Visitors gathered in Paris Thursday for Tel Aviv on Seine, a one-day cultural event organized by the city. The event, a stone's throw from city hall, is part of the French capital's hugely popular annual initiative known as Paris Beaches — in which a mile-long strip of the famed Paris riverfront is transformed into a sprawling public beach.
This summer, for one day only, organizers recreated the beaches of Tel Aviv, which is recognized by many in the international community as Israel's capital — despite Jerusalem being the country's capital city.
Pro-Palestinian advocates and France's leftist politicians have reacted angrily to the event, which comes just one year after the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. Despite rising anger, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo resisted pressure to cancel the event, insisting the one-day beach party was not intended to defend the political policies of Israel.
Related: Paris Tightens Security Ahead of Controversial 'Tel Aviv on Seine' Beach Event
Reporters outnumbered visitors at the start of the event, which opened its doors at 10 am. A spokesperson for the city of Paris told VICE News that Tel Aviv on Seine was meant as a "cultural, playful, festive" event, and was intended to reflect the values of the city's popular Paris Plages initiative.
"It's an anecdotal event that is not here to promote the Israeli government," the spokesperson said.
But the city braced for clashes as activists organized a parallel event dubbed "Gaza Beach," which unspooled just feet away from the official event.
Around 500 police officers were stationed around the fine sand beach, which was decked out with parasols and sun loungers. Visitors entering the 300-meter Tel Aviv strip of the beach were subjected to searches at a police checkpoint.
"I am French and Israeli," said Mordechai, a 75-year-old retiree. For him, the event is more about the city of Tel Aviv than it is about Israel. Having just returned from a trip to Israel, Mordechai said that while he wouldn't leave France for anything in the world, he applauded the capital's decision to honor Tel Aviv.
"It's a city where you can find anything," he said, "Everyone is welcome." He also explained that he had showed up today "to show that we [the Jewish community] are here, we haven't been forgotten."
"We're all the same when we go to the beach," said David, a 50-year-old computer engineer. David said the event could have been an opportunity for Israeli and Palestinian peace activists to come together. But according to him, pro-Palestine advocates have "refused dialog," opting instead to organize a parallel protest.
By the end of the morning, the number of visitors had increased, with beachgoers now outnumbering journalists. Visitors continued to stroll along the sandy strip until 10pm, with several DJ sets scheduled for the evening.
Further down the river, on the other side of a police cordon, a hundred or so pro-Palestine advocates staged a protest against the event, which some groups have described as "obscene."
"Last summer, Israelis were slaughtering people on a beach in Gaza, 30 miles from Tel Aviv, and today they're setting up their beach here, on the banks of the Seine," said Mahmoud, a 29-year-old Palestinian who moved to France last year.
Four Palestinian children were killed when an Israeli missile struck a beach in Gaza while they were playing soccer in July 2014.
"We just had to organize this event to respond to the provocation of Tel Aviv on Seine," said Nicolas, a 50-year-old member of pro-Palestine advocacy group Europalestine.
Israel's Operation Protective Edge was launched in Gaza on July 8, 2014. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2,205 Palestinians — including 521 children — were killed.
Many protesters feel the event — which marks the first-year anniversary of the start of the war — is ill-timed. The beach party also comes 10 days after the death of a Palestinian baby and his father who were killed in their West Bank home after an arson attack.
"Tel Aviv is… the capital of Israel — of course it's a politically charged event," Nicolas told VICE News. Despite wishing that the city had organized a joint event for peace activists from both sides, he said he had no intention of visiting Tel Aviv on Seine. "I want to live," he said, pointing to his green shirt, adorned with the words "Free Palestine."
Further along the strip, activists have opened a pop-up store selling pro-Palestinian merchandise, including "Boycott Israel" shirts and umbrellas adorned with a keffiyeh print. As the day went on, protesters danced to Palestinian rap in the street, while an elderly woman handed out falafel.
"Over there [in Tel Aviv on Seine] they say, 'come and discover our culture and eat falafel.' But it's a scam. Falafel is Palestinian and Lebanese," said Allah, a 35-year-old from Tunisia.
A protester called Aissam, wearing a baseball cap and a Palestinian flag around his neck, said he had been denied entry to Tel Aviv on Seine, despite being dressed "normally." Aissam told VICE News that in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, where he has lived for nearly 30 years, "there are many Jews, but also lots of pro-Palestinians, and it's always been fine."
"A bit like today," he added.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter : @PLongeray