The Eurovision Song Contest final got underway in Sweden’s Malmo yesterday, as tensions mount around Israel’s participation during the Gaza war.
Israel is one of 25 nations competing in a contest watched around the world by millions of lovers of the pop sounds – and kitschy shows.
However, Israel’s presence has sparked fierce debate.
A large crowd of protesters gathered on the central square of the Swedish host city before marching towards the contest venue, waving Palestinian flags and shouting “Eurovision united by genocide” – a twist on the contest’s official slogan United by Music.
“It’s important to show, like, we are going to stand on the right side for everyone. This could be any other country and we would still be standing here because this is about children, men and women who have been occupied for so many years,” said protester Maryam, who gave only her first name.
Police estimated that between 6,000 and 8,000 people joined the demonstration.
“We’re not against Eurovision, we’re against that Israel is taking part. We don’t want its representative in Malmo...because of what’s happening in Gaza,” Ingemar Gustavsson, a Swedish pensioner, told AFP.
Diverse Malmo is home to the country’s largest community of Palestinian origin.
The city is also expecting up to 100,000 fans from 90 countries, on the 50th anniversary of iconic pop group ABBA’s Eurovision win with Waterloo.
Although police have said no direct threats have been made at the competition, they have bolstered their numbers with reinforcements from Norway and Denmark.
To gain access to the Malmo Arena, the some 9,000 spectators have to pass through a reinforced security system designed in particular to discourage protesters from approaching.
Meanwhile, the contest was rattled earlier yesterday by the disqualification of Dutch contestant Joost Klein.
“Swedish police have investigated a complaint made by a female member of the production crew after an incident following his performance in Thursday night’s Semi Final,” the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which oversees the event, said in a statement. “While the legal process takes its course, it would not be appropriate for him to continue in the Contest.”
Dutch broadcaster AVROTROS said the incident had involved Klein being filmed directly after coming off stage “against clearly made agreements”.
According to an AVROTROS statement, Klein then repeatedly indicated that he did not want to be filmed after which he made a “threatening movement” toward the camera, but did not touch the camera woman.
“We stand for good manners – let there be no misunderstanding about that – but in our view, an exclusion order is not proportional to this incident,” AVROTROS said.
Klein had already courted controversy at Thursday’s press conference when he repeatedly covered his face with a Dutch flag, seemingly signifying he didn’t agree with being placed next to Israel’s contestant, Eden Golan.
The EBU confirmed in March that Golan would take part, despite calls for her exclusion from thousands of musicians around the world.
The Gaza war started with the events of October 7 in Israel.
Israel’s offensive has killed at least 34,971 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Israel ranks with Croatia and Switzerland as one of the bookmakers’ favourites in the singing extravaganza, which 162mn television viewers watched last year.
Golan’s song is an adaptation of an earlier version named October Rain, which she modified after organisers deemed it too political because of its apparent allusions to the Hamas attack.
Israel has been taking part in Eurovision since 1973, most recently winning it for the fourth time in 2018.
However, the country’s participation this year has caused bitter divisions.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wished Golan good luck and said she had “already won” by enduring the protests that he called a “horrible wave of anti-Semitism”.
In Spain, the far-left Sumar party on Friday launched a petition calling for Israel to be excluded from the competition while “its army is exterminating the Palestinian people and razing its land”.
Meanwhile German Culture Minister Claudia Roth denounced as “absolutely unacceptable” calls to boycott Israeli artists.
The EBU has insisted that it does not play politics.
This neutrality was challenged on Tuesday by Swedish singer Eric Saade, who took part in the opening number of the competition wearing a keffiyeh around his arm.
Two days later, unions at Belgian broadcaster VRT briefly interrupted transmission of the second semi-final to broadcast a message condemning “the violations of human rights by the state of Israel”.
During rehearsals yesterday, Slimane, France’s candidate, briefly interrupted his performance for a short speech on peace, his team confirmed to AFP.
“We need to be united by music, yes, but with love for peace,” he said, referring to the Eurovision slogan United by Music.
More than 10,000 pro-Palestinian campaigners, including climate activist Greta Thunberg, staged a non-violent protest ahead of the semi-final on Thursday.
A smaller group of pro-Israeli supporters, including members of Malmo’s Jewish community, also staged a peaceful demonstration on Thursday, defending Israeli solo artist Golan and her right to take part in the contest.
Pro-Palestinian protesters have complained of double standards as the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) that organises the contest banned Russia from Eurovision in 2022 following its invasion of Ukraine.
Related Story