Tens of thousands of revelers from Israel and abroad packed the streets of Tel Aviv on Friday for the city’s annual Gay Pride march, billed as the Middle East’s biggest.
Police said they were expecting around 100,000 people, while organizers put the figure at closer to 200,000, with an estimated 30,000 of them from overseas.
The parade began at noon, and proceeded to the beachfront, along Bugrashov Street, Hayarkon Street, Frishman and Herbert Samuel, concluding at Charles Clore Park in the city’s south, where a party will be held into the evening. Intermittent road closures were expected throughout the area, including along Allenby, Arlosoroff and King George.
Security was heavy surrounding the parade, with hundreds of police, who warned the public to refrain from bringing any sharp objects or fireworks to the area, as well as animals and bicycles. Officers are also permitted to search revelers for weapons even without probable cause.
“Hundreds of police have closed off the area and are carrying out security measures,” Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP. “Police units and border police units and undercover units are in the area.”
On Sunday, officers arrested a man in Bnei Brak on suspicion of threatening the upcoming parade in a Facebook post. During the 2015 pride parade in Jerusalem, 16-year-old Shira Banki was murdered and several others injured by Yishai Schlissel, an ultra-Orthodox extremist protesting the parade.
The festival kicked off on Friday morning in a central Tel Aviv park with music, dancing and performers, before the mostly young revelers set off for the seafront.
About 10 floats took part in the beachside procession, one of them depicting an ancient warship built by staff at the British embassy in Tel Aviv, the embassy website said. Britain’s ambassador to Israel is David Quarrey, an openly gay man.
The parade caps off a week of pride celebrations, which featured a glut of rainbow-infused parties and cultural events.
The theme of the parade this year is “Bisexual Visibility,” making it one of the largest parades in the world celebrating bisexuality. Each year, members of Tel Aviv’s LGBTQ community choose a theme for the week of events in June. Past themes included last year’s “Women for a Change” and “Transgender Visibility” the year before.
The Tel Aviv municipality places a large emphasis on Pride Week, since it is a huge draw for international tourists. More than 30,000 came to Israel for pride week last year.
Israel regularly publicizes its vibrant gay scene, often contrasting it with neighboring Arab countries where homosexuality is illegal.
At Friday’s celebration, Mattan Segev, 36, said he had been attending Gay Pride events since he came out at the age of 13.
“There is a natural contrast between what is going on in Israel and what is going on in Muslim countries around us but I don’t see why we equate ourselves with them,” Segev said.
“Israel tries to see itself as part of the European countries or the West. If you equate us to the West, the situation looks very different,” he added.
Same sex marriage is not technically illegal in Israel but there is no institution permitted to perform it and couples must travel abroad to wed.
Maya Gatman, 17, said she had been coming to the Gay Pride parade for five years and it was an “amazing atmosphere.”
Eitan Schwartz, CEO of Tel Aviv Global — part of the mayor’s office — said the event, funded by the municipality, was part of a month of events supporting Gay Pride.
“Gay tourism is one of the pillars of our economy,” he said.