Hundreds of thousands of people have marched in central London chanting “Stop bombing Gaza” and “Ceasefire now” in the largest Palestine solidarity demonstration held in the country so far.
Police estimate that around 300,000 demonstrators joined the march on Saturday, which fell on the same day as the annual Remembrance Day commemorations – marking the end of World War I and honouring those killed in military action.
Ahead of the event, British prime minister Rishi Sunak had called its timing “disrespectful”.
“These are huge numbers, and it’s unprecedented,” said Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, reporting from the march.
“It’s a message to the British government as well, who tried to have this march banned by the police.”
The “National March for Palestine” on Saturday was the latest in a series of rallies in the British capital to show support for the Palestinians since Israel launched an air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip following Palestinian group Hamas’s attacks on southern Israel on October 7.
Israel’s attacks, which it has said are aimed at wiping out the Palestinian group that rules Gaza, have killed more than 11,000 people in 34 days, including more than 4,500 children.
Former British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and member of Parliament for Islington also took part in the rally and demanded a ceasefire.
Ceasefire now. pic.twitter.com/zGe3pCtR9R
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) November 11, 2023
The UK government’s ministers had called for Saturday’s march to be cancelled because it falls on Remembrance Day.
On Wednesday, British Prime Rishi Sunak told reporters that he would hold the Metropolitan police commissioner accountable for safety since the police official defied demands to ban the pro-Palestine protests.
Right-wing counter-protesters arrested
Police said at least 82 people were arrested in central London on Saturday “to prevent a breach of the peace”. They were members of a group of counter-protesters who opposed the pro-Palestinian rally under way in the city.
A few hours before the protest began on Saturday, a mile (1.6km) away from the start of the march, about 1,000 people lined the streets to watch the remembrance events at the Cenotaph war memorial.
Among the crowd, some right-wing counterprotesters opposed to the pro-Palestinian march chanted messages including, “We want our country back.”
Fights broke out near the Cenotaph between police and right-wing protesters. Police used batons to stop the demonstrators, and ceremonies at the memorial were not interrupted. Clashes also 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.
“Groups of several hundreds [of counter-protesters] arrived, and seemed intent on confrontation, and intent on violence,” the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, Matt Twist, said in a statement.
“We’ve had arrests for possession of a knife, possession of a baton, possession of class A drugs, and assault on an emergency worker,” Twist added.
The commissioner confirmed the pro-Palestine march was the “largest we’ve seen so far” and that it went on without incidents.
“The scenes of disorder we witnessed by the far-right at the Cenotaph are a direct result of the Home Secretary’s words. The police’s job has been made much harder,” the mayor of London Sadiq Khan said in a post on X.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman recently called pro-Palestinian demonstrations “hate marches” and said the police “play favourites” and take a soft stance towards rallies in support of Gaza.
“The Met have my full support to take action against anyone found spreading hate and breaking the law,” Khan’s post added.
The scenes of disorder we witnessed by the far-right at the Cenotaph are a direct result of the Home Secretary’s words. The police’s job has been made much harder.
The Met have my full support to take action against anyone found spreading hate and breaking the law.
— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) November 11, 2023