Eurovision final kicks off amid pro-Palestinian protests outside, chaos backstage

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The final of the 68th Eurovision Song Contest kicked off Saturday in the Swedish city of Malmo after days of protests and offstage drama that have tipped the feel-good musical celebration into a chaotic pressure cooker overshadowed by the war in Gaza.

A raucous Croatian rocker, a non-binary Swiss performer with a soaring voice and — contentiously — a young Israeli singer with a powerful ballad are among favourites to win the competition, which pits nations against one another for the continent’s musical crown.

Before the final, thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched through Malmo to oppose the participation of Israel, with a small group shouting “shame” at fans heading into the Malmo Arena for the show. Separately, Dutch contender Joost Klein was expelled from the contest over a backstage altercation that is being investigated by police.

The European Broadcasting Union, the competition’s organizer, said a female member of the production crew had made a complaint against Klein. The organizer said it wouldn’t be appropriate for Klein to participate at the event while the legal process was underway.

Klein, a 26-year-old Dutch singer and rapper, had been a favourite of both bookmakers and fans with his song Europapa.

A singer stretches their arms and holds up their hands in front of them during a performance.
Joost Klein of the Netherlands during the dress rehearsal on Friday. (Martin Meissner/The Associated Press)

Dutch broadcaster AVROTROS, one of dozens of public broadcasters that collectively fund and broadcast the contest, said that as Klein came offstage after Thursday’s semifinal, he was filmed without his consent and in turn made a “threatening movement” toward the camera.

The broadcaster said Klein didn’t touch the camera or the female camera operator, and called his expulsion a “very heavy and disproportionate” punishment.

The protests and dissent are overshadowing a competition that has become a campy celebration of Europe’s varied — and sometimes baffling — musical tastes and a forum for inclusiveness and diversity with a huge LGBTQ following.

Competitors from 25 countries are performing in front of a live audience of thousands and an estimated 180 million viewers around the world.

A trophy with a label reading, 'Eurovision Song Contest,' is seen on a display.
The trophy is pictured ahead of the final for the 68th Eurovision Song Contest, at the Malmo Arena in Malmo, Sweden, on Saturday. (Andreas Hillergren/TT News Agency/AFP/Getty Images)

Each contestant has three minutes to meld catchy tunes and eye-popping spectacle into performances capable of winning the hearts of millions of viewers. Musical styles range across rock, disco, techno and rap — sometimes a mashup of more than one.

The contest returned to Sweden, home of last year’s winner Loreen, a half-century after ABBA won Eurovision with Waterloo — Eurovision’s most iconic moment. The opening act wasn’t the pop supergroup, which hasn’t reunited onstage for decades. Instead, it was Bjorn Skifs, the first Swedish artist to score a No. 1 hit in the United States — in 1974 with Hooked on a Feeling.

Protest over Israel’s inclusion

Although Eurovision’s motto is “united by music,” this year’s event has proven divisive.

Tensions and nerves were palpable in the hours before the final. Several artists were absent from the Olympics-style artists’ entrance at the start of the final dress rehearsal, though all but Irish singer Bambie Thug went on to perform.

Norwegian singer Alessandra Mele, who had been due to announce her country’s jury results, said she was withdrawing because “there is a genocide going on” and that the “united by music” slogan was “empty words.” Finland’s announcer, musician Kaarija, also pulled out, saying announcing the votes “does not feel right.”

Protesters gather while holding up a banner that reads, 'Welcome to genocide song contest.'
Pro-Palestinian protesters opposing Israel’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest demonstrate in Malmo on Saturday. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images)

Although Israel was allowed to compete, Eurovision organizers ordered a change to the original title of its song, October Rain — an apparent reference to the deadly Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and other militants in southern Israel that triggered the war in Gaza.

Israeli singer Eden Golan has shot up the odds since performing the power ballad, now titled Hurricane, in Thursday’s semifinal. Golan faced some booing at dress rehearsals but was voted into the final by viewers around the world.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised 20-year-old Golan for performing despite “contending with an ugly wave of antisemitism.”

A singer smiles while folding their arms over their chest during a performance.
Eden Golan of Israel performs during the final on Saturday. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images)

Pro-Palestinian protesters argue that Israel shouldn’t be allowed to take part amid a war that has killed almost 35,000 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Thousands of people marched for the second time this week on Saturday through Sweden’s third-largest city, which has a large Muslim population, to demand a boycott of Israel and a ceasefire in the seven-month war.

A few Palestinian flags were waved in the auditorium during Saturday’s Eurovision dress rehearsal, in defiance of a ban on flags other than those of competing nations.

Loreen, last year’s Eurovision champion — and one of only two performers to win the contest twice — said world events were “traumatizing,” but she urged people not to shut down the “community of love” that is Eurovision.

“What heals trauma? Does trauma heal trauma? Does negativity heal negativity? It doesn’t work like that,” she told The Associated Press. “The only thing that heals trauma for real — this is science — is love.”

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