BY AMI BENTOV, ASSOCIATED PRESS
TEL AVIV, Israel -- Drag queens, politicians, grandmothers and shirtless men descended on Tel Aviv in their thousands Friday to party in the annual gay pride parade, the 15th march to be held in an Israeli city that has emerged as one of the world's most gay-friendly.
Loud dance music beat along the parade's route, with rainbows painted on participants' faces, arms and bellies. Drag queens in sequins and platform heels waved to the crowd from floats as scantily-clad men bopped and bounced to the music.
Tel Aviv has become a top destination for the gay community. Tourists from Brazil, England, Russia and elsewhere partied in the Tel Aviv parade alongside Israelis on Friday.
"We love Israel. We have come four times now. The people are so nice and open minded and so lovely to us," said a tourist from Germany who gave his name as Klaus, dressed in floppy orange hat with matching high heels. "There is a lot of energy here," Klaus said. Marching with his husband, Gerhard, he noted the warm weather and the fact that Tel Aviv has a beach as attractions.
Tel Aviv is one of the few places in the Middle East where gays feel free to walk hand-in-hand and kiss in public. The municipality spends some 2 million shekels (550,000 dollars) annually on the local community and on attracting gay travelers, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai told Israeli Army Radio.
The first gay couple to wed in France, Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau, who tied the knot last week in a politically charged ceremony, are now honeymooning in Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv's openness stands in contrast to Jerusalem, just a short drive away, dominated by strictly Orthodox Jews and with a much smaller gay scene. In 2005, an ultra-Orthodox protester there stabbed three marchers at a gay pride parade.
Despite its more open reputation, Tel Aviv has also experienced violence.
The parade came just after police announced they had arrested four suspects in connection with the killing of two people at a gay youth center in Tel Aviv four years ago, what was then seen as the most homophobic attack in Israel's history. Police said Friday they were no longer treating the killings as a hate crime, saying the motive was of a personal nature. Gay community leaders said they still believed the two victims were killed because of their sexual orientation.
While the mood was tinged by the news of the arrests, thousands still paraded through Tel Aviv. A beach party was set for post-march revelry.
Tel Aviv has led the rest of Israel to become progressively more accepting of gays, granting them some rights while the country lags in other spheres.
Officially, there is no gay marriage in Israel, primarily because there is no civil marriage of any kind. All weddings must be conducted through the Jewish rabbinate, which considers homosexuality a sin and a violation of Jewish law. But the state recognizes same-sex couples who marry abroad.
Gay adoption is officially illegal, but couples can get around the law by using surrogacy or adopting abroad. The partner of a parent can adopt the child of his or her partner. Gays have served openly in Israel's military for decades.
Community leaders say Israel still has far to go in promoting equality. Many politicians who attended Friday's parade said they would work to advance gay rights.
"I will do everything to preserve Israel's values of promoting equality and fighting discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders," said Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni at a rally before the parade. "I love you and I am committed to you," she pledged.