A Eurovision billboard protesting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has been erected in Tel Aviv ahead of the talent contest on Tuesday.
The huge banner was put up in the city – which is hosting this year’s Eurovision – on Sunday near the Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Split between a beachfront lifeguard station and an Israeli military watchtower, the billboard reads, ‘Dare to Dream of Freedom,’ a play on this year’s official Eurovision slogan.
Left-wing Israeli activist group Break the Silence was responsible for the sign.
Its director Avner Gvaryahu said he wants tourists coming to watch Eurovision to tour parts of the West Bank to ‘see the full picture’ of the conflict.
The organisation runs regular tours to the Palestinian city of Hebron and said dozens of visitors had booked places for tours in the upcoming week.
Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan called Breaking the Silence a ‘despicable hate organization, and said the billboard was an attempt to spread more lies.
Critics say Israel has tried to use the hugely popular song contest to present itself as a tolerant and cosmopolitan country that is winning increased acceptance on the world stage.
But despite Israel’s best branding efforts, the kitschy festival is clouded in political conflict and controversy.
Palestinian militants bombarded southern Israel with hundreds of rockets during a bloody round of fighting last week, raising concerns that the contest could be disrupted by violence.
The Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel has been urging tourists and artists to stay home.
Even an Israeli promotional video for the contest appears to have backfired, drawing accusations of anti-Semitism and misogyny.
‘There’s definitely more controversy around Israel’s contest than past ones,’ said John Kennedy O’Connor, who wrote the official history of Eurovision.
Eurovision debuted in the wake of World War II to heal a divided continent.
Over the years, the earnest show of European unity has turned into a phenomenon that brings together acts from 41 countries, including those with little or no connection to Europe, such as Turkey and Australia.
In the final round, TV viewers choose the winner by casting votes via text messages.
Israel earned the right to host after Israeli singer Netta Barzilai carried off last year’s prize with her pop anthem ‘Toy.’
Perhaps anticipating controversy, organisers decided to hold the contest in Tel Aviv — Israel’s freewheeling cultural capital known for its beaches and gay-friendly lifestyle — instead of contested, conservative Jerusalem.
O’Connor described hosting Eurovision as a ‘golden opportunity’ for a small country like Israel trying to sell itself as a holiday destination.
‘Israel can take control of its image and say ‘look, we’re bringing nations together and putting on a great show,’ he said.
But almost immediately, the Palestinian-led BDS movement, which promotes boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, began calling on performers to pull out of the contest over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Dozens of European artists, led by former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, signed a letter calling for the contest to be moved elsewhere.
Adding to tensions, the contest coincides with the day that Palestinians commemorate as the anniversary of their ‘nakba,’ or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands fled or were forced from their homes in the 1948 war that led to the establishment of Israel.
Scores of demonstrations to mark the day of mourning and protest Eurovision are planned throughout the country and in the Palestinian territories.
The Tel Aviv Hotel Association said the contest has attracted far fewer foreign visitors than expected.
The association’s director, Oded Grofman, estimated that hotels would see around 5,000 visitors, well below Eurovision’s forecast of 15,000. Portuguese tourism authorities claimed last year’s songfest in Lisbon drew 90,000 people.