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Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters march in Malmo against Israel’s Eurovision participation

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MALMO, Sweden (AP) — Not everyone in Malmo was welcoming the Eurovision Song Contest to town.

Thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators protested in the Swedish port city on Thursday against Israel’s participation in the pan-continental pop competition.

Protesters waving green, white, black and red Palestinian flags packed the historic Stortorget square near Malmo’s 16th-century town hall before a planned march through the city for a rally in a park several miles (kilometers) from the Eurovision venue. Police estimated that between 10,000 and 12,000 people took part. Among those in the crowd was Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” and “Israel is a terror state,” the demonstrators set off smoke flares in the Palestinian colors during a noisy, peaceful rally to criticize Israel and call for a cease-fire. There was a large police presence, with a hovering helicopter, and officers on rooftops with binoculars.

“It’s important to be here,” said Amani Eli-Ali, a Malmo resident of Palestinian heritage. “It’s not OK for Sweden to arrange this Eurovision and have Israel in the contest.”

Protester Saadallah Aoudi, a Swedish citizen with Palestinian roots, said “this is the wrong time” for Israel to take part in the competition.

“It’s about songs, and songs are about love. … They should be here when there is peace,” he said.

The Israel-Hamas war, which has killed almost 35,000 Palestinians, has brought a jarring juxtaposition to Eurovision week in Malmo. Music fans in colorful sequined outfits or draped in their national flags mixed in the streets with supporters of the Palestinian cause in keffiyeh scarves.

Palestinian flags fly from windows and balconies along a pedestrianized thoroughfare that has been temporarily renamed “Eurovision street.”

A smaller pro-Israel protest was also held Thursday in a central Malmo square.

Pro-Palestinian groups plan to march again on Saturday, the day of the Eurovision final.

Israel’s government warned its citizens of a “tangible concern” Israelis could be targeted for attack in Malmo during the contest.

Contest organizers, who try to keep Eurovision a non-political event, have rejected calls to bar Israel over the conduct of its war against Hamas.

But they told Israel to change the lyrics of its entry, originally titled “October Rain” in apparent reference to Hamas’ cross-border Oct. 7 attack that killed some 1,200 Israelis and triggered the war. The song was renamed “Hurricane” and Israeli singer Eden Golan was allowed to remain in the contest.

Some audience members attending a dress rehearsal on Wednesday could be heard to boo during Golan’s performance of the power ballad. But on Thursday she won enough viewer votes to come in the top 10 of 16 acts competing in a semi-final and secure a place in Saturday’s title competition.

Critics of the decision to let Israel compete point out that Russia was kicked out of Eurovision in 2022 after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Belarus was ejected a year earlier over its government’s crackdown on dissent.

“We’re supposed to be united by music but we’re not united, because Israel is participating,” said Malmo resident Anders Trolle-Schultz, who attended the protest.

“I think Malmo should have kept Eurovision, but we should have told Israel either ‘Stay away,’ or maybe even say, why don’t we invite a Palestinian music group to participate? That would be fair.”

Historian Dean Vuletic, author of “Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest,” said Eurovision has long been a focus of political controversies. Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus led to a Greek boycott the following year. Georgia pulled out of Eurovision in 2009, a year after it fought a brief war with Russia, after organizers rejected its proposed song, “We Don’t Wanna Put In” — an obvious reference to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

“Whenever countries compete with each other, things are going to get political,” and Eurovision has always reflected the “political zeitgeist” in Europe, he said.

While the last two years’ competitions have seen an outpouring of support for Ukraine, this year “we see Europe divided over the war in Gaza.”

By JILL LAWLESS
Associated Press

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