Reporting from Tel Aviv

Tens of thousands of people are expected to join Tel Aviv Pride today, the Middle East’s only significant gay celebration.

It comes just a few days after Israeli activists were banned from Madrid Pride, the largest in Europe, over Israel’s raid on a Gaza aid ship.

As of midday, just before the parade was due to start, the usual cacophony of whistles and cheers filled the streets before the marchers set off.

As well as the main body of marchers, two smaller parades are to be held to protest for better representation of marginalised groups in Pride.

The main parade’s route takes revellers past popular gay areas and the city’s religious quarters, starting on Gan Meir Park on King George Street and finishing at Gordon Beach.

Near the stage, a giant tube of lubricant encouraged safe sex as rabbis walked by, accentuating Tel Aviv’s reputation as a city of contrasts.

Now in its 13th year, the event has had a stable history, unlike Jerusalem Pride which has suffered violence in the past.

Over the years, some religious figures have called for Pride in Tel Aviv to be banned or at least curtailed, but these calls have been brushed aside.

Last year, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said his municipality had supported the parade since it began, calling a “happy party that marches the city’s streets proudly each year.”

The Israeli government has invited journalists from round the world to cover the day, while Jewish gay groups from Britain are also present.

Jonathan Sacerdoti, from the Zionist Federation, said: “Israel is a very good place to be gay. It’s accommodating and tolerant, unlike many other places in the Middle East.

There’s equality for people of all sexual orientations. Gays have been serving in the Army since 1993, gay unions from outside are recognised and there is gay adoption, thanks to Supreme Court rulings. It is a very positive place to be.”

Adam Ezekiel, from the Zionist Jewish Group, added: “This is the only gay parade here. In other places, gay people are being hanged. It’s very important to ensure our rights and opinions are heard.”

Sajron Jegerman, a spokesman for Pride, said: “There are so many people here. Today is a day of freedom, a day to be free.

He added he had heard of no religious opposition to the festival in its run-up and said everything was going “perfectly ok”.

He also expressed sadness at the barring of Israeli gay activists from having a float at Madrid Pride.

Mr Jegerman said he was “disappointed” at the clash between politics and human rights but added: “It will not stop us co-operating with them in future for gay rights.”

City officials had angrily countered Madrid’s perceived snub, with one inviting Madrid officials to visit Tel Aviv Pride in order to meet gay Arabs who could not be open about their sexuality at home.

A moment of silence is to be held later in memoriam of those killed at a Tel Aviv gay meeting last July. Two people were killed and a further 15 were injured when a gunman opened fire on the venue.

Benjamin Cohen is the founder and publisher of PinkNews.co.uk and technology correspondent for Channel 4 News.