Palestinian Authority Bans Activities by Gay Rights Group

Jerusalem — A Palestinian gay and transgender rights group vowed on Monday to continue its activities after the Palestinian Authority police barred the group from holding events in the West Bank and threatened to arrest participants.

The Palestinian Authority police, who exercise control in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, announced the ban over the weekend. A police spokesman, Col. Louai Irzeiqat, described activities organized by the rights group, Al Qaws, as “a blow to, and violation of, the ideals and values of Palestinian society.”

Founded in 2001, Al Qaws is a grass-roots organization that advocates sexual and gender diversity in Palestinian society, which is largely conservative and often repressive for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“Al Qaws condemns the use of prosecution, intimidation and threats of arrest, be it by the police or members of society,” the group said in a statement posted on social media. “We believe that the police and Palestinian society at large should focus on combating 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 said the ban came a week after it held what it called a “discussion-based event” in the Palestinian city of Nablus in the northern West Bank. It also came three weeks after a Palestinian teenager was stabbed and severely wounded outside a shelter for gay and transgender youths in Tel Aviv.

Al Qaws generally operates from offices in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem and the Israeli port city of Haifa, beyond the reach of the Palestinian Authority police. The group says it has also established “hubs” in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv; in the West Bank city of Ramallah; and recently, in Nablus.

The Palestinian police said in their statement that they had not been aware of the gathering in Nablus when it took place.

The ban prompted strong debate on Palestinian social media, with many criticizing the police’s decision.

“You are speaking to us about customs and traditions!!!!” Tami Rafidi, a Palestinian women’s affairs activist, wrote on her Facebook page. “I am telling you, we are in the 21st century and many of the customs and traditions have changed with the times!!!”

The ban also drew notice in Israel, which has long promoted its tolerance on sexual and gender issues, despite vehement rejection in some strictly Orthodox Jewish circles, and it has cited a lack of gay rights in other parts of the Middle East to make unfavorable comparisons. The current Israeli justice minister is gay, and Tel Aviv is proud of its reputation as a favorite destination for gay and lesbian travelers.

But Israel has also been accused of portraying itself as a bastion of progressive values to detract attention from its 52-year occupation of the West Bank and the right-wing government’s policies toward Palestinians.

The entanglement became clear as efforts by Israelis to show solidarity with Al Qaws, and perhaps capitalize on the Palestinian Authority’s ban, drew rebukes from others who accused the group of anti-Semitism.

Al Qaws advocates what it calls a “holistic” approach that appears to skirt any recognition of Israel. “Defiantly challenging imposed colonial borders and decades of Israeli fragmentation policies and apartheid, we work in various locations across Palestine, modifying our strategies and programs as needed,” the group states on its website.

So when Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, an Israeli deputy mayor of Jerusalem and self-described feminist, shared a Jerusalem Post article about the Palestinian police ban on Twitter and offered to host Al Qaws event in Jerusalem or in a Jewish community center in a West Bank settlement, other Israeli advocates responded that she should be careful in any dealings with the group, which actively supports the boycott, divest and sanction movement against Israel.

Colonel Irzeiqat, the Palestinian police spokesman, said Al Qaws had been planning a gathering in Ramallah but had been deterred by the threat of arrests.

An advertisement by Al Qaws for an overnight camp at the end of this month said it would provide space for 18-to-24-year-olds exploring sexual and gender pluralism and was open to people “from all over Palestine,” including Israel, without indicating where it would take place.

by Isabel Kershner and Mohammed Najib
Source – The New York Times