More than 100,000 pro-Palestinian protesters marched through central London on Saturday, with police making more than 80 arrests as they sought to avert clashes between the marchers and groups opposed to the rally.
The pro-Palestinian march drew counter-protesters from far-right groups on Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War One, involving commemorations of Britain’s war dead.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it was disrespectful to hold the rally on Armistice Day, and ministers had called for the cancellation of the march — the biggest so far in a series to show support for the Palestinians and call for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.
Police said there were “significant numbers” of counter-protesters present in central London, and skirmishes broke out between them and police near the Cenotaph war memorial, close to the Houses of Parliament and in Westminster.
Some of the right-wing protesters threw bottles at officers, and police vehicles sped around the city to respond to reports of tensions in the streets.
London’s Met Police said later it had made 82 arrests of counter-protesters in a move designed to keep the peace, as far-right groups had tried to get close to the pro-Palestinian rally. Another 10 arrests were made for other offences.
“We will continue to take action to avoid the disorder that would likely take place if that happened,” the force said in a statement on social media.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Scotland’s first minister, Humza Yousaf, blamed the interior minister Suella Braverman for emboldening the far-right after she accused police earlier in the week of favouring “pro-Palestinian mobs”.
“The scenes of disorder we witnessed by the far-right at the Cenotaph are a direct result of the Home Secretary’s words,” Khan said on social media.
Police said the pro-Palestinian rally had a “very large” turnout and there had been no incidents related to it so far. They said they would not allow the two groups to meet.
“We will use all the powers and tactics available to us to prevent that from happening,” the police said.
As they gathered at the start point, pro-Palestinian protesters could be heard shouting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, a rallying cry which is viewed by many Jews as antisemitic and a call for Israel’s eradication.
Others carried banners reading “Free Palestine”, “Stop the Massacre” and “Stop Bombing Gaza” as they walked along the route of the march, which was due to end at the US Embassy.
There has been strong support and sympathy for Israel from Western governments, including Britain’s, and many citizens. The Israeli military response has also prompted anger, with weekly protests in London demanding a ceasefire.
Call for ceasefire
In Paris, several thousand protesters, including some left-wing lawmakers, marched with pro-Palestinian banners and flags on Saturday afternoon to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Some French leftist politicians have welcomed President Emmanuel Macron’s call this week for a ceasefire, including in an interview with the BBC released late on Friday in which he opposed Israel’s bombing of Gaza.
A protest against antisemitism has been called on Sunday by senior French lawmakers.
“It is elementary that as activists or simple citizens, you go out on to the street to support the Palestinian people,” said 85-year-old trade unionist Claude Marill.