War and occupation are queer issues

October 6, 2006

Claire English, a former National Union of Students queer officer, attended the August 3-13 Queeruption convergence in Tel Aviv. Below is her account of some of her experiences.

When I left Australia, I didn't really know very much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all. I'd seen the maps with the borders coloured in. I'd heard a small amount about the intifadas (uprisings) and what is called the Nakba (catastrophe) by Palestinians, known among Israelis as the "War of Independence" — the establishment of the state of Israel. But I wasn't really prepared for my time in Tel Aviv or the West Bank.

It was quite a shock arriving in Israel, faced with government-funded pro-war billboards — "To those fighting in the north — we are with you!" — and nationalist graffiti on every street corner: "Israelis: still alive, Israel: still ours", "Gas the Arabs!"

I was in Palestine-Israel during the Queeruption gathering. This meant contact with organisations such as the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), ASWAT (a Palestinian group of women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, transgender or inter-sexual), Anarchists Against the Wall, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Queeruption involved numerous demonstrations, parties and activist planning meetings:

l<~>August 5: protest against the war on Lebanon. These demonstrations were held weekly in Tel Aviv; this one had about 6000 people. The chants were not unlike ours at home. "In Beirut, in Tel Aviv, in Gaza, in the US, children deserve to live, people deserve to live!", "Hey there minister of defence, how many kids did you kill today?" (In Hebrew these chants rhyme!)

l<~>August 8: a demonstration was held at 10pm outside the defence minister's home in the ritzy area of north Tel Aviv. The chants were "No sleep for Lebanon, no sleep for you!" and "No peace till Israel gets out of Lebanon!"

l<~>August 11: ISM-organised protest in the West Bank village of Bil'in against the apartheid wall. The wall is responsible for Israel now occupying 60% of what was Bil'in. Protests occurred every Friday after prayer time. Palestinian activists said it was the most violent it had been in a year because the usual soldiers were in Lebanon and the new recruits were unsteady. One of the Israeli protesters, Limor, got shot in the head with rubber bullets after he turned his back and was walking away. One of the bullets lodged in his head. We didn't even get close enough to see the wall before they opened fire and blasted us with sound, grenades and tear gas.

This is very normal in the West Bank, but is not usually so thick and fast. Young kids were throwing stones, to be met with gunfire. The Israeli forces use rubber-coated lead bullets instead of live ammunition because of the presence of internationals and Israelis. In a neighbouring village where there has been no organised protest with Israelis and internationals, two children were shot dead by Israeli forces using live ammunition.

An illegal demonstration scheduled at the same time as the cancelled World Pride was one of the most violent I have ever been to. The Queeruption crew went to make a point that war and occupation is a queer issue. The chants included "No pride, no pride, no pride in the occupation" and "It's hard to get out of the closet, it's easy to get out of Lebanon". Cops arrested people for holding Palestinian and Lebanese flags.

Some of the World Pride organisers were quoted in the press saying that "Anarchists hijacked the event" but the Queeruption organisers were quoted saying "It's world pride, so surely the voices of queer Lebanese and queer Palestinians deserved to be heard?"

The response to the demonstrations from not only organised Zionist groups, but also passers-by in general, was astounding. At the anti-war demo people gathered on the opposite side of the road and shouted in response to the people wearing T-shirts soaked in fake blood, "Go to Haifa and let them spill some real blood". Some held signs: "The blood of countless Jews on your hands", as if fighting for peace in Lebanon was the equivalent of killing Jews. At home it was easy to tell that even if there were a few rabid racists, the majority of people actually opposed the war on Iraq — here the majority were for the war in Lebanon!

In the lead-up to World Pride (later cancelled because of the war on Lebanon), pamphlets were distributed in Jerusalem by the ultra-right orthodox Jews that promised a bounty of over US$4500 for each homosexual killed during the pride parade. In addition to the bounty offer, the two-page pamphlet also provided directions complete with hand-drawn diagrams of how to construct weapons that could be used to attack homosexuals. The three preferred weapons were a Molotov cocktail, a rock-filled sock and a nail-studded stick. But the Palestinians are the terrorists, just remember that!

I suppose that if you live in a place surrounded by billboards supporting the war, and every time you walk into a religious monument you are greeted with rabbis holding a donation box calling out, "Donate here to bring much glory to the Jews and much misfortune to the Palestinians!" (this happened to me at the Wailing Wall), and when you are not legally allowed to visit the West Bank even if you marry a Palestinian — the hatred and bigotry becomes so normalised.

The occupation is bad for all and worse for queers. The Israeli security services cynically use Palestinian homophobia to coerce queers to choose between recruitment to its ranks (becoming a spy for Israel) and forceful outing. Many Palestinians choose the first option to save their lives, or to avoid a life forcefully denying who they are.

Every queer is considered a potential collaborator. Even if queer Palestinians get this legal escape to the "gay paradise" of Tel Aviv, because of racism the possibility of your employment making ends meet is so slim that a huge portion, especially transsexual and transgendered people, become prostitutes just to afford to get by.

ASWAT has met with as many progressive lawmakers in Palestine as it could and has been told countless times, "We live under occupation, there's no time now for queer rights". This is the battle that ASWAT has to fight.

Even if pro-queer laws were passed, lawmakers cannot secure for their constituents so much as the right to move freely from one village to the next, or safeguard any of them from interrogation or detention by Israeli security service officials, let alone closely follow the implementation or impact of law changes. It has been said that an Israeli lieutenant in charge of one checkpoint has more power over Palestinians' daily lives than the whole Palestinian government.

I have a lot to learn. I wrote this because I needed to get it out of my system. I think it's important to try and talk about the effects of occupation, racism and queerphobia. The struggles against them must be combined.

[Queeruption's website is <><http://www.queeruption.org>.]

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