An LGBTQ Pride event in Ariel on Thursday marked one of the first such events in an Israeli settlement.
The event was the initiative of 26-year-old Gal Hevroni, a gay former combat soldier now in his third year of civil engineering studies at Ariel University. Staging it was an uphill battle, though: Ariel, the fourth-largest Israeli settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories, is about 80 percent secular and 20 percent religious, but anti-LGBTQ extremism is not unknown there.
Many of Hevroni’s neighbors have adorned their balconies with banners of the far-right, virulently homophobic Noam party (which is part of the Religious Zionism political alliance that has six seats in the Knesset), and sectoral tensions seemingly spooked local institutions from offering their support. Hevroni’s pitch for a campus LGBTQ event was refused by the university’s administration; a youth center balked at hosting the event when it found out a drag queen would feature; and the municipality refused to endorse the project.
“We didn’t even ask them for money,” Hevroni says. “We just asked them if we could put the municipality’s logo in our flyer, to get their stamp of approval for this event and our community. But the mayor, Eli Shaviro, just said ‘No, I don’t want any problem with the religious people,’” he adds.
After this story initially went to press, the mayor's spokesperson responded to Haaretz's request for comment about the mayor's alleged refusal to support the event. "This is a false claim," they said. "The municipality and the mayor do not oppose any community or sector, and encourage tolerance in all aspects of life in Ariel.
"As evidence, last Tuesday, before the event took place, the mayor met in his office with representatives of the city's LGBTQ community. During the meeting, an outline was agreed upon for the first Pride event in Ariel with the support of the Social Equality Ministry. Therefore, the municipality agreed and allowed the participants to hold an event at the city's sports center," the spokesperson added.
Though it was ultimately a relatively modest gathering of about 80 people, last week's event nonetheless attracted unwanted attention within minutes of its start when masked assailants pelted eggs at participants, and then pepper-sprayed a mother and her gender nonbinary, 16-year-old child from close range.
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“We had just arrived, and right after I tied the rainbow flag on my child, we were pepper-sprayed directly in our eyes. It was very painful. I was screaming, and it took me about an hour before I could see anything again,” said one of the victims, who asked not to be identified by name.
The perpetrators have not been apprehended at press time, and motives for the attack can’t be stated with certainty. But attendees reported seeing a car staking out the gathering prior to the incident, containing three young men dressed in a manner consistent with Jewish extremists who establish outpost settlements in the West Bank (the so-called hilltop youth).
Asked whether they now regretted not lending their support to the event, given the violent attack that took place, the mayor's spokesperson responded: "Upon learning of the serious act of violence at the event on Thursday, the mayor immediately contacted Israeli police and instructed city personnel to assist as much as possible in finding the attackers. Needless to say, the municipality and its leader condemn any form of violence and will continue to act against it with zero tolerance, while encouraging tolerance for all sectors and communities."
Though victims and onlookers were visibly shaken by the violence, the schedule proceeded as planned, with a colorful crafts table for families with kids, a screening of locally produced LGBTQ films, and a lip-sync performance from drag queen hostess Joanna Russ.
Participants arrived from peripheral settlements in the northern West Bank, including a number of teenagers attending their first Pride events.
“I come from a very small community of Orthodox Jews about 30 minutes away from Ariel. My town doesn’t support the LGBTQ community at all, and I’m pretty terrified of being who I am there. I imagine the worst – getting beaten up or killed,” said a 15-year-old lesbian who also asked that her name not be published. “So I have to keep it a secret and put on a mask. But here I can be whatever I want, even if it’s just for a short time.”
Another teenage girl added, “I honestly thought I was the only queer in the Shomron,” using the Hebrew name settlers use when referring to Samaria in the West Bank. “It turns out I’m not!”
Not just huge parades
Though Pride season is often associated with huge parades and protest marches in major cities, experts identify smaller, regional events as being equally important in serving rural LGBTQ people.
Ilan Meyer, who researches LGBTQ health issues as a distinguished scholar at the Williams Institute, Los Angeles, links Pride gatherings of all sizes with improved health outcomes for LGBTQ communities.
“The interconnection between different LGBTQ community members at Pride events is extremely valuable, both in pragmatic and symbolic ways,” Meyer says. “They facilitate interactions in which community members can refer one another to competent, specialized counseling and peer help for difficulties they experience as an LGBTQ person, and the atmosphere promotes affirmative values and norms that counteract homophobic or transphobic values and norms,” he adds.
