Tens of thousands of people are expected to march for equal rights for the LGBT community under heavy police protection Thursday afternoon in what is being billed as the largest-ever gay pride parade in Jerusalem.
Three years after a deadly knife attack by an ultra-Orthodox zealot, security at the annual parade remains high, with the two-kilometer route in central Jerusalem slated to be heavily guarded by thousands of police officers.
Organizers say some 30,000 people are expected to take part in the march, which will begin at Plumer square at 5 p.m. and end at Independence Park after winding its way down Keren Hayesod Boulevard, Hillel Street and Moshe Ben Yisrael Street.
Participants will start to gather at Liberty Bell Park at 3:30 p.m.
Some 2,500 police are being deployed to guard the parade, including border police gendarmes and plainclothes cops. As in years since the 2015 stabbing attack, police will restrict entry points into the march, and perform security checks.
Several roads near the march route will be closed off to vehicular traffic starting at 3 p.m.
Organizers say the official theme of the march is honoring elderly members and pioneers of the LGBT community, but the event is expected to be overshadowed by widespread anger over a recent law that bars gay men from surrogacy parenthood rights.
Last year, around 22,000 people took part in the parade according to police estimates, under the watchful eye of 1,000 police officers.
In 2015, Shira Banki was stabbed to death and several other people were injured by Yishai Schlissel, who had just left prison after serving 10 years for a stabbing attack on a previous Pride Parade in Jerusalem.
While police have tried to crack down on anti-LGBT extremists, they have also given permits to two groups to protest the march. the ultra-nationalist Lehava group will hold a protest near the start of the march route near Liberty Bell Park, while Orthodox group Liba will demonstrate against the event at the entrance to Jerusalem.
On Tuesday, Lehava founder Bentzi Gopstein branded members of the LGBT community “terrorists” in an online video, and urged members of his extremist group to attend the protest that will be held under the banner “Jerusalem is not Sodom.”
A number of right-wing extremists and anti-LGBT activists told Hebrew-language media outlets they were summoned to police stations in recent days where they were warned not to disrupt the march or to stay away from the city entirely. Dozens of extremists have reportedly been given similar warnings.
Two members of Lehava who were convicted of setting fire to a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic school in Jerusalem in 2014 were among those ordered by police to keep away from downtown Jerusalem on Thursday.
Activists say there has been an uptick in anti-LGBT activity ahead of the parade. Earlier this week a memorial to Banki was vandalized. On Tuesday, a man said he was attacked for walking around with a gay pride flag, the Ynet news website reported. Last week, anti-gay graffiti was scrawled near where Banki was killed.
“In the face of the hatred and fear that has led to violence and murder, we refuse to be silent,” The Jerusalem Open House, which is organizing the march, said in a statement. “Despite these tragedies, we will march on with pride and demand our equal rights against all of those who try to stop and humiliate us.”
On Thursday morning, a memorial service is planned for Banki as well as Nir Katz, who was killed along with Liz Troubishi in a shooting attack at a gay center in Tel Aviv in 2009.
Participants will meet in the city of Modi’in, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, at 9:15 a.m. and at 11 will leave in a slow-moving convoy toward Jerusalem as part of the protest for equal rights.
The march is set to take nearly two weeks after some 100,000 people packed into Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to protest the exclusion of single men from the surrogacy law, which has drawn accusations of LGBT discrimination.
Nation-wide protests were announced shortly after the Knesset passed a surrogacy bill which extended eligibility to single women, but not to men, effectively preventing homosexual couples from having a child via a surrogate.
Many of the protesters focused their anger at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had pledged to pass legislation supporting surrogacy for gay fathers, but then voted against it, reportedly under pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
The protests have generated widespread support. Dozens of companies and local branches of multinationals based in Israel announced their support for the day of protest and their willingness to allow employees to participate in it. Some said they would be implementing new policies to help workers become parents via a surrogate, regardless of sexual orientation.
Amid mounting criticism, Netanyahu later denied that he changed his position on surrogate parenthood for same-sex couples, saying he voted against the measure to ensure the bill would pass. He vowed to support a separate bill legalizing surrogacy for gay couples at a later Knesset session.
Possibly signaling a future shift in position from Netanyahu, his wife Sara said Sunday that she would be throwing her support behind the demands of the LGBT community.