Jerusalem’s gay pride parade kicked off on Thursday evening under massive security with 25,000 participants and 2,000 police officers on hand in the wake of a murderous rampage by an ultra-Orthodox assailant at last year’s parade.
Police said that 48 people had been detained for questioning on Thursday, including at least two found with knives, who were suspected of planning to disrupt or harm the march.
Dozens of anti-march protesters also gathered at the scene, but police prevented them from nearing the pride parade participants. Lahava leader Bentzi Gopstein accused police of intentionally trying to silence counter protesters.
Heavy security was further highlighted by the fact that hundreds were not allowed to join the main group of participants when police ran out of wrist bands that were being distributed to those who successfully passed a security check. After an hour or so, all those who passed security were allowed to join the thousands in attendance, with or without wrist bands.
Yishai Schlissel, who is serving a life sentence for stabbing a marcher to death at last year's gay pride parade in Jerusalem, has had further restrictions placed on him in prison on suspicion that he was planning an attack on this year's parade.
On Wednesday, police arrested Schlissel's brother Michael based on intelligence indicating Schlissel might be planning to emulate his brother's crime. An activist with the Jewish supremacist group Lehava group has also been detained after posting inciteful remarks on Facebook.
Four women in their 30s were also detained for spray painting graffiti on city walls in support of the march.
During the event on Thursday, the marchers placed flowers at the site where Banki was stabbed to death last year, and her parents spoke at the concluding rally in Independence Park. The 25,000 in attendance shattered expectations and amounted to five times the number of participants in 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the LGBT community and participants in Jerusalem's gay pride parade in a video message Thursday, saying that they are an inseparable part of Israeli society and must be treated with respect and equality.
One notable absentee from tonight’s event was Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who announced on Wednesday that he wouldn’t attend. He did, however, lay flowers earlier in the day at the place where Banki was murdered.
“I won’t march because I don’t want to be part of something that offends the ultra-Orthodox community and the religious Zionist community,” Barkat said in an interview published in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth.
Barkat, whose municipal coalition includes several Orthodox parties, touted his record of working with the gay community and stressed that the marchers have every right to march.
“The Jerusalem municipality, the police and I will do all we can to enable them to exercise their right,” he said in the interview. “But they need to know that it offends others A large part of the population in Jerusalem has great difficulty with the parade.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud), one of the most prominent guests at Tel Aviv’s Pride Parade, was also absent from the Jerusalem event, citing a busy schedule.
But many Knesset members from both coalition and opposition were in attendance, including Galon, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who attended the march and is part of Netanyahu's Likud party, addressed a number of homophobic comments made as of late by prominent Israeli rabbis. "What I've seen in the last few days really, really hurts," he said. "We are living in a Jewish democratic state, I grew up in a religious household and graduated from a religious high school. The most important rule we are taught is 'love your neighbor as you love yourself' - that's a huge rule in the Torah and that's what maintained the Jewish people across generations."
Erdan added that, "My expectation is that rabbis and leaders of this community would be a unifying voice, a voice of tolerance, of accepting those who are different - a voice of unity and not of division and hatred."
Opposition lawmaker MK Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Union) also spoke at the event and said that "in a certain sense, we should thank those inciting against the LGBT community and those boycotting" the parade, the latter a thinly veiled jab at Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's decision not to attend the event, though he voiced his support for the community and their right to march in the city. "They led to a huge outpour of support for the community and the values of equality and progress," said Yachimovich who even participated in a same-sexed marriage held during the parade and reiterated her support for marriage quality in Israel.
MK Itizk Shmuli (Zionist Union), who also participated in the parade, said "the year's parade, more than anything, represents the struggle against violent and radical forces rearing their head in Israeli society. We march not just in memory of Shira (Banki), but for ourselves and in the face hatemongers. There is a direct link between her murder and those justifying radical ideology."
In a highly unusual step, police ordered the family of Banki’s murderer, Yishai Schlissel, to stay away from Jerusalem on the day of the parade.
Early Wednesday morning, police went to the Schlissel family home in Yad Binyamin and detained his mother and five of his siblings for questioning. They were subsequently asked to sign a pledge to stay out of Jerusalem today.
The family’s lawyer, Itamar Ben-Gvir, said the police’s behavior constituted “abuse just because they are relatives of Yishai Schlissel.” The Association for Civil Rights in Israel also slammed the decision, terming it an abuse of power.
ACRI said police had also warned several activists opposed to the parade to stay away, thereby violating their freedom of expression and their right to protest.
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