm the Palestinian social fabric.”
It also accused the group of being “foreign agents.”
The statement came even though Palestinian law does not consider homosexuality a crime.
“It makes all of us scared,” said 23-year-old Ahmad, who also wanted to remain anonymous and is from the northern occupied West Bank. “The PA should be the ones protecting its citizens from violence, and now they are the ones who are encouraging it.”
“The PA is inciting violence”
Al Qaws released a statement following the PA’s announcement condemning the “use of prosecution, intimidation, and threats of arrest, be it by the police or members of society.”
“We believe that the police and Palestinian society at large should focus on combatting the occupation and other forms of violence that tear apart the sensitive fabric of our society and values, instead of prosecuting activists who work tirelessly to end all forms of violence,” the group added.
According to Haneen Maikey, the director of Al Qaws, the group – which has received threatening emails and messages containing hate speech since its inception as part of a non-political Israeli LGBTQ community center in 2001 – began receiving a higher frequency of threatening and hateful messages following a protest they organized in Haifa at the start of August demanding an end to homophobia in the Palestinian community.
The protest was in response to the stabbing of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy outside of an LGBTQ shelter in Tel Aviv in July. The teen’s brother is suspected of carrying out the stabbing.
The PA ban came following the group’s announcement of a “queer camp” being organized for the end of August to provide a space for LGBTQ+ Palestinians to share their experiences.
The Palestinian police have since withdrawn the statement, a move which has been welcomed by rights groups. However, civil society groups are urging the police to take their retraction a step further and release a statement condemning hate speech and violence.
According to Al Qaws, since the police announcement, the group has been barraged with threatening and intimidating messages – including death threats – forcing the group to expand its support hotline and to encourage its members to connect with human rights organizations in case of violence or harassment by both police and community members.
Ali, a 21-year-old Palestinian LGBTQ activist from occupied Jerusalem, told The Electronic Intifada on condition of anonymity that the most worrisome part of the ban is “the violent and intimidating conversations that this ban has encouraged. The PA is supposed to protect all Palestinians, not incite violence against them.”
Irzeqat, the PA police spokesperson, could not be reached for comment.
PA must “open up” to dialogue
Many Palestinians, human rights groups and politicians have also voiced support for the group.
Some posted on social media condemning the PA’s statement.
“It’s not about accepting them into conservative society. It’s about learning to deal with our differences, especially when a group of people is not hurting anyone,” a young woman from Hebron in the southern West Bank wrote on her personal Facebook page.
“The PA, on the other hand, is hurting people when their job is to prevent violence,” she added.
Ali, meanwhile, echoed a popular sentiment expressed on social media: “Doesn’t the PA have more important things to worry about? Like… I don’t know… maybe the Israeli occupation?”
The UN Human Rights Office in the Occupied Palestinian Territory released a press release on Thursday saying the ban and calls for Palestinians to report members and activists to the police “infringe on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and create a climate of hostility and discrimination, where the rights to life and physical integrity of individuals are put at risk.”
The Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council released a statement condemning the PA’s move, and noted that the ban and statement violated amended Palestinian basic law and international human rights treaties to which Palestine has acceded.
The council called on the PA authorities and police to “open up to community-based dialogue, grounded in human rights, and to seek the expansion of such debate to include all components of Palestinian society.”
American congresswoman Ilhan Omar also weighed in, commenting on Twitter: “LGBTQ rights are human rights and we should condemn any effort to infringe upon them.”
Jaclynn Ashly is a journalist based in the West Bank.