LONDON, Nov 11 (Reuters) – More than 300,000 pro-Palestinian protesters marched through central London on Saturday, with police arresting over 120 people as they tried to stop far-right counter-demonstrators from ambushing the main rally.
Clashes broke out between police and far-right groups who had gathered to protest the demonstration, which took place on Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of the First World War, when Britain remembers its war dead.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak condemned the violence seen at the Cenotaph war memorial and also attacked “Hamas sympathizers” who joined the larger demonstration, “chanting anti-Semitic chants and hurling pro-Hamas signs and clothing at today’s protest”.
Tensions had been high before Saturday’s march – the biggest in a series to show support for the Palestinians and call for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip – after Home Secretary Suella Braverman called them “hate marches” led by “thugs”.
London’s Metropolitan Police had rejected ministerial requests to block the event, saying they had no indication there would be serious violence, straining relations with the government.
Police said in a statement late Saturday that they had so far arrested 126 people, the majority of whom were right-wing protesters who were part of a group several hundred strong that police said included soccer hooligans.
“The extreme violence by right-wing protesters against police today was extraordinary and deeply concerning,” Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist said, adding that a knife and crack gun were found during searches.
The intense debate about protest and policing in the run-up to the march had raised tensions in the community, he said.
While the much larger pro-Palestinian demonstration did not see physical violence, the senior officer said small groups had broken away from the main march and about 150 people wearing face coverings had set off fireworks that hit officers in the face, leading to arrests.
Investigations into a small number of hate crimes and support for proscribed organized crime were also ongoing, he said.
Sunak urged the police to take a hard line.
“All crime must be met with the full and swift force of the law,” he said in a statement late Saturday. “That’s what I told the chief of police on Wednesday, that’s what they’re responsible for and that’s what I expect.”
Clashes between police and right-wing protesters continued throughout the day, with riot police using batons to try to contain bottle-throwing protesters.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf said Braverman had stoked tensions and emboldened the far right by accusing police of favoring “pro-Palestinian mobs” before the event.
OVER 300,000 CAME WITH MARCH
Police said more than 300,000 had attended the pro-Palestinian demonstration, while organizers put the figure at 800,000.
Some marchers chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a rallying cry considered by many Jews to be anti-Semitic and a call for Israel’s annihilation.
Others carried banners reading “Free Palestine”, “Stop the massacre” and “Stop bombing Gaza”.
Since the Hamas attack in southern Israel on 7 October, there has been strong support and sympathy for Israel from Western governments, including Britain’s, and many citizens. But the Israeli military response has also sparked anger, with weekly protests in London calling for a ceasefire.
About 21,000 people took part in a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Brussels on Saturday, and in Paris left-wing lawmakers were among about 16,000 demonstrators who marched with pro-Palestinian banners and flags to call for a ceasefire.
Some French left-wing politicians have welcomed President Emmanuel Macron’s call this week for a ceasefire and resistance to Israel’s bombing campaign.
Senior French lawmakers have called a protest against anti-Semitism for Sunday.
Reporting by Michael Holden, Hannah McKay, Hollie Adams, Ben Makori, Will Russell, Natalie Thomas, Alishia Abodunde, Yann Tessier, Gerhard Mey and Dylan Martinez in London, Lucien Libert and Claudia Greco in Paris and Bart Biesemans in Brussels; Written by Sarah Young; Editing by Kate Holton, Ed Osmond, Helen Popper, Kevin Liffey and Daniel Wallis
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