LONDON (AP) — Palestinian supporters marched peacefully through central London on Saturday, even as right-wing counter-protesters clashed with police, after a week of angry debate over whether to permit the demonstration on a day when Britain honored its war dead.
The day unfolded in a backdrop of tensions fueled by Home Secretary Suella Braverman who earlier this 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 counter-protesters 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.
The march was apparently the largest in London since the start of the conflict, with hundreds of thousands snaking through the city from Hyde Park to the U.S. Embassy about 3 miles (5 kilometers) away.
London police arrested 82 people to prevent a breach of the peace. The force said they were part of a group of counter-protesters trying to reach the main protest march.
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.”
More than 2,000 officers, some called in from surrounding forces, will be on the streets of the capital this weekend to make to ensure marchers obey the law and to prevent potential confrontations with counter protesters, the Metropolitan Police Service said.
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 national war memorial, known as 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,” Sunak said.
While Sunak and Braverman’s comments were directed at pro-Palestinian protesters, critics had said they risked sparking confrontations between the marchers and far-right groups.
Of most concern were Braverman’s comments suggesting that London police had been more lenient toward pro-Palestinian demonstrators and Black Lives Matter supporters than right-wing protesters or soccer hooligans. Braverman said the Metropolitan Police force was ignoring lawbreaking by “pro-Palestinian mobs.”
On Saturday, fights broke out near the Cenotaph between police and right-wing protesters chanting “England till I die.″ Police used batons to stop the protesters, and ceremonies at the memorial weren’t 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 counter-protesters 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.
Organizers of the pro-Palestinian march say they have taken steps to ensure it doesn’t conflict with Armistice Day events. The march is scheduled to begin just after midday, more than an hour after the nation observed a two-minute silence, and it will follow a route from Hyde Park to the U.S. Embassy that doesn’t 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.”
But police have gone further, declaring an exclusion zone around the Cenotaph and stationing a 24-hour guard around the memorial, amid concerns that some protesters may seek to deface it. Protesters have also been barred from the streets around the Israeli Embassy, near the start of the march, and some areas next to the U.S. Embassy.
Police also said they would take steps to prevent convoys of vehicles traveling to the march from driving through Jewish communities. In past years, convoys carrying people who waved flags and shouted antisemitic abuse caused “significant concern, fear and upset,” the force said.
Laurence Taylor, the Met’s deputy assistant commissioner, said police would likely have to use force to manage some of the confrontations that occur over the weekend.
“We are aware there will be counter-protests, as well as a lot of people who would ordinarily come to London to mark their respect on Armistice Day, on Remembrance Sunday,’’ he said. “That means we need a large and robust policing plan in place.”