'Gaza beach' protest in Paris counters Tel Aviv celebration

Eric Randolph
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A man holds a Palestinian flag during a "Gaza beach" protest against the "Tel-Aviv sur Seine" theme beach in Paris on August 13, 2015

A man holds a Palestinian flag during a "Gaza beach" protest against the "Tel-Aviv sur Seine" theme beach in Paris on August 13, 2015 (AFP Photo/Kenzo Tribouillard)

Paris (AFP) - A Paris beach event celebrating Tel Aviv attracted a handful of visitors but a huge number of journalists, riot police and security guards on Thursday, as well as a much larger "Gaza Beach" protest.

Bemused locals who headed down to "Tel Aviv Sur Seine" had to manoeuvre through bag checks, security pat-downs and metal detectors to reach the small stretch of sand on the banks of the Seine.

Paris converts a long stretch of its riverbank into a makeshift beach known as "Paris Plages" every summer, and has this year named certain days after resorts around the world.

Thursday's event consisted of little more than a few people playing bat and ball in front of a picture of Tel Aviv, but it has been enough to excite a major media brouhaha after objections from anti-Israel protesters.

"There are 50 visitors for 500 journalists. I feel like I'm on the red carpet at Cannes," said one onlooker.

The Tel Aviv section of the beach, not far from Notre Dame cathedral, was only around 200 metres (yards) long and guarded by a phalanx of riot police on either end.

"Coming today is an act of solidarity with the Jewish people," said Cecilia, an Italian stretched out on a beach chair, adding that she was "a little afraid that this degenerates".

On the other side of the police cordon, a large number of pro-Palestinian protesters began arriving around midday to set up their rival "Gaza Beach".

Waving Palestinian flags, chanting slogans and handing out flyers, the activists were keen to present the issue as more than just a media storm in a teacup.

"You can't have culture while a state martyrs a people, colonises, bombards," said Olivia Zemer, head of EuroPalestine, one of around a dozen organisations taking part in the demonstration.

"When they start respecting international human rights... there will be no problem talking about culture."

- 'A bit less festive' -

Opposition to Israeli politics runs deep among left-wing parties in France, who sparked the controversy earlier this week, saying "Tel Aviv Sur Seine" amounted to a PR exercise for the Israeli state.

City authorities resisted pressure to scrap the event and Prime Minister Manuel Valls voiced his "full support" for the initiative.

"Even in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Tel Aviv remains a town open to all minorities," said Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

"It's a progressive town, which is hated as a result by all intolerant people in Israel."

France is home to Europe's largest Jewish community and the largest number of Muslims on the continent although its secular laws mean that no precise figures are available.

Tensions between the two communities burst into the open last year during Israel's offensive in Gaza, especially in the working-class Paris areas of Barbes and Sarcelles.

A banned pro-Palestinian demonstration last July turned into a running battle between rival protesters and the police.