Eurovision 2019: Israel hosts song contest amid pro-Palestinian protests

Palestinian rights groups say the popular music contest distracts from Israel's military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
Image: Eurovision protest
Left wing Israelis hold slogans during a protest against Eurovision on May 14, 2019 in Tel Aviv.Menahem Kahana / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Linda Givetash and Lawahez Jabari

Millions across the world tuned into the Eurovision Song Contest in Israel on Saturday for their annual fix of the camp and colorful musical spectacle.

Israel is hosting because singer Netta won last year's instalment of the competition renowned for its inclusive message, while Tel Aviv is known as a popular destination for LGBTQ tourists.

But while Eurovision unfolds, an alternative show will be held at venues across the globe as part of an effort to protest this year's host and support Palestinian artists.

The international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement says the contest "distracts attention" from Israel's treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

The competition comes just weeks after deadly exchanges on the border, with a cease-fire bringing a temporary halt to mounting tensions.

Daily life for most of the Gaza strip's 2 million residents has become increasingly difficult, with almost no clean water and unreliable access to electricity.

"Eurovision in apartheid Tel Aviv is cynically used by Israel's far-right government to artwash, or whitewash through art, its decades-old regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid against the indigenous Palestinian people," said Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement, in an email to NBC News.

Activists are instead encouraging music fans to tune into Globalvision — a performance highlighting Palestinian musicians, filmmakers and comedians — that will be broadcast at the same time as Eurovision on Saturday.

Events will be held in cities including Bethlehem, Dublin and London featuring artists including Britain's Brian Eno and Israel's Ohal Grietzer.

Barghouti said peaceful protests against Eurovision are also planned across Tel Aviv.

No finalists or broadcasters have pulled out, but the organisers 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 launched a campaign to counter the protests, using the BDS initials to extol the country as "Beautiful, Diverse, Sensational."

Israeli officials allege the BDS movement is anti-Semitic and seeks to destroy the country.

It's a sentiment that is shared by some in the U.S., where dozens of states have passed laws targeting BDS.

But Israelis enjoying their weekend in Tel Aviv said they were proud to be hosting the event.

"I'm very excited, it's great that it's come to Tel Aviv," Alan Liferow, 58, an Israeli accountant from Ein Sarid told Reuters. "It's showing Israel in a very positive light."

Yafa Levy, 61, from Ramat Hasharon, said most people did not care about the boycott. "With all that is happening against Eurovision and Israel, the show goes on," she said.

Pop star Madonna is set to deliver a guest performance at the contest despite the controversy. The "Queen of Pop" defended her decision in a statement this week, saying she would "never stop playing music to suit someone's political agenda" and remains a proponent of human rights.

Some are choosing not to boycott but to instead use the Eurovision spotlight to draw attention to the conditions in the occupied territories.

Breaking the Silence, a group formed by Israeli veterans that calls for the end of military occupation, organized tours to the West Bank for visitors flooding into Tel Aviv in the days leading up to the competition.

Roughly 200 tourists attended trips to Hebron, the second-largest city in the West Bank, to witness conditions and meet Palestinian residents.

“We had an opportunity to show a lot of people the full picture of what is actually happening here,” Dean Issacharoff, a spokesman for the group, told NBC News. “It's not normal to control millions of people through military.”

Breaking the Silence isn’t boycotting the contest, Issacharoff said.

Instead it has welcomed visitors to Tel Aviv and says the opportunity has been a success in drawing international attention to the issue of occupation.

The Trump administration's long-awaited peace plan is expected to be unveiled in June, but Palestinian leaders have questioned whether the U.S. is acting in good faith.

Increased economic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority have been applied by both the U.S. and Israel as they nudge the authority to accept the still-secret proposal.

The peace plan, spearheaded by U.S. envoy Jason Greenblatt and Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, is coming into sharp focus now that Israel's high-stakes elections are over.

Reuters contributed.