Rival Gaza protests in London seethed with mutual animosity – providing visceral evidence of deep and angry divides | UK News

When the pro-Palestinian marchers came round the corner of the Strand in London, drums beating and megaphones blaring, they saw a row of Israeli flags.

The boos were loud and there were plenty of obscene gestures.

Both sides chanted “shame on you” at each other, with the police standing between them.

The pro-Palestinian protesters shouted “From the River to the Sea”, along with the other chants.

Those who defend the slogan say it is a simple call for freedom.

But it is understood by others to invoke the destruction of Israel – and now it was aimed at those bearing the blue Star of David only feet away.

Pro-Palestinian protesters in London on 30 March 2024. Pic: PA
Pro-Palestinian protesters in Trafalgar Square carried placards. Pic: PA

During the many months of protest in London since the start of the conflict in Gaza, never have the two sides – so ideologically far apart – been so physically close.

It wasn’t violent, except for a minor scuffle, but it wasn’t very pretty either.

It seethed with mutual animosity.

‘It’s really quite scary’

The pro-Israeli counter-protesters were few in number – fewer than a hundred, vastly outnumbered by the thousands marching past them.

That disparity is why they said they were there.

“It’s really quite scary that there are so many people the police need to protect us because there’s a real threat,” a woman draped in an Israeli flag who gave her name as Davina told Sky News.

She said a pro-Palestinian protester had made a throat-slashing gesture (Sky News could not verify that claim). “That’s terrifying,” she said. “I think all these guys will be terrified to go home wearing these flags.”

“We just want to have our voices heard and our hostages to be freed.”

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Protesters in London on 30 March 2024, calling for an end to Israeli military action in Gaza. Pic: PA
Pro-Palestinian marchers turned out in numbers. Pic: PA

Pro-Palestinian protesters in Trafalgar Square, London, on 30 March 2024. