Thousands of Israelis join Jerusalem Pride parade
People unfurl a giant banner reading in Hebrew "no pride without democracy" as they march past the Fuchsberg Centre for Conservative Judaism during the 21st annual Jerusalem Pride Parade in Jerusalem on June 1, 2023. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

JERUSALEM, Undefined (AFP)— Thousands of Israelis joined Jerusalem's Pride parade Thursday, a high-security event in the conservative city where critics of LGBTQ rights held a counter-demonstration nearby.

The annual march is being held for the first time under the hard-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which includes multiple cabinet members who have expressed homophobic views in the past.

"We're expecting a beautiful protest that represents the diversity of the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem," said Jonathan Valfer, executive committee chairman of parade organiser Jerusalem Open House.

AFP journalists saw participants with painted faces, waving rainbow flags and carrying balloons.

Opponents gathered nearby held banners against the event, including one that read: "God -- Judaism rejects this gay abomination!"

Valfer said he trusted police to secure the march.

"We want the police to do its job in the best way they can and make sure everyone comes back home safely. And we don't want political provocation," he told AFP.

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich were among the organisers of a "beast march" in 2006, which saw opponents of the Pride parade walk alongside donkeys in Jerusalem.

Speaking ahead of this year's event, Ben-Gvir said the police force was responsible for safeguarding the parade.

"Even if the minister has a problem with the march, the most important thing is the safety of the marchers," he said Wednesday.

"At the same time, there needs to be maximal freedom of expression and right to protest... of course it's my policy that people can protest the Pride March," added Ben-Gvir, who appeared briefly on Thursday between the two demonstration sites.

Around 2,000 officers have been brought in to secure the march, a police spokesman said.

Parade participant Oshrit Assaf, 28, said the march is "particularly important this year, as the minister in charge of our security, Ben-Gvir, is the one who protested for years against us, calling us animals."

Jerusalem Open House estimated 30,000 people attended the Pride parade, which the organisers said was the highest figure for seven years.

The annual event has been held under tight security since 2015, when an ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed to death teenager Shira Banki and wounded six others.

Months before the deadly attack, Smotrich described himself as a "proud homophobe" in comments he later retracted.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich were handed key government roles in December, despite Netanyahu having a broadly progressive record on LGBTQ policy issues.

The premier's other coalition partners, ultra-Orthodox parties, have a long record of voting against LGBTQ rights.

Despite this, Israel is more progressive than many of its Middle East neighbours and recognises the marriages of same-sex couples who wed abroad.

The previous administration passed legislation banning so-called "gay conversion therapy" and granting surrogacy rights to all.

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