(JERUSALEM) — Thousands of people waving rainbow flags marched through downtown Jerusalem Thursday in the city’s annual gay pride parade in a defiant show of force a year after an extremist ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed a 16-year-old girl to death at the march.
The heavily guarded event comes against a backdrop of deep divisions in Israel between its secular majority and increasingly powerful nationalist and ultra-Orthodox camps that have spoken out forcefully of late against the LGBT community. The fault lines have been even more pronounced in Jerusalem, the ancient biblical city rich in religious history and tradition, and the gay parade has been an explosive point of contention.
Unlike the raucous parade in the liberal Israeli city of Tel Aviv, which this year drew some 200,000 people, the Jerusalem affair is relatively modest. Even so, it has faced much resistance from ultra-Orthodox extremists who have deemed it an “abomination” and protested against it vigorously.
The conflict reached its apex a year ago when ultra-Orthodox extremist Yishai Schlissel began stabbing participants, killing the 16-year-old girl and wounding seven others. That attack came shortly after he had been released from prison after serving a sentence for stabbing several people at the 2005 pride march.
Police said Thursday that even behind bars, Schlissel has been plotting to further harm gay pride participants and that they have thwarted another attack he was planning. Police said Schlissel was taken for questioning from his cell and his brother, Michael, was arrested as an accomplice.
“We have thwarted and prevented attempts to harm people during the march. The march will take place as planned and without change,” said Jerusalem district police commander Yoram Halevi. He did not elaborate.
Police deployed in unprecedented numbers Thursday, with some 2,000 officers securing the route. Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said 12 protesters were apprehended on suspicion of planning to disrupt the parade, with some carrying knives.
Local media reported that about 25,000 took part in the march, an all-time high and five times as many as a year ago.
In recent days, some Israeli rabbis have spoken out against the gay community. Protesters on Thursday held signs such as “Jerusalem is not Sodom.” Supporters of the gay pride march countered with messages such as “thou shalt not kill.”
Jerusalem’s secular mayor, Nir Barkat, said this week that while the gay community has the right to march, he would personally forgo the event because it was seen as offensive to the city’s many religious residents.
Responding to criticism from the gay community, Barkat laid flowers ahead of the march at the site where 16-year-old Shira Banki was killed last year.
“I understand the pain and criticism of those who do not agree with my decision not to participate in the parade,” he said in a statement. “I chose a different way to honor the memory of Shira Banki, a sweet girl who was murdered because of hatred.”
Several lawmakers from across the political spectrum attended the march, which began with a wedding ceremony between two men under a traditional Jewish canopy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a special statement in support.
“They are marching for one principle: that all people are equal,” Netanyahu said. “The march today in Jerusalem is not just a march of the LGBT community. It is not just a march of a specific community. It is not a march ‘for’ or ‘against.’ It is a march of all of us. It is a march of together.”