Police, counterprotesters fight over London march for Gaza

A counterprotester stands in front of a police officer Saturday in Parliament Square in London during a pro-Palestinian protest march from Hyde Park to the U.S. embassy in Vauxhall.
(AP/Alberto Pezzali)
A counterprotester stands in front of a police officer Saturday in Parliament Square in London during a pro-Palestinian protest march from Hyde Park to the U.S. embassy in Vauxhall. (AP/Alberto Pezzali)

LONDON -- Pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched peacefully through central London on Saturday, even as right-wing counterprotesters clashed with police, after a week of angry debate over whether to permit the event on a day when Britain honored its war dead.

The day unfolded in a backdrop of tensions fueled by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who last week characterized pro-Palestinian demonstrations as "hate marches" and called for Saturday's event to be blocked out of respect for Armistice Day events marking the end of World War I.

The skirmishes between police and counterprotesters carrying the Union flag of Great Britain and the red and white flag of England appeared to confirm the concerns that Braverman's comments would attract right-wing elements looking for an excuse to confront the pro-Palestinian marchers.

Braverman, who oversees law enforcement in Britain, must now resign, said Humza Yousaf, the first minister of Scotland.

"The far-right has been emboldened by the Home Secretary," Yousaf said on X, formerly known as Twitter. "She has spent her week fanning the flames of division. They are now attacking the police on Armistice Day. The Home Secretary's position is untenable."

London police arrested 82 people at one location to prevent a breach of the peace. The force said they were part of a group of counterprotesters trying to reach the main protest march. Another 10 arrests were made throughout the day on charges including possession of a knife and attacking an emergency worker.

Police described the counterprotesters as mostly soccer "hooligans" from around the U.K. who spent the day confronting officers who tried to prevent them from attacking the march. Nine officers were injured, including two who were hospitalized.

"The extreme violence from the right-wing protestors [toward] the police today was extraordinary and deeply concerning," Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist said in a statement. "They arrived early, stating they were there to protect monuments, but some were already intoxicated, aggressive and clearly looking for confrontation. Abuse was directed at officers protecting the Cenotaph, including chants of 'You're not English any more.'"

On Saturday, fights broke out near the Cenotaph, a national war memorial, between police and right-wing protesters chanting "England till I die." Police used batons to stop the protesters, and ceremonies at the memorial were not interrupted. Other clashes took place in other parts of the city, including Chinatown and near the houses of Parliament.

Following the confrontation near the Cenotaph, police said the counterprotesters were not a single group, and officers were tracking them as they moved away into other parts of London. If they attempted to attack the pro-Palestinian march, "we will use all the powers and tactics available to us to prevent that from happening," police said.

Twist said the march was the largest in London since the start of the conflict. Police estimated that some 300,000 people took part, snaking their way through the city from Hyde Park to the U.S. Embassy about 3 miles away.

More than 2,000 officers, some called in from surrounding forces, are on the streets of the capital this weekend to ensure marchers obey the law and to prevent potential confrontations with counterprotesters, the Metropolitan Police Service said.

In an effort to prevent confrontations, police declared an exclusion zone around the Cenotaph and stationed a 24-hour guard around the memorial. Protesters were also barred from the streets around the Israeli Embassy, near the start of the march, and some areas next to the U.S. Embassy.

Police are also taking steps to reassure the Jewish community, which has been targeted by a surge in antisemitic incidents since Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and Israeli forces responded with strikes and sending troops into the Gaza Strip.

"We know the cumulative impact continued protest, increasing tensions and rising hate crimes are having across London and the fear and anxiety our Jewish communities in particular are feeling," the police said in a statement. "They have a right to feel safe in their city, knowing they can travel across London without feeling afraid of intimidation or harassment."

The law enforcement operation comes after Metropolitan Police Commissioner Mark Rowley resisted pressure from political leaders to ban the march.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Braverman have also expressed concern that the protests could spill over into Sunday, when King Charles III and the prime ministers of Commonwealth nations will lay wreaths at the Cenotaph.

The commemoration events are "sacred" to Britain and should be a time for unity and "solemn reflection," Sunak said in a statement before Saturday's events got underway.

"It is because of those who fought for this country and for the freedom we cherish that those who wish to protest can do so, but they must do so respectfully and peacefully," he said.

Organizers of the pro-Palestinian demonstration said they had taken steps to ensure it did not conflict with Armistice Day events. The march moved off just after midday, more than an hour after the nation observed a two-minute silence, following a route that did not go near the Cenotaph.

Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said the marchers are calling for an end to the bombing of Gaza, and he criticized Braverman for characterizing the protesters as extremists who were going to desecrate the Cenotaph. The group has sponsored marches every Saturday in London since the war began.

"We said to the police we did not want to be anywhere near Whitehall on Nov. 11; we did not want to disrupt preparations for the commemoration of remembrance on the Sunday," Jamal told the BBC. "It is inconceivable, unless she doesn't speak to the police, that the home secretary did not know that when she made her remarks."

  photo  Protesters wave flags during a pro-Palestinian protest in London, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. London police have stepped up efforts to ensure a pro-Palestinian march on Saturday remains peaceful following a week of political sparring over whether the demonstration should go ahead on the weekend Britain honors its war dead.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
 
 
  photo  People take part in a die-in ahead of a Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign demonstration in Glasgow, Scotland, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. (Jane Barlow/PA via AP)
 
 
  photo  Protesters gather in Hyde Park for a pro-Palestinian protest in London, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
 
 
  photo  Protesters wave flags and hold flares during a pro-Palestinian protest in London, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. London police have stepped up efforts to ensure a pro-Palestinian march on Saturday remains peaceful following a week of political sparring over whether the demonstration should go ahead on the weekend Britain honors its war dead.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
 
 
  photo  Far-right spokesperson Tommy Robinson, right, speaks to a police officer as he arrives at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, ahead of a pro-Palestinian protest march which is taking place from Hyde Park to the US embassy in Vauxhall, in London, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. London police are stepping up efforts to ensure a pro-Palestinian march remains peaceful following a week of political sparring over whether the demonstration should go ahead on the weekend. (Jeff Moore/PA via AP)
 
 
  photo  People take part in a die-in ahead of a Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign demonstration in Glasgow, Scotland, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. (Jane Barlow/PA via AP)
 
 
  photo  Protesters wave flags and hold flares during a pro-Palestinian protest in London, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. London police have stepped up efforts to ensure a pro-Palestinian march on Saturday remains peaceful following a week of political sparring over whether the demonstration should go ahead on the weekend Britain honors its war dead.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
 
 
  photo  Protesters show placards during a pro-Palestinian protest in London, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. London police have stepped up efforts to ensure a pro-Palestinian march on Saturday remains peaceful following a week of political sparring over whether the demonstration should go ahead on the weekend Britain honors its war dead.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
 
 
  photo  A protester shows a placard during a pro-Palestinian protest in London, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. London police have stepped up efforts to ensure a pro-Palestinian march on Saturday remains peaceful following a week of political sparring over whether the demonstration should go ahead on the weekend Britain honors its war dead.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)