Chanting for equality and holding aloft brightly painted signs supporting LGBT rights, some 10,000-15,000 people marched in Jerusalem’s annual pride parade Thursday evening, with over 2,000 police securing the highly charged event four years after a deadly attack on participants.
Police said 17 people were arrested as of 8 p.m., including one who was found to be carrying a knife and refused to identify himself. Later the number arrested rose to 49. The detainees were suspected of “intending to disturb the event and parade,” a police statement said. (All were released by Friday morning.)
The annual event is a highlight for the city’s vibrant LGBT community, which is often overshadowed by Tel Aviv’s gay-friendly persona and beset by religious and political tensions ever-present in the capital.
The parade came hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Likud lawmaker Amir Ohana as justice minister, making him the first openly gay cabinet member in the country’s history.
Ohana walked through the crowds, some of whom booed at him, apparently due to his being a member of the ruling Likud party, seen as to the right of many in the gay community.
“What have you done for the gay community,” some shouted at him.
Ohana responded “Even though you’re protesting against me, I’m glad you’re here. Thank you.”
The 2.5-kilometer route, from the city’s Liberty Bell Park to Independence Park, began at 5:30 p.m, signaling the start of pride month events in Israel. Police said some 10,000-15,000 people took part, well below the 30,000 originally expected at the march.
The number was smaller than in years past. In 2016, some 25,000 took part, many in solidarity with the community following the deadly stabbing attack, which left 16-year-old Shira Banki dead. Last year, at least 15,000 marched in the parade, according to authorities.
Eran Globus, head of the Jerusalem Open House, told Channel 12 news that the march was part of a wider campaign for full equality by the LGBT community.
“This is not only a struggle for full equality of rights for the gay community but a struggle over Israel’s moral image and the red lines we want to place,” Globus said. “The Israeli public — from right and left, from all parts of the nation — must not surrender to indifference and abandon the public space to hatred and violence.”
Some 2,500 officers were deployed along the route and for the first time, those joining the march were asked to provide identification before being let into the event.
Heavy security has been a mainstay of the event since 2005, when ultra-Orthodox extremist Yishai Schlissel stabbed several participants. Ten years later, Schlissel once again carried out a knifing attack on the parade, months after being released from prison, killing Banki and injuring several others. Since then police have regularly tightened security around the march.
Along the route marchers stopped to lay flowers at the spot on Keren Hayesod Street where Banki was stabbed to death.
Banki’s father Uri Banki was at the march and told reporters he was there to show support for the event’s message.
“We are marching today in memory of Shira and also to support tolerance in Israel,” Uri Banki said. “Tolerance is something that is easy for us to demand from others and much harder to sustain ourselves.”
Police had prepared a list of dozens of potential troublemakers who were placed under supervision from the morning, Channel 12 reported.
On Wednesday, police arrested a right-wing activist, Moshiko Ben Zikri, who they said disguised himself as a member of the LGBT community for two consecutive years to enter the parade, climb on a podium and protest against the event.
The preemptive action against anti-LGBT activists, as well as an announcement that in recent months police recruited several transgender trainees, marks a shift for law enforcement, who have been widely faulted for failing to adequately protect previous marches and for still not solving a mass shooting at a Tel Aviv gay youth center a decade ago.
Jerusalem District Police commander Doron Yedid said that aside from the suspect arrested with a knife, another was caught with pepper spray.
“A short while ago, undercover police positioned around the march route and at the participants’ gathering point for the pride march noticed a suspect who raised their suspicions,” police said in a statement. “A search uncovered a knife that was concealed on his person and he refused to identify himself. He was arrested and transferred for questioning.”
“Police security measures continue in and around the area as the parade is taking place,” the force said.
A demonstration against the march was held nearby by the right-wing extremist Lehav organization. Police outnumbered the 150 or so protesters three to one, according to Channel 12, and metal barriers prevented them from getting close to the pride event.
Lehava leader Bentzi Gopstein said: “The aim of the [pride] march is destroy the Jewish family values and turn Jerusalem and the whole of Israel into Sodom. We will demonstrate so that everyone knows that there is no agreement to abomination and harm to the Jewish identity of the state.”