By Anna Saccoccio
PARIS (Reuters) - Paris' decision to celebrate Tel Aviv on Thursday in its annual beach-on-the-Seine festival has sparked controversy, with critics branding it "indecent" after the death of a baby in an arson attack in the West Bank.
France has both the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Europe, and flare-ups in the Middle East have often triggered tensions between the two communities.
The festival in the heart of Paris turns the banks of the river each summer into a makeshift beach with sand, sun-loungers, cocktails and beach volleyball.
Foreign seaside cities are often honored. This time some 300 police will be on duty in the area devoted to Tel Aviv between two bridges near Paris's Notre Dame cathedral from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (0800 GMT-2000 GMT) on Thursday, the one day dedicated to the Israeli city in the month-long festival.
For Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo and her deputy Bruno Julliard, the event, which will include DJs and Mediterranean foodtrucks reminiscent of famously freewheeling and liberal Tel Aviv, is about dialogue between cultures.
"We must put in the limelight those who support values that our close to ours, which is the case of Tel Aviv, a city that is often detested by the most radical Israelis," Julliard told Reuters.
Pro-Palestinian and leftist groups have called on people to gather on Thursday in the same area and create their own "Gaza on Seine".
"We cannot act as if it's business as usual (in Tel Aviv) 40 minutes away from Jerusalem and the occupied territories, and say that Paris will celebrate a certain way of life, some sort of Copacabana-style Tel-Aviv, that would not be decent," said Eric Coquerel of the Parti de Gauche.
"We cannot celebrate a certain way of life, the joy of life on the beach just a few days after a baby was burnt."
A Palestinian man and his 18-month-old son were killed when their house in Duma village was set ablaze on July 31, an act Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as terrorism.
An online petition calling for the Seine event to be canceled has gathered more than 20,000 signatures. Paris's Green party city councillors, despite being allies of Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo, condemned the event as "de facto backing Israel's policies".
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Twitter: "Total support to the initiative of the city of Paris #TelAvivsurSeine.
"Let's stop the outpouring of stupidity," he said of criticism of the event.
Eytan Schwartz, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai's adviser for foreign affairs, wrote on his Facebook page: "We have friends in France and it is inspiring that they are standing by our side."
Security has been tight in Paris since the January attacks in which 17 people were killed in attacks by Islamist gunmen on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a Jewish shop.
Following the killings, Netanyahu said he wanted to increase Jewish immigration from France and other European states, where he said there was "terrible anti-Semitism".
That prompted some tensions with the French government, which had told French Jews they belonged in France and would be protected.
The "Tel Aviv on Seine" event was decided when Hidalgo traveled to the region in May. Other kinds of partnership were also established with Palestinian cities at the time, the municipality said.
(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Andrew Roche)