Author: Ayelet Gal
A couple of months ago, in the beginning of April, a young Palestinian Zuhair Khalid was executed in Nablus. Khalid, was executed by a Palestinian armed group called “Lions’ Den” (عرين الأسود) after being exposed as a collaborator with the Israeli army. In a video released prior to his execution, he recounts how the Israeli army coerced his collaboration through threats, based on his sexual orientation.
When I heard the news, I was horrified, but also confused. How does the so-called liberal State of Israel, with its LGBTQ+ capital of Tel Aviv, resort to such coercion and threats against Palestinians’ most vulnerable communities? We love to brag about LGBTQ+ Palestinians, who are endangered and persecuted in their own communities and must flee to us – the ‘only democracy in the middle east’, where every person is accepted and loved. Yet, here we are, chasing and threatening them.
Hearing the news, I was expecting an outrage from the liberal left, and denial from the militant right. Surprisingly, the fact that an LGBTQ+ individual was coerced by Israeli forces due to his sexual orientation, was openly reported in the Israeli news, with no shame. Quickly, it became clear to me that the coercion of LGBTQ+ Palestinians is one of the most known “state secrets” in our country. In 2014, 43 former soldiers of Israeli Intelligence Corps unit exposed the surveillance on Palestinians’ phones. They disclosed information they were asked to gather on Palestinians without criminal records, and among other things, said that “if you are a homosexual who knows someone who knows a wanted individual, Israel will ruin your life.”
Although the news quickly passed by, the story stuck with me. If it is a known subject, how come we are not talking about it, even when it’s on the headline? While trying to answer this question, I started diving into the complicated relationship between LGBTQ and the IOF (Israeli Occupation Forces; AKA, IDF).
In the mid-1950s, two male soldiers were sentenced in a military court for conducting “unnatural intercourse” and were sent to prison. Although, their punishment was later reduced following a claim by a doctor that imprisonment would only “worsen their condition”.
Until the early 80s, homosexuality was a reason for lowering one’s military profile – which medically Exempted gay men from serving in combat. When the Chief Medical Officer learned about this, being gay was apparently no longer a disease, but suddenly became a security risk. In 1993, Professor Uzi Even appeared in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) after being dismissed from the military intelligence due to his coming out. There, he exposed military orders, that apparently existed in the IOF since 1983:
“No homosexual soldier will serve in a classified position. […] If a soldier is suspected of being homosexual, he will be under constant security surveillance throughout his regular service in the IDF.”
Following Even’s talk in the Knesset, a decade after they were written, these discriminatory orders were changed in the name of liberalism. However, only a few weeks later, a soldier named Yossi Makaitan was photographed at the Pride celebrations in Tel Aviv which led to his expulsion from the Army.
For another five years after the change in orders, LGBTQ+ soldiers still underwent comprehensive security checks before enlistment. It was only in 1998 that the discriminatory policies were officially cancelled in the name of liberalism. However, unlike other liberal armies around the world –which have canceled their discriminatory policies, only to adopt a new, inclusive policy – the IOF “forgot” to adopt an alternative inclusive policy, that would replace the discriminatory one.
At the beginning of the 2000s, social, internal, and global processes, as well as tragedies, led to a change in the visibility and attitude towards, the LGBTQ+ community. The Pride Parade became part of Tel Aviv’s culture, and a strong LGBTQ+ community was established in Israel, with influence and political power that could not be denied.
The strong LGBTQ+ community became Israel’s asset – LGBTQ+ communities around the world became a symbol of liberal status, connecting countries to the Western world, and distancing themselves from the ‘primitiveness’, associated with Islamic countries. The Israeli LGBTQ+ community serves as token of Israel’s modernity, liberalism, and Westernness. It is our political joker to de-legitimize our Palestinian neighbors in front of the world.
For example, in 2011, the Israeli Hasbara Ministry (Ministry of Information, AKA, Ministry of Propaganda) produced a remarkably ridiculous video. In the video, they aimed to prove how ignorant and small-minded the Hamas government is, due to their anti-LGBTQ+ views. In doing so, they attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the Gaza flotilla raid (humanitarian aid sent after the blockade on Gaza was imposed). While criticizing Hamas, they of course forgot to mention that the Israeli government is also not a supporter of LGBTQ+ nor women rights. The LGBTQ+ community became only a tool, with no intention of serving the individuals themselves, but only to undermine the legitimacy of the Palestinian struggle.
Later in 2011, the US military decided to come out of the closet, as they officially cancelled their discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (which banned openly gay people from military service). After receiving the approval from the US, the IOF decided the ‘security threat’ had finally passed, and they posted a proud photo on their international Facebook page with the puzzling headline: “Did you know that the IDF treats all of its soldiers equally?”.
Since then, there were also significant improvements within the IOF for LGBTQ+ individuals in military service: in 2013, a committee of experts was established to assist transgender soldiers, and in 2014, LGBTQ+ content was introduced in the education corps’ courses. In 2014, the IOF was ranked in the top ten of the most “gay-friendly armies” in the world, with the highest score in the Middle East. Most of these changes can be attributed to the work of the office of the YOHALN (Women advisor to the Chief of Staff), who changed their title in 2016 and became the YOHALM (Gender Advisor to the Chief of Staff).
