A Selective Sanctuary: “Pinkwashing” and Gay Palestinian Asylum-Seekers in Israel

Every June, the LGBTQ community celebrates pride month. And every year, Tel-Aviv is marketed as a must-visit gaycation destination. From the rainbow-decorated streets filled with scantily-clad, chiseled men to the seemingly endless beach parties and gay bars, Tel-Aviv has been widely regarded as the “world’s best gay city.” Israel is also one of few countries in the world that grants legal recognition to same-sex couples regarding property tax benefits, inheritance taxes, and housing aid (though this doesn’t extend to marriage). When “Don’t’ Ask Don’t Tell” was repealed in the US, the Israeli Defense Force had already openly supported gay soldiers for years.

But across the border in the streets of Palestine’s Ramallah, the rainbow flags and gay bars characteristic of Tel-Aviv’s pride celebrations are completely absent. Like the majority of Middle Eastern states, Palestine outlaws homosexuality—a cold reality that leaves the country’s LGBTQ community with little room for freedom of expression.

In 2008, Tel-Aviv University researchers Michael Kagan and Anat Ben-Dor of Tel-Aviv University published a report titled, Nowhere to Run: Gay Palestinian Asylum-Seekers in Israel. An interview with “D”, a 20-year old from the West Bank, aptly describes the social and religious barriers that Palestinian sexual minorities face:

“In Palestinian culture, being homosexual is…a disgrace to [the homosexual’s] entire family and an abomination against Islam. It is also viewed as an act against the Palestinian struggle for independence…the sanctions are extremely harsh, beginning with physical and verbal abuse and often ending in death at the hands of one’s own family or others.”

As shown by other testimonies from Kagan and Ben-Dor’s research, gay Palestinians do not only suffer at the hands of their family; oftentimes, other civilians, armed militias, and or official authorities use a variety of means to torture and abuse sexual minorities. This ranges from beatings, stabbings, burnings, prolonged immersion in sewage water, and forced starvation among others.

In order to escape this persecution, many gay Palestinians[1] seek refuge in Israel. But even in such an “LGBTQ-friendly” country, these individuals continue to face discrimination. If discovered by Israeli authorities, they are often detained and sent back to the West Bank or Gaza where they face the same abuse they fled from—perhaps even facing death. Others who manage to stay in Israel must live a life of secrecy and hardship, often relying on drug networks or prostitution rings to survive.

Yet the behavior of Israeli authorities towards gay Palestinians contradicts the state’s binding legal agreements. Israel is a state party to both the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (CRCR) and the 1967 CRCR Protocol, which as outlined by Article 1 of the CRCR, would place LGBTQ individuals who flee homophobic violence and lack government protection under the formal definition of “refugee”. Additionally Article 42 of the CRCR prevents states from entering reservations onto this definition. This means that any state party to the CRCR cannot deny rights by changing the definition of what constitutes a “refugee” under Article 1 of the CRCR.

Israel’s legal obligation to protect Palestinian LGBTQ refugees is further demanded by other articles within the CRCR. Article 33 of the CRCR requires signatories to provide asylum to refugees—as defined by Article 1 of the same treaty—on the principle of non-refoulement, that is, “the prohibition of forcing foreigners to return to territories where they would be in danger”. Moreover, Article 3 requires “contracting States [to] apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion, or country of origin.” Yet Israel does not fully honor either of these legal commitments. Beyond its deportation policies, Israel excludes all Palestinians from formally applying for refugee status via the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the National Status Granting Board (NSGB).

Israel’s current policy regarding Palestinian asylum-seekers not only places gay Palestinians at risk, but also violates the international humanitarian law it is bound to. Clearly, there is a disjunct between stated intentions and actual policy; while gay Palestinians should be provided asylum in Israel, discrimination still continues on the basis of race and country of origin. As Kagan and Ben-Dor mention, Israeli authorities seem to conflate Palestinians seeking asylum with those seeking right-of-return.

“The right to seek asylum invokes a separate body of law from the debate over refugee return; the Palestinians we [Kagan and Ben-Dor] discuss in this report [Nowhere to Run] are seeking international protection in Israel as a foreign country, not return or repatriation to ancestral homes.”

The 2003 Citizenship and Entry to Israel Law, which prohibits granting a visa or a permit to stay in Israel to a Palestinian resident of the Occupied Territories, does have narrow exceptions that may apply to refugees. However, few have successfully obtained this status. In most cases, gay Palestinians’ best option is to seek asylum in a third country, most often in Europe.

There is also the matter of Israeli “pinkwashing”. Israel’s emphasis on its positive LGBTQ rights track record allows it to glorify itself as a socially enlightened society while condemning Palestinian and other Arab attitudes towards LGBTQ individuals. Some argue this behavior serves to cover up some of the larger injustices perpetrated by Israel against Palestine. By focusing solely on LGBTQ issues, the complexity of Israeli-Palestinian relations threatens to be oversimplified, also closing dialogue on intersectionality and the multitude of social factors that also affect LGBTQ rights. In addition, this “pinkwashing” paradigm perpetuates an even larger “West-Arab World” dichotomy by highlighting the gap between Palestine and Israel in terms of LGBTQ rights. This not only hampers grassroots Palestinian/Arab advocacy organizations trying to secure LGBTQ rights in Palestine, but also efforts to secure aspects of peaceful macro-relations between the US, Canada, and Europe with the Middle East.

Though other factors such as religion, history and politics play a large role in Palestine’s current LGBTQ rights situation, adding a Western cultural connotation to LGBTQ rights combines two concepts that should exist in completely separate spheres. If “the West” is to attempt to improve the situation for LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East, care must be taken to avoid patronizing actions reminiscent of the region’s imperial past. LGBTQ rights should not be mistaken as a “colonial project.”

Ideally, the situation for gay individuals in Palestine should improve. In the meantime, Israel needs to rethink its refugee policy. Rather than enforce sweeping blocks to Palestinian asylum-seekers, a case-by-case review of applicants strikes a better balance between asylum and security. But Israel’s intransigence—namely its lumping of all Palestinians into one category—shows what Israel is willing to sacrifice in the name of security. In reality, there is a huge disconnect between Tel-Aviv’s “gay friendliness” and Israel’s stance on LGBTQ rights. And though the human rights corpus should be upheld universally, the debate over granting gay Palestinians asylum in Israel is still seeped in a geo-political context.

Josh Feng (’17) attends Yale University.

[1] Though it is quite likely that many LGBTQ persons in Palestine suffer from similar treatment, the sources drawn upon focus largely on homosexual males. For the sake of accuracy, specific terminology is used throughout this piece.