Tel Aviv defies virus to party with Pride
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Thousands partied in the streets of Tel Aviv on Friday at the city's first Pride event since the Covid pandemic, with many ignoring government pleas to wear masks amid a surge in infections.
Extravagantly costumed revellers danced on colourful floats under rainbow banners, in a parade stretching from the city centre along the beach towards the ancient port of Jaffa, a mixed Arab-Jewish quarter.
Organisers called it the "largest parade of its kind held worldwide since the outbreak of Covid-19".
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai hailed the event's return, saying in a statement that Pride events were "a long-standing tradition, centred on a message of equality, acceptance, and human and civil rights."
The parade began at midday (0900 GMT), the same time a health ministry requirement for masks to be worn in most indoor spaces came back into effect just 10 days after it was lifted.
Despite the ministry's call for masks to be worn at large outdoor gatherings, an AFP reporter saw few among the thousands of Tel Aviv partygoers.
"I'm very happy," said Mai Truman, a 28-year-old sports education student, who was not wearing mask.
"It feels like there's no Corona, it feels like we finished."
The last Tel Aviv Pride in 2019 drew a quarter of a million partygoers.
With Israel still largely closed to tourists due to the pandemic, this year's march was smaller -- but the celebrations were just as enthusiastic.
Israelis turned out by the thousand, some wearing bathing suits and cooling themselves with rainbow-striped hand fans.
Truman, who came from the nearby town of Rehovot to support his friends in Israel's LGBTQ community, said he had not expected the health ministry order to wear masks again.
"I went to a convenience store and they asked me to wear a mask and I was really surprised," he said.
Truman said he bought a mask at the store, but stashed it in his pocket during the march. "It's just for closed spaces," he said.
Nuphar Siman-Tov, 22, said she came to Tel Aviv Pride "to support friends and family". Like more than half of Israelis, she has had two vaccinations, and wore a mask.
"I'm trying to do the maximum I can to stay safe," she said.
Another person wearing a face mask was Lin Xiaoxi, a 33-year-old chemistry student at Tel Aviv University, originally from China.
"It is quite different from China," Lin said, as a carnival float drove slowly through the packed crowds, with dancers waving pink flags along to thumping trance music.
Not just a party
One man shot a water gun from his terrace to provide cooling relief for the demonstrators in the Mediterranean sunshine below.
Ofir, 20, stood under the water gun stream with friends.
She asked AFP not to use her second name, as she is a soldier and lesbian.
"Pride is not just a party," she said, a rainbow painted on her eyelids.
"It's a protest."
She said she wanted Israel to legalise same-sex marriage and ease rules for same-sex couples to raise children.
"We are part of the people," she added.
Israel has the most open attitude to homosexuality in the Middle East, with a large and influential gay community, particularly in Tel Aviv.
But the country also has a large and highly conservative ultra-orthodox Jewish community, and a new governing coalition headed by Naftali Bennett includes parties with socially conservative platforms.
Far-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party called Friday's march "a great blasphemy".
The Islamic conservative Raam party released a campaign video earlier this year calling homosexuals "deviants".
A 2015 Pride event in Jerusalem ended in tragedy when an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stabbed a 16-year-old girl to death and wounded several others.