The change from ” YOHALN” (Women advisor) to ” YOHALM” (Gender Advisor) came with an impressive document titled “From Women to Gender – The Basis of Perception”. This document is an informative document regarding sex, gender, and the military. However, it refers not only to the individuals within the military system, but the consequences of gender structures on war and conflict.
Briefly: Gender is not binary, and gender does not depend on sex. Women should be judged based on their abilities, and not on their sex/gender. The army is associated with hegemonic masculinity, and it imposes roles and gender stereotypes on us. The army, especially combat, is associated with hegemonic masculinity, and the organizational structure of the army imposes gender roles and toxic masculinity in particular. The bottom line: the army is a male body, built by men, for men.
This military document, which looks more like a Gender Studies manifesto, can be seen as radical even in the feminist discourse. In Israel, the IOF is a symbol of strength, and masculinity. As a nation, we are raised to believe that this is a body that will protect us, and who else is better to protect than a toxic masculine armed bodyguard? Questioning gender core beliefs is considered a resistance to hegemonic masculinity, but also to this military’s violent ways. So, imagine my shock finding such a document coming from the IOF itself.
I was not the only one who was taken by surprise by the document. In 2018, a right-wing Israeli group exposed the document and has sparked a public outrage across Israel, fearing of a feminist takeover in the army. To these horrific accusations, the Chief of Staff had to declare in a cabinet meeting that he is indeed “not a feminist” and disowned the document. While the IOF dissociated itself from the document, the role of the YOHALM remained, without a document defining its essence. Thus, just like twenty years ago, the IOF remains without an official statement regarding LGBTQ+ individuals, and the void that remained allows for more right-wing backlash.
And although the IOF is no longer officially associated with the document of transitioning from “YOHALN” to “YOHALM,” it’s definitely worth a discussion.
I must admit, when I first read the document, I immediately fell for it. As a lefty and a pacific, I do not tend to defend any army actions. But standing in front of a right-wing backlash – the IOF the enemy-of-my-enemy, which left me with the horrifying question – could the IOF be my friend? Maybe there is room for change within the system? Maybe women and queers could finally change the violent ways of our country?
But if the right wing would not freak out to the sight of the word “gender” and would have bothered to read the document till the end, they would realize that they had a similar agenda in mind: “This perception may create concerns that engaging with gender will undermine the hegemonic gender identity in the army, the combative masculinity. Challenging the hegemony of combat masculinity, could weaken the IDF’s capabilities in the battlefield. It should be argued here that there is no intention to undermine any of the skills, abilities, and qualities required on the battlefield. Only those who possess them can serve in the battlefield.” In other words, this step is not taken to empower individuals within the system, but simply to strengthen the system itself.
In the document they are describing two objectives, one is internal – “to increase organizational effectiveness and proper utilization of human resources” and one is external – “to create social legitimacy for the IDF.“
I fell for these words for a reason – It is a honey trap for LGBTQ and feminists, that is part of the army’s pinkwashing cycle. But the truth is, that women and LGBTQ+ individuals are placed under the same category in the military system for a reason – it is a system that worships masculinity. The objective of the IOF is not to empower femininity and queerness but purely to reinforce the idea that men have more power. The gender oppression of women and LGBTQ+ individuals (as well as the feminist and LGBTQ+ fight) is inseparable and within a system that is so patriarchal and masculine. We are all on the same boat; if one group is allowed to be oppressed, we are all oppressed. And just like LGBTQ+ individuals, women are tokens of progressiveness that can be shoved in the face of the Western world.
The document’s conclusion reveals that despite the progressive language, the goal is not to celebrate LGBTQ+ individuals but to create compliant soldiers, who will not challenge the system. The goal is to maintain a battlefield that is masculine, violent, and aggressive and to distract the world’s attention with a liberal, progressive, and “empowering” image.
When I hear about the young Palestinian’s execution, I see a testimony of the IOF’s cruel hypocrisy. The IOF uses the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals to violate human rights of Palestinians. And under the cover of inclusivity, further marginalize those already disadvantaged. This Palestinian individual became a casualty of a system that sees him only as a means to an end. That system traded his sexual identity for its own interests.
The IOF takes pride in ‘progressive’ values in front of its Western audiences while simultaneously persecuting those we claim to protect. We cannot argue that we are a haven for LGBTQ individuals while using their identity as a weapon of coercion. Neither can we parade around as the model for women’s rights while using the inclusion of women in combat units as a mean to sanitize our violence in the Palestinian territories.
True progressiveness, true feminism, is not just about preserving the rights of privileged individuals – but rather about looking for the needs of oppressed and marginalized individuals, regardless of their nationality or background. We should not exploit the vulnerable groups in our society – we should empower them. We should aim for true inclusion and respect—that will be for everyone. Until that happens, we simply cannot claim that we are liberals, inclusive, nor progressive.
Cover photo: Micah Bazant Source, https://www.deanspade.net/projects/pinkwashing-exposed/
To read in Hebrew