Under tight security, 2,000 supporters of gay and lesbian rights marched through central Jerusalem Thursday evening, despite the objections of the Orthodox community and the condemnation of Muslim and Christian leaders.
The number of participants fell far short of the 5,000 that organizers had hoped for. But it represented a symbolic victory for the city's small gay and lesbian community which, with the backing of the High Court of Justice, was determined to march through the streets of Jerusalem after being forced to cancel last year's parade due to fears of violence.
Some 8,000 police safeguarded the march, at a cost of NIS 13 million, an Israel Police spokesman said.
A short demonstration was mostly peaceful, due to tight security that prevented opponents from getting near the closed-off parade area.
In the most serious incident, police arrested a 32-year-old haredi resident of the city's Mea She'arim neighborhood who was found carrying a homemade explosive device, police said.
The suspect, who was taken into custody on Jaffa Road just hours before the parade was to begin, told police he planned to set the bomb off in some bushes to scare people away from attending the march, Jerusalem Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said.
Two dozen haredi and modern Orthodox protesters were arrested in the course of the evening. Several had planned to throw eggs at parade participants, and one had dressed up as a homosexual with the intention of infiltrating the parade, police said.
The annual protest, which was organized by Jerusalem's Gay and Lesbian Center at a cost of NIS 500,000, was approved by police over the vehement opposition of the haredi and national religious public, as well as Christian and Muslim religious leaders, who view such a parade as an abomination and anathema to Biblical values.
Participants, waving rainbow-colored flags and carrying placards reading, "Democracy In, Violence Out," said they had a fundamental right to march through the streets of the capital.
"In recent years, we have seen the power of violence. Today we see the power of the [gay and lesbian] community and we will need this power in the future," Noa Sattath, the executive director of Jerusalem's Gay and Lesbian Center, told the demonstrators at the culmination of the half-hour march.
The 500-meter route down Rehov King David was lined with police. There were placards both for and against the parade.
"There is more than one way to love," read a huge banner on the gates of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, which is the organization of Reform Jewry in Israel.
"I came out of the closet, and I want to come out on the road," a placard held by a lesbian participant read.
"Get well soon," countered a sign from a haredi whose Rehov King David storefront was covered with the word "Shame." A haredi demonstrator could be heard reciting Psalms.
In an 11th-hour attempt to stop the parade, two far-right activists petitioned the High Court of Justice on Thursday to cancel the event, arguing that it would violate safety regulations because a six-day-old strike meant fire fighters had not inspected the route and would not be present during the protest.
Jerusalem Police chief Cmdr. Ilan Franco told the court the march could go ahead despite the fire fighters strike, since they could use police water trucks in case of a fire emergency. He said a gathering planned for a city park after the parade could not take place since it was under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem Municipality.
Franco's view was accepted by the court an hour before the event was to start.
Thousands of police were deployed starting in the early morning in an effort to prevent violence. Streets near the parade were closed to traffic from the early afternoon. Ambulances and medics lined the street.
Magen David Adom put in place an "unprecedented operation," with 200 medics, 45 ambulances, 11 mobile intensive care units and a field command center, with additional medics and ambulances on standby, it said in a statement.
The authority to issuing permits for public events rests with police, who could have banned the event - or restricted it, as they did last year - due to safety concerns.
But the backing given to the parade by the High Court, coupled with the relatively low-level of haredi violence over the last week, apparently led police to refrain from vetoing the event.
The annual demonstration, which draws several thousand participants, has been the source of much debate, with many Orthodox city councilors and the capital's largely-traditional residents considering such an event inappropriate for the holy city.
Opposition to the parade united Jerusalem religious leaders in a rare example of interfaith accord. Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, denounced the march and criticized the government for permitting it.
"Such a march contradicts all religions and morals and the natural human way of being, " he said Thursday.
An annual gay pride parade takes place in Tel Aviv without incident.
In the week since the police gave the go-ahead for the event, low-level clashes between haredi youths and police have been a nightly occurrence in the city's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, with haredim pelting police with stones, burning garbage bins and blocking traffic.
More than 130 people have been arrested over the last week in such protests, police said, one-third of them minors. About two dozen policemen were lightly wounded in the clashes.
A demonstration against the parade organized by the Eda Haredit on Sunday attracted 10,000 people, one-tenth the number organizers had hoped for, in a sign of the divisions within the haredi community over how to deal with the event.
In the end, leaders of the Eda Haredit and Lithuanian haredi leaders instructed their followers not to clash with parade participants.
The city's Gay and Lesbian Center, which is heavily funded by American Jewish federations, has held four previous gay parades in the city.
A haredi man stabbed three participants at the 2005 parade. The 2006 parade was delayed and then moved to a stadium at the Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus.
A recent poll found that two-thirds of Jerusalem residents oppose holding such events in the city.
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