Queerness, human rights still issues in Israel

By 2020 the Gaza Strip could become uninhabitable, according to the United Nations. The small Palestinian territory, which is about the size of New Jersey, hosts around 1.8 million people. So where are they supposed to go?

Dr. Sa’ed Atshan, professor of peace and conflict studies at Swathmore College in Pennsylvania, visited Guilford College’s Carnegie Room on Feb. 18 at the request of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to discuss this and other aspects of Palestinian life under Israeli Occupation in a lecture titled “The Politics of Being Fabulous in the Holy Land.”

“People come home to find (Israeli) settlers living in their houses,” Atshan said, as he motioned to an image of an elderly Palestinian woman walking away from what was once her home as onlookers laughed. “They have to watch as their homes get destroyed and their land is taken from them and given to the settlers.”

Layla Rafaoui, senior and president of SJP, whose members are mostly Palestinian, said the club wanted “to educate Guilford Students on Palestinian struggles … and intersectional topics.”

Over the course of the evening, Atshan explained the plights of Palestinians and compared their struggles to that of Native Americans: both groups have lost a majority of their native lands, and both have been vilified in the press.

“The United States is the most anti-Palestinian country in the world,” Atshan said.

“It is tremendously dehumanizing of Palestinians. (I have) had to come out on numerous fronts: as gay and as Palestinian.”

Atshan described asking his American students to write down their perceptions of Palestinians before telling them about his Palestinian heritage.

He said that at times, what the students have had to say almost brought him to tears, but by the end of the course, the students understand the human rights abuses being inflicted upon the Palestinians and have more informed opinions.

Some of these human rights violations, according to the United Nations, include the illegal usurpation and occupation of Palestinian land, the excessive detention and imprisonment of Palestinians, the lack of access to health care and the deprivation of sufficient amounts of clean water.

To take the attention away from these human rights violations, the Israeli government began “pink washing,” according to Atshan.

That is, they market Israel as being gay-friendly in order to divert attention away from their treatment of the Palestinians.

“It oversimplifies the conflict,” Atshan said. “It erases the spectrum of experiences. There’s a range of queer experience in Israeli society. Israel doesn’t have same sex marriages. Israel doesn’t have an asylum system for gay Palestinians. That’s just not true.”

Throughout his lecture, Atshan repeatedly brought up the concept of intersectionality and told the audience that oppressed groups need to think of their struggles as united.

“There are no pink gates for gays,” Atshan said. “The occupation doesn’t distinguish between a homosexual and a heterosexual. (Homosexual Palestinians) face the same sets of structural oppression as straight people.”

Atshan discussed the nonviolence resistance movement that has emerged in Palestine, but none of these protests seem to have moved the Palestinians any closer to freedom.

“A two-state solution is now dead,” said retired William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies Max Carter. “Israel has no interest in restarting peace talks. Nobody is holding them accountable for their actions in the occupied territories.”

With no conciliatory talks taking place between Israel and Palestine, it is unlikely that the human rights situation will improve in Gaza. As 2020 approaches, there may be a rise in refugees as residents of Gaza flee their homeland.

But Atshan said that he has not given up hope. Palestine is his homeland and the homeland of several Guilford students.

“When we speak, we are afraid, but when we are silent, we are still afraid,” said Atshan, quoting Audre Lorde. “So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.”

SJP’s next event will cover the topic of birthright on March 3.