While Pride events may trigger violent reactions from radical elements of society, Meyer believes they also shape the attitudes held by moderate straight people toward their LGBTQ peers. In support of this theory, he points to a concept called the contact hypothesis.
“Research has shown a correlative relationship between a straight person’s level of personal familiarity with LGBTQ people and his support for LGBTQ rights,” Meyer says. “The most helpful level of contact is collaborative – when people work on a task or a project together. But all levels of contact generally lead to reduced stigma and increased acceptance.”
The hypothesis was supported by the dynamics of the Ariel Pride event after the post-attack panic subsided: Two curious boy scouts wandered in after the music started and stayed to check out the festivities. About a dozen members of the local police force engaged in hours of interviews and conversation with the community members they were assigned to protect.
Though he initially struggled to connect with local resources, Hevroni’s plea for help did catch the attention of a city councilwoman, Alla Vainer, who assisted him with organizing the event. A member of Ariel’s historically conservative Russian-speaking community, Vainer did not have LGBTQ friends and had never met LGTBQ families prior to her participation in Pride, but now sees herself as an ally.
“I want to build a community here for the next generation that knows how to accept the ‘other,’ so that every young person will feel comfortable to be who they are and present themselves as who they are,” she says. “And I don’t think I need to personally be part of the LGBTQ community to care about their rights and interests.”
Despite the risk of violent opposition, Hevroni is confident that Ariel’s Pride event will happen again next year, and several participants speculated that similar events might pop up in other West Bank settlements, such as Efrat or Ma’aleh Adumim.
But an increase in the visibility of LGBTQ settlers will inevitably be accompanied by controversy – and not just among religious fundamentalists. The event in Ariel is a thorny issue for major international human rights organizations, who support LGBTQ visibility anywhere and everywhere, but fundamentally object to the Israeli settlement enterprise.
“LGBTQ people must be able to celebrate Pride safely, even if they live in settlements,” says Amnesty International Israel spokesperson Gil Naveh. “But the promotion of LGBTQ rights cannot come at the expense of other human rights, and the existence of Israeli settlements fuels human rights violations against all Palestinians. LGBTQ Palestinians may be uniquely affected by some of these violations, such as movement restrictions that may prevent them from finding opportunities to meet, get to places where they may be able to express their identities, or to escape violence,” he adds.
A local Palestinian, who asked not to be identified, corroborates Naveh’s assertion. He says that Israeli authorities periodically close an access road connecting regional Palestinian hub Salfit with satellite villages, which then requires villagers to circumnavigate Ariel, significantly reducing their mobility in times of crisis.
Furthermore, entrances to Ariel are guarded by Israeli checkpoints, which precludes most Palestinians from accessing resources or cultural events within the settlement itself. “The fact is that Pride in Ariel will not make life any better for Palestinian LGBTQ people, since they cannot safely come to experience it,” Naveh says.
Pride events may also serve to normalize Israeli settlements as a comfortable place to study or live for LGBTQ people, which could increase migration from within Israel’s internationally recognized borders and further erode the space available for Palestinian development.
Hagit Ofran, a specialist within Peace Now’s Settlement Watch program, says that beyond impeding local Palestinian development, normalizing settlements like Ariel could lead to an intractable state of conflict.
“The greatest consequence of Ariel’s growth is that it significantly increases the price of peace. The more ‘legitimized’ and larger the city becomes, the more difficult it will be to evacuate it,” she warns.
While Hevroni is sympathetic to the adversities faced by LGBTQ Palestinians, he doesn’t feel that the conflict will be resolved if his community moves back to the other side of the Green Line. “As weird as it sounds, coming to Ariel made me feel more invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now I know Palestinians. I buy goods from neighboring villages; I talk to them when they come to work in Ariel; I have a connection with them,” he says. “When I lived in the center of Israel, I never met any Palestinians or even Arab Israelis. There it was just a problem far away; here it’s part of your daily life.” And after a pause: “And anyway, if we weren’t here, who would that leave? Just the right-wing extremists. How is that fair?”
A transgender participant at Ariel Pride, who also did not want her name published, was similarly optimistic that her community could have a positive influence on the region. “I think all human rights events in this area might be beneficial,” she says. “Maybe if we bring attention to the acceptance of LGBTQ people, it might cause people to think about and better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well, and how to respect those human rights issues too.”
* This article was updated at 21:48 on July 11 to include a response by Ariel Mayor Eli Shaviro's spokesperson.