As singers made last-minute preparations for the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv on Saturday, Israeli police threw a high-security cordon around the venue to head off attacks, or protests by boycotters who have urged fans to shun the event.
Armed police stood at elevated positions around the Expo Tel Aviv complex, with patrol cars and police motorcyclists at junctions as fans passed through metal detectors and multiple security checks. Farther south, near Jaffa, an area of beach was sealed off for the "Eurovision Village" spectators pavilion.
The 41-country international singing competition has been a focus of pro-Palestinian calls to stay away from this year's event, in protest against Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza.
No finalists or broadcasters have pulled out, but the organizers also have security inside the hall in case activists try to disrupt the live televised final on Saturday night or performers hold an on-stage protest.
Israel says the calls to boycott the competition because it is being held in Israel are discriminatory and anti-Semitic, which the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement denies.
The Netherlands´ Duncan Laurence is the bookies´ favorite to win the glass microphone trophy, sitting at 3/4 according to Oddschecker on Saturday.
Australia´s entry has also crept up the favorites list, helped by a spectatular stage show performed by Kate Miller-Heidke in a full ball gown atop a moving pole.
Pop star Madonna arrived earlier in the week, ahead of her planned guest performance. Defending her decision to take part, the 60-year-old singer issued a statement saying she would always speak up to defend human rights, and that she hoped to see "a new path toward peace".
But at an event organized by pro-Palestinian activists on Saturday morning, around 60 people boarded a boat in Jaffa port to hear critics voicing opposition to Israel's staging of the competition.
During Madonna's performance at the Eurovision extravaganza, two of her dancers could be seen side-by-side with Israeli and Palestinian flags on their backs.
The gesture was an apparent call for unity, but Eurovision organizers seek to keep all politics out of the event and the display of Palestinian flags inside Israel is deeply controversial.
Madonna had not commented on the flags.
Separately, Icelandic group Hatari displayed scarfs with Palestinian flags when results were being announced.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organizes the event, condemned both displays.
Referring to Madonna's dancers, it said "this element of the performance was not part of the rehearsals".
"The Eurovision Song Contest is a non-political event and Madonna had been made aware of this."
Madonna resisted calls from pro-Palestinian activists to boycott the event over Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory.
In a statement before the finals, Madonna said: "I'll never stop playing music to suit someone's political agenda nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be."
Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev on Sunday criticized the display of Palestinian flags during song contest finals.
"It was an error," Regev, a right-wing minister known for provocative stances, told journalists before a cabinet meeting.
"Politics and a cultural event should not be mixed, with all due respect to Madonna."
Regev criticized Israeli public broadcaster KAN for not having prevented the flags from being shown, though it was unclear what could have been done.
Regev also criticized KAN for not having filmed any of its "postcards" of participating singers in the occupied West Bank.
Each singer was filmed in scenic areas of Israel and some of the footage was aired during the show.
Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War and it remains under occupation today.
Israeli settlements there are viewed as illegal under international law and are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.
Some campaigners wore shirts saying "Eurovision: I´m not your Toy", a play on the song "Toy" by the Israeli singer Netta Barzilai, whose win at last year´s competition brought the 2019 finals to Israel.
The event was organized by Zochrot, an Israeli NGO which advocates for Palestinians to have the right to return to lands that they fled or were driven from during the 1948-49 war that surrounded Israel´s founding. Israel rules out any such right.
Umar al-Ghubari, the tour guide, said that Eurovision fans were due to celebrate near where the pre-1948 Palestinian neighborhood al-Manshiyya was destroyed 71 years ago.
"The Israelis don´t want to tell this story. They want to show everything as normal," said Ghubari.
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