A Paris beach event celebrating Tel Aviv drew more journalists, riot police and security guards than visitors on Thursday — as well as a much larger “Gaza Beach” protest.
Bemused locals who headed down to “Tel Aviv Sur Seine” had to maneuver through bag checks, security pat-downs and metal detectors to reach the small stretch of sand on the banks of the Seine.
Paris converts a long stretch of its riverbank into a makeshift beach known as “Paris Plages” every summer. This year, the city named certain days after resorts around the world.
Thursday’s event consisted of little more than a few people playing bat and ball in front of a picture of Tel Aviv, but it was enough to excite a major media brouhaha after objections from anti-Israel protesters.
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“There are 50 visitors for 500 journalists. I feel like I’m on the red carpet at Cannes,” said one onlooker.
The Tel Aviv section of the beach, not far from the Notre Dame Cathedral, was only around 200 meters (yards) long and guarded by a phalanx of riot police on either end.
“Coming today is an act of solidarity with the Jewish people,” said Cecilia, an Italian stretched out on a beach chair, adding that she was “a little afraid that this degenerates.”
On the other side of the police cordon, a large number of pro-Palestinian protesters began arriving around midday to set up their rival “Gaza Beach”.
Waving Palestinian flags, chanting slogans and handing out flyers, the activists were keen to present the issue as more than just a media storm in a teacup.
“The mayor of Paris wants to make Tel Aviv a town like all the others, when in fact it’s the capital of a colonialist state that bombards civilian populations,” said Serge Bonal, of EuroPalestine, one of around a dozen organizations taking part in the demonstration.
‘A bit less festive’
Opposition to Israeli politics runs deep among left-wing parties in France, who sparked the controversy earlier this week, saying “Tel Aviv Sur Seine” amounted to a PR exercise for Israel.
City authorities resisted pressure to scrap the event and Prime Minister Manuel Valls voiced his “full support” for the initiative.
“We wanted a festive atmosphere with fun, free shows, concerts, food trucks and the like,” deputy mayor of Paris, Bruno Julliard, told French radio.
“In fact, there will be a significant police presence, so it will maybe be a bit less festive than we expected.”
He stressed a distinction had to be drawn between “the city of Tel Aviv, its citizens, its progressive mayor” and “the Netanyahu government policy that we condemn,” referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
France is home to Europe’s largest Jewish community and the largest number of Muslims on the continent although its secular laws mean that no precise figures are available.
Tensions burst into the open during last year’s Gaza conflict, especially in the working-class Paris areas of Barbes and Sarcelles, as thousands of pro-Palestinians took to the street in a series of violent riots.
A banned pro-Palestinian demonstration last July turned into a running battle between rival protesters and the police.
BNVCA, a French anti-Semitism watchdog, said it asked the Paris police commissioner to bolster security during the festival out of fear of anti-Semitic attacks.
The nearby pro-Palestinian protest and large numbers of French police caused the whole event, some visitors say, to lose its appeal.
“I thought I would find the atmosphere of Tel Aviv here, the beach, the music; but all I see is police officers and barriers extending for meters away,” Michelle Alia, a local woman told French paper Le Monde.
Alia, however, expressed understanding for the apparent police hysteria: “Having heard ‘Death to Jews’ when I lived in Sarcelles, I find it normal that security will be deployed here in such a manner. But we would not need it if not for the great disagreement [over the installation].”
Meanwhile, at the “Gaza Beach” area, which was not sponsored by the Paris municipality, an atmosphere of belligerence prevailed, Le Monde said. Activists gave away pamphlets and held signs including photos of baby Ali Dawabsha, and the words “Hidalgo, sponsor of colonialism,” referring to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.
One woman called passersby over to offer them homemade falafel balls, vowing to stick around until the Tel Aviv installation folds up. “We need to show that we exist, the Palestinians are completely forgotten,” she says.
Another woman asked why Paris chose to honor Tel Aviv, part of a country that “screws around” with the Palestinians. “Did they have ‘Berlin Beach’ in 1944?” she asked, referring to Nazi Germany.
That Berlin is hundreds of miles away from the nearest beach seemed lost on the activist, as well as the fact that for most of 1944 the Germans were actually already in Paris, as occupiers.