(Bloomberg) -- More than 300,000 people gathered in London for a pro-Palestinian march as police arrested dozens of mainly far-right counter-protesters seeking to disrupt what had turned into a hot political issue.
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Demonstrations against the Israel-Hamas war have been held the past four weekends, but Saturday’s event sparked more controversy because of the timing and the reaction to it within the government. It coincided with Remembrance Day when the UK marks the end of World War I and honors military personnel who have died in conflict.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman called for the march to be banned and accused London’s police force of political bias over how it approached public demonstrations. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, said the timing was disrespectful, but called for calm as the protest went ahead.
In a statement after the event, Sunak condemned the “violent, wholly unacceptable scenes” from English nationalists, their associated groups and what he called Hamas sympathizers. “All criminality must be met with the full and swift force of the law,” he said, adding that he will convene with the head of the Metropolitan Police in coming days.
The march avoided the Cenotaph in central London, the focal point of the Remembrance commemoration where politicians and the public stood together at 11 a.m. A crowd holding English red-and-white flags scuffled with police as they tried to reach the area. The Press Association reported a large number of people holding the St. George flags walked up the Embankment next to the Thames River shouting “England till I die.”
The Metropolitan Police said later that 82 people were arrested in a nearby street, “part of a large group of counter-protesters we have been monitoring who have tried to reach the main protest march.” There were more than 100 arrests in total, most of them counter-protesters.
Elsewhere, marchers convened near Hyde Park holding placards such as “End the Siege” and “Gaza Stop the Massacre,” along with ones referring to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam.
“The British government and the official opposition are both declining to support a ceasefire,” Andrew Murray, 65, vice president of the Stop the War Coalition, one of the organizers, said as people gathered at Marble Arch in the bright autumn sunshine. “They’re both supporting what Israel is doing in Gaza and we want to make it clear that position is not in our name.”
The war has reverberated across Europe. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz this week called recent incidents of discrimination and violence against Jews a “disgrace.” In France, home to the continent’s largest Jewish and Muslim communities, pro-Palestinian protests have been limited by the authorities. In Britain, though, it’s weighed more on party politics.
The opposition Labour Party, which is leading in the polls a year or so before an election, has seen prominent figures cleave from leader Keir Starmer’s line by calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. The past week, meanwhile, has been more about the division that’s been exposed within Sunak’s governing Conservatives.
The protesters are seeking an end to Israel’s military action in Gaza, which the Hamas-run health ministry says has left more than 10,000 Palestinians dead. Israel is attempting to overthrow Hamas after an attack by the militant group, which the US, UK and European Union designates a terrorist organization, killed more than 1,400 Israelis.
Some people chanted “Rishi Sunak, shame on you, Suella, shame on you, Keir Starmer, shame on you.” Others shouted “From the river to the sea,” a phrase that critics have said implies the dissolution of Israel.
One counter-protester, Joshua Lynch, said he came to the Cenotaph with a group of friends to stop Remembrance Day from being hijacked by pro-Palestinian groups. “We are trying to remember people who fought to save the Jews in the World War II,” said Lynch, with the British union flag over his shoulder. “These people must be turning in their graves knowing that there’s 100,000-plus Palestine supporters that are supporting Hamas.”
The Metropolitan Police said it recognized the “cumulative impact” of the protests and the anxiety in the Jewish community in London. It said 1,850 officers would be deployed across the capital on Saturday and 1,375 on Sunday. The crowd was expected to be far bigger than 100,000, it said. Unofficial estimates put it at three times that.
“There is no doubt this is going to be a very tense week,” Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor said at a briefing on Friday. “It comes on the back of a four-week period of tensions across communities and fear across communities. Narratives throughout the week clearly play into that,” he said of the comments by some politicians.
Freya Ruane, a young protester at Marble Arch with a pro-Palestinian badge, said she was concerned there would be violence because of Braverman’s criticism of the police. “They’re so shocking they’re so divisive, and they’re not what our country is about,” Ruane said. “She’s incited other people to come today and cause trouble.”
--With assistance from Ruth David.
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