Tel Aviv, Israel CNN  — 

Always camp, often cheesy and occasionally political, the Eurovision Song Contest rarely passes off without some kind of controversy.

But this year’s competition isn’t making headlines because of a voting irregularity, an on-stage outrage or an obscure rules infraction. The issue is the location of the event itself.

Last year, the contest – which pits singers and bands from different countries against each other in a week-long competition culminating in a spectacular live final – was won by a quirky singer called Netta Barzilai, representing Israel (despite the title, entries are not restricted to European nations).

And because the winning nation gets to host the following year’s contest, this year the Eurovision caravan has pitched up in Tel Aviv.

The nature of the controversy is clear on landing at Ben Gurion Airport. Signs welcoming visitors to the contest are followed on the road into the city by a billboard protesting against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

The rival messages underline the contrast between Israel’s sunny Mediterranean beaches and the concrete wall and checkpoints that run along parts of the border with the West Bank. It is an attempt to remind visitors that just a short drive away is an ongoing, and intractable, conflict.

Israelis hold slogans during a protest against Eurovision on May 14 in Tel Aviv.

Israel seeks tourism boost

Eurovision is best known for its glitzy costumes, quirky performances, and national pride. Despite its well-honed message that the event is above politics, the big issue of the day almost always casts its shadow.

In 2003, UK entry Jemini received no points from a combination of expert juries and members of the public in each of the other countries amid a backlash over the US-led invasion of Iraq that was backed by British forces. And 11 years later, Russian contestants the Tolmachevy Sisters were booed in what was perceived to be a protest over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and its suppression of LGBT rights.

This year is no exception.

Israel is using the Eurovision song competition as a way to brand itself as a fun, sunny holiday break for tourists. It’s part of the country’s larger effort to promote itself not only as a place for religious and historical tourism, but also for its beaches, food scene and high-tech startups.

Israel has poured millions of dollars into the event, which it last hosted in 1999. The competition is taking place at Expo Tel Aviv, while across the city satellite events, performances and festivals are taking place all week long.

Nearly 200 million people are expected to tune in to watch the final on Saturday. The televised week-long competition pits 41 countries’ contestants against each other in a series of rounds. Half of a contestant’s final standing is determined by a jury, while the other half comes from a public vote.

Politics and controversy, as well as security concerns, have threatened to overshadow the competition, especially after a flare-up last week of violence between militants in Gaza, who fired nearly 700 rockets into the country, and the Israeli Army, which responded with more than 300 airstrikes.

Four people in Israel and more than 20 people in Gaza were killed in the two days of fighting, before mediators managed to restore a ceasefire, all of it coinciding with the start of the Eurovision rehearsals.

People inspect  damage at a house in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on May 5, 2019, after it was hit in a rocket strike from Gaza.

Activists in the country are keen to take advantage of the world spotlight, calling for boycotts of the event over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

“Breaking the Silence,” an organization started by former soldiers which wants to see Israel withdraw from Palestinian territories, paid for the billboard along the highway.

“We want people to come that first of all come and see the bigger picture – to enjoy Israel, to enjoy Tel Aviv, but also open their eyes to the fact we occupy millions of people against their will,” the group’s communications director Achiya Schatz told CNN. “For us, if you want to build bridges through music, you need to take apart walls that are being built by occupation.”

On Tuesday evening as thousands flocked to the Tel Aviv beaches for free performances and a food festival, around 150 protesters took part in a short march calling on Israel to end its actions in Gaza.

“The eyes of Europe are on us, so we want to use it to hold up Europe [so it can] see what happens in Gaza, and do something about it,” said one of the protesters, Mattan Helman. “We want them to stop the party, to come with us, to work together and to see that there is another thing that happens 100km from them – to see the lives [of people in Gaza and] to understand that this is also part of their life, because they affect each other. The life in Gaza affects the life in Israel, and the life in Israel affects the life in Gaza.”

Iceland's Hatari performs the song "Hatrið mun sigra" during the first Eurovision semi-final at Expo Tel Aviv on May 14, 2019.

But for most people in Tel Aviv the focus is on the festive atmosphere and the opportunity to show that Tel Aviv can successfully host a major international event.

At the Eurovision fan village along the beach, locals and visitors alike said they were impressed by the event.

“We’re celebrating Eurovision, celebrating freedom, celebrating good music,” said Yanit Azulin as she danced with friends. “The vibe is great, it’s enormous, it’s amazing. I’m very glad that we are here celebrating.”

Typically the Eurovision finale does not feature any celebrity performances. But this year Madonna is slated to perform two songs at the grand finale.

Despite calls for her to boycott the event, Madonna said in a statement she will “never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be.”

“My heart breaks every time I hear about the innocent lives that are lost in this region and the violence that is so often perpetuated to suit the political goals of people who benefit from this ancient conflict. I hope and pray that we will soon break free from this terrible cycle of destruction and create a new path towards peace,” the statement continued.

Protests also came from religious Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the country, angered that the contest requires people to work and perform during the Sabbath which occurs from sundown on Fridays until sundown on Saturday (though the finale should begin after sundown on Saturday). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to explain the government did not control the Eurovision competition to one of the political parties he is trying to form a coalition with, after they expressed dismay about the competition’s timing.

“Most of the participants in the event are from abroad and not Jewish,” Netanyahu wrote, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Netta Barzilai, the reigning Eurovision champion whose winning song “Toy” brought the competition to Israel, has been promoting the event as a way to bring a positive message to the world.

“It’s insane to bring so much blessing over here. And we are thrilled for people to discover Israel again and to see [what] amazing people we are, and how warm we are accepting everyone. It’s going to be a party,” Barzilai said at a news conference ahead of the semi-finals. “From all these countries, all these cultures are bound together, this is a festival of light.”