MALMO, Sweden (AP) — Not everyone in Malmo was welcoming the Eurovision Song Contest to town.

Thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators protested in the Swedish port city on Thursday against Israel’s participation in the pan-continental pop competition.

Protesters waving green, white and red Palestinian flags packed the historic Stortorget square near Malmo’s 16th-century town hall before a planned march through the city for a rally in a park several miles (kilometers) from the Eurovision venue.

Chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” and “Israel is a terror state,” the demonstrators set off smoke flares in the Palestinian colors during a noisy, peaceful rally to criticize Israel and call for a cease-fire. There was a large police presence, with a hovering helicopter, and officers on rooftops with binoculars.

“It’s important to be here,” said Amani Eli-Ali, a Malmo resident of Palestinian heritage. “It’s not OK for Sweden to arrange this Eurovision and have Israel in the contest.”

The Israel-Hamas war, which has killed almost 35,000 Palestinians, has brought a jarring juxtaposition to Eurovision week in Malmo. Music fans in colorful sequined outfits or draped in their national flags mixed in the streets with supporters of the Palestinian cause in keffiyeh scarves.

Palestinian flags fly from windows and balconies along a pedestrianized thoroughfare that has been temporarily renamed “Eurovision street.”

Pro-Palestinian groups plan to march again on Saturday, the day of the Eurovision final.

Israel’s government warned its citizens of a “tangible concern” Israelis could be targeted for attack in Malmo during the contest.

Contest organizers, who try to keep Eurovision a non-political event, have rejected calls to bar Israel over the conduct of its war against Hamas.

But they told Israel to change the lyrics of its entry, originally titled “October Rain” in apparent reference to Hamas’ cross-border Oct. 7 attack that killed some 1,200 Israelis and triggered the war. The song was renamed “Hurricane” and Israeli singer Eden Golan was allowed to remain in the contest.

She will compete in Thursday’s semi-final. Some audience members attending a dress rehearsal on Wednesday could be heard to boo during Golan’s performance.

Critics of the decision to let Israel compete point out that Russia was kicked out of Eurovision in 2022 after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Belarus was ejected a year earlier over its government’s crackdown on dissent.

“We’re supposed to be united by music but we’re not united, because Israel is participating,” said Malmo resident Anders Trolle-Schultz, who attended the protest.

“I think Malmo should have kept Eurovision, but we should have told Israel either ‘Stay away,’ or maybe even say, why don’t we invite a Palestinian music group to participate? That would be fair.”