The Link Between Israel's LGBTQ Community and Arms Sales

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A gay button on a computer keyboard.

It was revealed on Friday that the Black Shadow hacking group had breached the servers of the Cyberserve web hosting company, which hosts, among others, the LGBTQ dating site Atraf.

The hackers ended up stealing the personal data of many this site's users. The hacking justifiably raised a furor among many people, not just those who are still in the closet. It was good to see that the LGBT Task Force (Aguda) was quick to publish, along with the Israel Internet Association, some guidelines for users whose information had leaked from the Atraf website, which also bolstered the Aguda hotline.

The question is whether the hacking of the website, which is not over, will evoke some soul-searching over the pact made by the institutional part of the LGBTQ community in Israel – by what is termed its “senior members” – with Israel’s high-tech industry. While in past years commercial enterprises worried about losing customers if they publicly appealed to the gay community, in recent years, in Israel as in other Western countries, giving the community a bear hug has become an inseparable part of image-building campaigns used by companies, coinciding with the trend toward moderation in the LGBTQ community’s struggle for equal rights.

A peak in this fad of corporate bear-hugging came in 2018, when many Israeli companies publicly joined the campaign to fight discrimination against LGBTQ community members in the law regulating surrogacy. Israeli companies take pride in employing members of the community, even encouraging them to apply for jobs.

To the misfortune of Israel’s LGBTQ community, the high-tech industry is heavily involved in the occupation of Palestinian land and in the development and sale of weapons systems, mobile phone hacking systems and surveillance tools, which go to countries in which the persecution of the LGBTQ community is harsh, anchored in law, and serves as the official policy of the regime. These systems are not sold on the black market but through licenses given by Israel’s Defense Ministry, according to polices and interests defined by Israel’s governments, such as the soliciting of pro-Israel voting in international forums.

Thus, in honor of Gay Pride Month in June 2020, Israel Weapons Industries (IWI) posted on its website a picture of a pink Tavor rifle, with the caption: “The color doesn’t make a difference.”

The Tavor and Galil Ace rifles made by IWI are used, among others, by the private security force protecting Uganda’s dictator Yoweri Museveni. The Special Forces Command is a private security unit that exists outside of Uganda’s laws, with Museveni’s alcoholic son commanding it from time to time. This force is one of Museveni’s main sources of power, and in October 2018 he gave it permission to aim live ammunition at demonstrations and beat up opposition protesters. Before that, in September 2017, soldiers in this unit raided the parliament building to stop a filibuster conducted by the opposition in an attempt to delay a vote on a constitutional amendment. The amendment was meant to remove age restrictions on presidential candidates and to allow Museveni to remain president for life.

During the raid, opposition parliamentarians were physically assaulted and arrested, one of them getting his spine broken. Since the latest fraudulent election on January 14, the force has been abducting opposition activists, “disappearing” and torturing them.

The LGBTQ community has been Museveni’s constant scapegoat. Uganda still has a law criminalizing “unnatural” sex acts. The parliament passed an Anti-Homosexual Act in 2014, which included a definition of several criminal activities that carried draconian penalties, including life imprisonment. This law was repealed in August of that year by the country’s constitutional court, but the Museveni regime and his defense forces continue to persecute, assault, detain and torture members of the LGBTQ community, as well as denying them medical services. This has been documented in numerous reports by international human rights groups.

In August 2019, Uganda’s defense forces arrested 33 transgender people, claiming they had taken part in an illegal gathering. Coronavirus regulations were also used to arrest members of this community and to raid its meeting venues. Before the election, mass demonstrations erupted following the arrest of Bobi Wine, one of the opposition leaders. These were brutally suppressed by security forces. In November 2020, Museveni posted a video on his Twitter account, showing a speech he gave on the background of these demonstrations. Among the claims he made was one suggesting that the demonstrators had received support from “foreigners and homosexuals.”

Like IWI, the Israeli digital intelligence company Cellebrite, which sells systems for hacking mobile phones and extracting all the information they contain, including deleted information, has in recent years been marking Gay Pride Month, taking pride in employing LGBTQ community members. In June 2021, to show how it was celebrating this month, Osnat Tirosh, senior VP for human resources at Cellebrite, told Israel Hayom that “as a company whose vision is the creation of a safer world through its technology, a company that assists law enforcement in saving and protecting lives, values of equality and acceptance of the other are part of our DNA.”

