...they just don't have the luxury of condemning them, because suicide bombings are at least an act of resistance.
Related Gully Coverage
An Israeli tank passes by a poster of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat while patrolling the West Bank town of Nablus, Sept. 10, 2002. Nasser Ishtayeh
For Part 1
SEPTEMBER 12, 2002. The Gully recently talked with Emmaia Gelman, queer activist and founding member of Jews Against The Occupation, about what she experienced on a trip to Israel and the West Bank. In the second half of our interview we focus on suicide bombings and non-violent resistance, Palestinian leadership, the "coming out" quandary, and Palestinian queers.
The GULLY: Even supporters of Palestinian liberation, and the end of Israeli occupation find it hard to stomach suicide bombs in pizza parlors and malls. How much does the average Palestinian support these attacks?
EMMAIA GELMAN: I was almost afraid to hear what Palestinians had to say about suicide bombings, because I am American and Jewish, and in both capacities I have been subjected to a lot of messages telling me that Palestinians are inherently violent. But the longer I was in Nablus, the more clearly I understood the most common position of the Palestinian-on-the-street regarding suicide bombings. Which is that they don't want to support suicide bombings because they're so awful, but they just don't have the luxury of condemning them, because suicide bombings are at least an act of resistance, when all other routes of resistance have been shut down by the Israeli army.
We would much prefer that attacks be limited to military targets, or better yet, that people pursue change by non-violent methods. But Palestinians who try to peacefully march against the occupation, or against the curfew, or for the right to work, are tear-gassed, shot, detained or killed. Palestinian political structures are crippled by the occupation. Not only does the existing government not function, but people can't participate in government, choose new leaders, or basically have a say in anything that affects them.
I didn't meet one single person who liked Arafat. But how could anyone run a real election campaign when they're not allowed out of their houses? How could people engage in debate? How could a new leader just jump into position when everything is falling apart? People haven't been to their offices in months. People haven't seen their families in months. People have no food.
So there's very, very little room for non-violent resistance. To the total credit of Palestinians, the non-violent movement still exists, but the Israeli government actively works to dismantle it.
Meanwhile, violence against civilians is the Israeli army's main tactic. They've instituted a curfew which imprisons civilians, tank patrols which shoot randomly into the street and into houses. They beat at random anyone caught on the street, and regularly round-up whole villages. Violent collective punishment of Palestinian civilians takes place every single day in the West Bank. So when Palestinians who do not have tanks or helicopters, which would allow them to mount real military resistance, resort to violence against Israeli civilians, it has to be understood as resistance in kind. Even if you hate it.
People regularly ask me, if the occupation stopped today, would suicide bombings end? The answer is yes, I know for a fact that they would. The only reason that Palestinian society accepts suicide bombings, or the leadership of Islamic militants, for that matter, is because their options for non-violent, political resistance have been taken away by the Israeli army.
Were you out as a lesbian during your trip?
No. I thought it would be a hard decision, because I'm never closeted, on principle. But when I arrived, it was clear that queerness was so far off the Palestinian radar, it would just be salt in Palestinians' wounds to try to force the issue now. So yes, I did a little protecting of Palestinians at the expense of erasing myself, which I think was fine, given the circumstances. I was already a little bit suspect as a Jew and an American, and I wasn't trying to alienate myself completely from the people I had come to work with. But I plan to go back, and I won't stay closeted there forever.
You say by erasing yourself you were "protecting" Palestinians. What were you protecting them from?
Did I say protecting? Hmm. It was more that the crisis, and Palestinians' pain, was overwhelming, and I chose not to try to force them to deal with yet another crisis, to the extent that I knew a queer blow-up would be dramatic for them. I guess I was trying to "protect" them from that. But I was also just trying to make sure I could be as effective an activist as possible while I was there.
As an advocate of the Egyptian queers on trial, does the systematic oppression of gay men by the Palestinian Authority complicate your support for the Palestinian cause?
I don't know any specifics about the PA and gay men or lesbians. I do know that things are not good for queers in Palestine, and I hear they generally hightail it out of there. So yes, that certainly complicates my support, especially since most of what I know about social justice and why the occupation is wrong, I learned as a queer activist.
But again, the occupation is currently the main obstacle to anything ever changing in Palestine. When the occupation is over, I would love to take on the Palestinian Authority and its homophobia. Until it's over, the Israeli army is the problem.
Queer (or shall I say "gay") supporters of Israel love to point out how much better Israel is for queers than Palestine. To them I would like to say, "hello!" That's because while Israeli queers were out marching in the streets for basic rights and President Weitzman was denouncing them, not so long ago I might add, Palestinians were spending all their time trying to figure out how to get across the green line to work for their colonizer, so they could make enough money to survive.
I do not believe that Palestinian society is inherently, or permanently anti-gay, nor is it particularly fundamentalist about its Islamic underpinnings. (Although, again, I was only there for two weeks and I wasn't seeing normal Palestinian society.) There are progressive elements trying desperately to function in Palestinian society, but guess what, the occupation prevents them.
Just as an example: until curfew descended on the West Bank, the United Palestinian Medical Relief Centers sponsored co-ed youth programs to break down gender segregation. Their annual report talks specifically about their efforts to liberalize Palestinian society. And they are certainly not alone. But no progress can happen until the occupation ends. Which is why it's so clear that the occupation is designed to make sure Palestinian society stays locked down. No change, no growth, no participation in government; just desperation, suicides, corrupt leaders, starvation.
For Coming Out Against the Israeli Occupation: Part 1
For The New Republic's Refugee Status: Gay Palestinians about their invisible plight. (registration required)
For Jerusalem Open House, the city's gay community center.
For a bonanza of Middle East and Israeli links from The Jerusalem Post.
From a US-Iraq showdown, to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Includes original features, headlines, and web resources.
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