The Eurovision Song Contest is rocking Israel


TEL AVIV, Israel — The Eurovision Song Contest being held here May 14-18 has caught Israel teetering awkwardly on the arc of Middle East war, Knesset politics, religion and show biz.

The tens of thousands of musicians and their fans arriving this week for the 64th Eurovision Song Contest, taking place at the Tel Aviv Expo grounds, are being embraced by Israel with a Sabbath hospitality program, courtesy training for taxi drivers, free trips to the Dead Sea on days when there are no rehearsals, and gratis cash-loaded transit cards valid for buses, trams and trains.

But Palestinian jihadi militants in the Gaza Strip have welcomed the visitors with a 48-hour barrage of Qassam rockets and mortars – more than 700 just over the weekend. Four Israelis have been killed by shrapnel while 30 Palestinians have died in Israel Defense Force sniper fire and airstrikes.

A shaky ceasefire was announced Monday.

No rockets have targeted Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, nor have any tourists been wounded.

Israel won the coveted tourism and public relations bonanza of hosting Eurovision thanks to Israeli singer Netta Barzilai’s mega-hit “Toy” which won in Lisbon last May. Now instead of basking in glory, compounded by Independence Day celebrations on Thursday, Israel has become ensnared by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) rocket crews in the Gaza Strip who hope to kill both Israeli civilians and the country’s booming incoming tourism sector.

Why spoil the Eurovision party and tourists’ fun with self-defeating steps that make no sense militarily? By firing rockets, Hamas ensures its fighters will get whacked by the far superior IDF. Upping the ante, Israel on Sunday resumed its policy of targeted killings, when the Israel Air Force hit a black Toyota Corolla vehicle in Gaza City, eliminating Hamas field commander Hamed Hamdan al-Khodari. The businessman owned several money exchanges in the Gaza Strip, and used them to bring in large amounts of cash from Iran into the coastal enclave for Hamas, PIJ and other terror groups.

While Gazan families began celebrating Ramadan on Sunday, which includes a month-long daylight fast in the mounting summer heat, the airstrikes have made life there even more miserable. For the 1.9 million Gazans, electricity in the Hamas-ruled enclave is limited to a few hours daily. There is little air-conditioning relief from the sweltering Mediterranean heat. Unemployment is rampant, as is despair. For tens of thousands, the never-ending grimness is only lifted by their daily fix of the opiate painkiller Tramadol.

Why do the leaders of Hamas and PIJ take such self-defeating steps? Because they bring results. Follow the logic: riots and Palestinian blood open the spigot of United Arab Emirate and Saudi petro-dinars and dirhams, and allow it wash over Gaza, with some seeping into Swiss bank accounts of money men like al-Khodari and corrupt Hamas leaders. Or so it has been in the past. Qatar is now in arrears of its latest tranche, and hunger is mounting.

The timing of the current flare-up is seemingly unrelated to the year–long Great March of Returns protests and riots held along the heavily-fortified Gaza-Israel border fence every Friday since March 2018. But this Saturday was different. A Palestinian sniper wounded two IDF soldiers. Israel returned the fire, and then Hamas and PIJ unleashed their rocket barrage.

Compounding the uncertainty, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to cobble together a coalition following the April 9 general election in which his Likud Party won 35 seats in the 120-member Knesset (Parliament). Without a working government, now would be a poor time to launch another war against Hamas.

In Tel Aviv, European Broadcasting Union officials were mum about the security situation, or the possibility of cancelling or moving the competition. Asked on Sunday to comment, the EBU repeated its statement from Saturday, saying that it “will continue to closely monitor the current situation and rehearsals will continue as normal.”

The show must go on.

Meanwhile the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality has partnered with EatWith, an Israeli-founded initiative now available in 130 countries, to offer tourists here for the Eurovision contest a home-cooked Shabbat meal with Tel Aviv families at sunset on May 17.

The Shabbat Dinner project, the Tel Aviv Municipality said, will match tourists of any religion and cultural background with local host families and communities “for a meaningful night around a Shabbat dinner table.”

“Tourists from around the world will take part in a unique immersive experience and will enjoy a home-cooked meal while learning about Jewish traditions that have been observed for centuries,” the municipality said. “This project aligns with the growing travel trend of experiential tourism, where tourists seek to be immersed in the local culture and are on the lookout for authentic experiences.”

Tourists may choose from three options: a traditional Shabbat dinner with a family that can host up to six guests, a proud Shabbat dinner arranged via Eatwith and the Tel Aviv Municipal LGBTQ Center, and a potluck communal Shabbat dinner hosted at community centers across the city.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said the Shabbat Dinners Project “is one of the many ways to connect the thousands of tourists to Tel Aviv families and introduce them to the wonderful Jewish tradition of Shabbat in Israel.”

“By the way, I already told Yael, my wife, to not make plans on the Friday before the Eurovision final, because we will be cooking!”