The streets of Tel Aviv were filled with rainbow-colored pride flags on Friday as thousands of people joined in the annual Gay Pride Parade.

The festivities began at 10 a.m. with a community happening at Meir Park with musical performances, celebrity appearances and speeches by public figures such as Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, Labor chairwoman Shelly Yechimovich and US Ambassador Daniel Shapiro.

“I love you,” Yechimovich told the crowd. “I have fought for you for years as part of the ongoing struggle for unity. I believe that you, as courageous and conscious people, must take part in the struggle for a just society.

“The fact that you are here in the tens of thousands, proud, fighting and unafraid, should not be taken for granted,” she added.

In a rare public appearance since being ousted from her position as leader of the Kadima party in March, Tzipi Livni praised US President Barack Obama for his recent statement of support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to legally marry.

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“This year the United States ambassador was invited to the festivities, and he arrived. And this is no coincidence,” Livni said.

“I have a feeling that he was invited in order to symbolize and strengthen [US] President Obama’s decision to recognize same-sex unions.

“The decision was not taken lightly, even in the United States. But there they have a leadership that knows how to make courageous decisions even at a political cost. And that is what is necessary in Israel as well,” she said.

The parade itself began at 1 p.m. and included a procession of floats and organized groups of marchers accompanied by thousands of supporters waving pride flags and enjoying the fine June weather.

The parade set out from Meir Park, traveled down Bograshov Street, then passed through Ben-Yehuda Street onto Arlozorov Street, ending with a beach party at Gordon Beach at 3 p.m. Appearing on the central stage at Gordon Beach were some of Tel Aviv’s top DJs including Offer Nissim, Tal Cohen and Avihai Partok.

Internationally recognized Israeli musicians Ivri Lider and Jonny Goldstein, the two main members of the pop-dance group The Young Professionals, hosted Uriel Yekutiel, another famous performer, on stage.

A number of major streets were closed to traffic during the time of the parade including Bograshov, Ben-Yehuda between Bograshov and Jabotinsky as well as parts of Arlozorov closest to the beach.

Thousands of tourists arrived in Tel Aviv over the past week to take part in activities gearing up to the the 14th annual parade, marking the end of Pride Week celebrations. Hilton Beach was decorated with gay pride flags and chill-out music has entertained locals and tourists alike. The beach, which is popular among the local gay community, hosted some of the top DJs from the city’s leading clubs.

This year, the pride events were held under the banner “Pride Flags Countrywide.”

Though the central events are in Tel Aviv, everyone in the country should be able to walk the streets with pride, the Tel Aviv mayor’s adviser on gay community affairs explained recently.

“The message that we chose this year actually casts a spotlight outside the city, on the periphery and the periphery’s connection with Tel Aviv-Jaffa as Israel’s secular and gay capital,” Yaniv Weizman, a member of the city council, told reporters in Tel Aviv.

“Most of the gays, lesbians and transgenders who currently live in Tel Aviv were not born in the city and have strengthened our pride by coming from all over the country.”

Last year, an estimated 100,000 people took part in the parade, carrying colorful banners that read “Being gay is shaveh,” the Hebrew word that means both “worthwhile” and “equal.” Organizers expected similar numbers this year.

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