Jerusalem celebrates Pride under heavy security

Some 3,000 police officers lined the route as marchers waved rainbow flags, placards and balloons, and several streets were blocked off and a helicopter circled over the city centre.

A drag queen poses for a picture as she takes part in an annual Pride Parade as Israel lifted COVID-19 restrictions, in Jerusalem on June 3, 2021. Thousands took part in Jerusalem's Pride march under heavy security over fears of extremism and a year after most of the globe's pride events were scrapped over the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP.

JERUSALEM, Undefined - Thousands took part in Jerusalem's Gay Pride march on Thursday under heavy security over fears of violence and a year after most of the globe's Pride events were called off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 3,000 police officers lined the route as marchers waved rainbow flags, placards and balloons, and several streets were blocked off and a helicopter circled over the city centre.

Ultra-right wing groups had called for a counter-demonstration and several people were arrested on suspicion of potential threats prior to the start of the march.

Jerusalem has held an annual celebration of LGBTQ+ rights since 2002, often against the backdrop of protests from the ultra-Orthodox Jews and far-right extremists.

On July 30, 2015, an ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed to death teenager Shira Banki during the parade and wounded six others, since when the annual event has been heavily protected.

Thursday's events began with a ceremony honouring Banki's memory.

Israeli police said they arrested a suspect on Wednesday in Jerusalem for "disturbing public order", amid reports of anti-Pride threats.

Police also said on Thursday they had arrested two 17-year-old boys for hanging anti-Pride posters in downtown Jerusalem overnight.

A right-wing advocacy group giving them legal counsel said some of the posters read: "Dear brothers, this is a perversion."

On the day, the throng of Pride revellers carrying slogans like "Queer Revolution" filled the streets, and only a handful of counter-protesters turned out.

Marcher Netta Weiss, 26, said Jerusalem's edition was close to the "original meaning" of Pride because it's "actually a protest".

The first Gay Pride march was held in 1970 in New York to mark the anniversary of the city's 1969 Stonewall Riots, or uprising, a landmark event foundational to the global gay rights movement.

"As long as we need so much security, and I need to conceal my flag on the way here because I'm afraid I'm going to get stabbed... it shows how dirty the problem is," said Weiss.

'HERE TO STAY'

Jerusalem's march was made possible by Israel's swift vaccination campaign, the world's fastest.

Israel's 2020 celebrations were muted, with Tel Aviv's annual Gay Pride parade -- the Middle East's largest -- scrapped to curb the spread of COVID-19.

That move echoed most municipal decisions worldwide to cancel large Pride events and shift online.

A number of marches are back on the global calendar this year, including New York's, slated for June 27.

Guy Gazit, 18, took part on Thursday in his first Pride, saying he was supportive "but not really doing anything about it, so I wanted to take a more active role".

"We can't just sit by and be passive," he said, a rainbow flag tied around his neck as Lady Gaga's pro-LGBTQ+ rights anthem "Born This Way" blared.

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