Tel Aviv hosted its 20th annual Gay Pride Festival on Friday, with a record-breaking 100,000 spectators and participants attending the celebrations, including droves of tourists from all over the world.
The Festival began at 10 a.m. at Gan Meir park, home to the city’s gay community center, and featured performances, speeches and music. A massive parade of tens of thousands of participants started at 1 p.m., making its way from the park through central Tel Aviv and culminating at the iconic Gordon Beach.
Attendees at the event included Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat, Labor party chief Shelly Yachimovich and Meretz head Zahava Gal-on.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai kicked off the festivities with a speech that reflected on the achievements of the LGBT movement in the years since he first began emceeing the Pride Parade, back in 1998.
Yesh Atid party head Lapid’s speech in Gan Meir was cut short due to heckling which he attributed on his Facebook page to rival Meretz and Labor activists.
In a few short sentences, the finance minister managed to convey his sentiments that every couple, gay or straight, has the right to get married and have children. He also spoke to his Yesh Atid party’s “deep indebtedness” to the LGBT community.
Also addressing the crowd, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro conveyed warm wishes from President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and the American people.
“There’s no better place to celebrate than in Tel Aviv, the friendliest city in the world to the LGBT community,” he said.
“We learned from Israel to let our troops serve in the military without having to hide who they love,” Shapiro added. “We’re not done yet, there is still much to be done.”
Thousands of tourists flocked over the past week to Tel Aviv, which has featured large-scale parties and functions all leading up to Friday’s main event. Among the notable foreign visitors, the first gay couple to legally marry in France were in town to celebrate their nuptials and join in the festivities.
Sections of Tel Aviv’s Ben-Yehuda, Bograshov and Arlozorov streets, among others city streets, were closed to traffic.
Gay Pride week was marred, however, by significant developments this week in a 2009 unsolved shooting that targeted a gay youth club.
Police announced Wednesday that three men were arrested in connection to the shooting that claimed two lives and injured several others, and a fourth person of interest was later detained and held for questioning. Police imposed a gag order on the identity of all of the suspects and details regarding motive for the attack.
The fourth arrestee was described by police as “a prominent member of the gay and lesbian community,” who is suspected of withholding information in connection to the case, but is not thought by authorities to have been involved directly in the shooting. The man is “a key figure” in solving the case, which police now think was motivated by reasons of personal revenge, not anti-gay sentiment. Police also suspect him of sexual offenses which have not been detailed.
Some Israeli journalists raised questions about the timing of the arrests — two days before Tel Aviv’s Pride festival — and dismissed the idea that the murder wasn’t a hate crime.
Speaking during Friday’s Pride Parade, Justice Minister Livni charged, “If this isn’t a hate crime, tell me what it is.”
Gal Uchovsky, a gay-culture journalist, wrote on the Channel 2 News website that an incident in which an individual walks into a gay youth center and shoots people is still a hate crime, even if his motives were personal. Uchovsky wrote that it was “conspicuous” that police made the arrest in the middle of Gay Pride week and that they were trying to portray the shooting as a personal vendetta and not a hate crime. “I call this a stain on the gay community,” he wrote.
Another journalist, Danny Zack, complained that the police were being too lax because they believed “it wasn’t a Palestinian terrorist or an Orthodox Jew” who committed the crime, meaning it didn’t have a nationalistic motivation, he wrote on the Channel 2 News website.
Activists familiar with the identity of the fourth man told Ynet news they were shocked that he was a suspect in the case. “He was a father figure to us,” one of the activists said, explaining that the man had arrived at the center shortly after the shooting to try to help, and that he expressed concern that the shooter would be let off the hook by pleading insanity.
“If it was really him,” another activist said, “he must have been suicidal.” The suspect was a volunteer at the center who supported many of the youths, he said, and has a large heart.
The suspect’s lawyer said Thursday that his client was innocent of any connection with the affair, and was a “normal, responsible adult with no criminal record” who had been turned into “another victim of this difficult case.”
The lawyer added that his client was not in the venue at the time of the attack and stressed that he was not suspected of being in any way involved in the killing.
The three suspects arrested Wednesday, who, police said, are Jewish, were remanded for 11 days.
Channel 2 reported that one of the suspects was a 20-year-old “petty criminal” from Pardes Katz. He would have been 16 at the time of the shooting.
Two of the suspects are related.
On August 1, 2009, a masked man entered the Bar Noar gay youth center on Tel Aviv’s Nahmani Street and began shooting. Counselor Nir Katz, 26, and 16-year-old Liz Trubeshi were killed and dozens were injured. Approximately 40 people were present at the center that night.
The case has been one of the most expensive investigations carried out in recent years and more than 1,000 people have been questioned in connection with the shootings, Haaretz reported.
In recent years, Tel Aviv has consistently been rated by online travel guides as a top gay destination. The city has been praised for its friendliness to the LGBT community and is widely considered to be the only gay-friendly destination in the Middle East.
Michal Shmulovich contributed to this report.