Thousands march in Jerusalem Gay Pride under police guard

Jerusalem (AFP) - Thousands of revellers attended Jerusalem's Gay Pride parade under heavy police protection on Thursday, a year after an ultra-Orthodox Jew killed a teenager at the march.

Marchers carried rainbow flags emblazoned with the Star of David and a group banged drums as they walked. Many laid flowers under a picture of Shira Banki, 16, who was killed at the march in July last year.

Israeli media said a record 25,000 people took part in the parade, up from an estimated 5,000 last year.

They were escorted by over 2,000 police officers who blocked off roads and set up checkpoints around the areas the march passed through.

Banki was attacked at random by Yishai Shlissel, an ultra-orthodox Jew who also stabbed five other people and is now serving a life sentence.

Israeli police said they had suspected Shlissel had been in contact with his brother from prison to organise an assault on this year's parade.

His brother, Michael, was arrested and was being held in police custody as the march got underway.

Police said in a statement they uncovered information that "Yishai Shlissel had planned, with his brother Michael Schlissel, to attack march participants".

Police said 30 other people who planned to attack the march were also arrested, several of them in possession of knives.

There was no indication they were linked to Shlissel.

Shlissel had spent 10 years in jail after a similar attack on the 2005 Jerusalem Gay Pride march and had been released just three weeks before last year's event, leading to criticism of police.

All marchers were inspected before joining, with many pre-registering, while carrying a weapon of any kind was prohibited, police said.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, attended, saying he "came here for this march of tolerance to show our solidarity."

Isaac Herzog, head of the opposition Labour party also attended.

Last year, around 5,000 people marched, and organisers were prepared for a higher turnout this year.

Tom Canning, one of the organisers who himself narrowly avoided being stabbed last year, said he was satisfied with the security steps taken by police.

"I think the police got a big blow from what happened last year," he told AFP.

"This year the entire security plan has been in planning for the last three months and is being managed by the highest ranks of the police."


Israel has long had by far the most liberal approach to homosexuality in the Middle East, compared to its Arab neighbours, with a large and influential gay community.

The annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, a city sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, is however far smaller than the one held in nearby Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv's parade typically attracts tens of thousands of people to what is considered one of the world's most gay-friendly cities, while Jerusalem is far less welcoming.

The march came at a difficult time for Israel's LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, with an alleged homophobe recently nominated as the army's chief rabbi.

The military named Colonel Eyal Karim as its chief rabbi despite him having allegedly referred to gay people as "sick and disabled".

A gay pride march in the southern city of Beersheba was also cancelled by organisers last week after the high court agreed with police that it could not go through the city's main thoroughfare due to security threats.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat drew the ire of many in the gay community for announcing he would not attend Thursday's march in part because it "offends the (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) public and the national-religious public".

Imri Kalmann, co-chair of Aguda, the Israeli National LGBT Task Force, was scathing in his criticism.

"I think it is cowardice. He is not doing it because this is his opinion. He is doing it because he wants to please voters," he said.