Despite Cellebrite’s claims that its system helps in combating terrorism and crime, the company in fact markets its system partly by advertising that it can hack popular dating sites such as Tinder and Grindr. Grindr, like Atraf, serves mainly the LGBTQ community. Do Cellebrite employees really believe that Hezbollah, ISIS or drug cartel operatives can be traced through a gay dating site?

Cellebrite has sold its system to Vladimir Putin’s Investigative Committee, which is responsible for the persecution and criminalization of LGBTQ people, based on Russia’s law against “homosexual propaganda.” Thus, for example, in July 2019, this committee launched a criminal investigation against social workers in Moscow who had let a male couple raise their adopted children together. After committee agents conducted a search of the family home, the couple and their children fled to the United States, asking for political asylum. In June 2020, the committee incriminated Yulia Tsvetkova, a feminist activist who works for LGBTQ rights in Russia, and who has been under investigation and in detention since October 2019.

Cellebrite’s tools have been sold to police and investigative units in Indonesia, which persecutes gay people. In the wake of a 2016 law prohibiting pornography, Indonesian police intensified their persecution and incrimination of LGBTQ community members. Among other actions, a wave of police raids on dwellings and entertainment venues frequented by this community began in 2017. In May of that year, police arrested 141 men in the capital Jakarta, claiming they had taken part in a “gay sex party.” A police spokesman said some of them would be indicted for violating the law against pornography.

In another raid in October 2017, another 51 men were arrested. In September, police raided houses in the village of Tugu Jaya, in western Java, ordering 12 women there to leave the area, claiming they were lesbians. Earlier that year, police in south Sulawesi decided to cancel a sports and culture event attended by 600 transgender and gender-queer people, after organizers refused to hand over the mobile phone numbers and other identifying details of participants.

Cellebrite has also sold its products to a murderous police unit in Bangladesh, which tortures its victims with power drills. The unit is known for persecuting members of the gay community. In article 377 of Bangladesh’s penal code there is a clause relating to having “unnatural sex,” a crime carrying a sentence of up to life imprisonment. In May 2017, this Rapid Action Battalion raided the LGBTQ community center and arrested 27 men “on suspicion of homosexuality.”

After petitions were filed in Israel’s High Court of Justice, Cellebrite announced that it would stop offering its services to Russia and Bangladesh, but it is refusing to say it will freeze its systems that are already there, which can still be used to persecute the gay community.

There have always been members of this community who believe the focus should be on advancing their own rights. In contrast, there are gay community activists who try to effect social change in many areas, such as the campaign against the occupation and against Israel’s gun trafficking. They act from a sense of a universal conception of human rights and solidarity with other struggles and minorities. They believe that one can’t talk about localized equality for one group in a reality that is essentially non-egalitarian.

It’s no coincidence that three directors of Jerusalem’s LGBTQ community center, Open House, who served during the difficult years of the campaign to assert the community’s presence in the city’s public sphere (in the first decade of the millennium), find themselves at the forefront of the struggle for human rights, appointed to head organizations that suffer from delegitimization and persecution by Israel’s government. They include Noa Sattath, who recently became the head of the Association for Human Rights in Israel; the legal counsel of this organization is attorney Dan Yakir, one of the leaders of the legal and public campaign for equality and for the LGBTQ community in particular; Hagai El-Ad, head of B’Tselem, and Yonatan Gher, the Israeli director of Combatants for Peace. Already as directors of Open House, these people did a lot concerning the occupation and the rights of LGBTQ Palestinians.

In my experience, the presence of LGBTQ community members is prominent among activists I meet around the world. For example, in the summer of 2018 I took part in a conference on militarism, with the participation of activists from across South America. At the end of the conference, someone suggested humorously that all the gay people have their photograph taken for a memento, and it turned out that we made up at least half of all the participants.

As long as leaders of the LGBTQ community in Israel are not more selective when it comes to their supporters in the high-tech world, and do not express their solidarity with Palestinians in the occupied territories and LBGTQ communities in other countries – where security forces, armed with weapons and surveillance tools made in Israel, persecute them – they should not be surprised that overseas they are identified with the policy of occupation and persecution embraced by all of Israel’s governments over the years, and hear cries to boycott public activities associated with this country. The LGBTQ community, which has attained worthy achievements in Israel, should act with greater sensitivity and remember the difficult years. For many people around the world, those years have not yet ended.

The writer is a human rights lawyer.

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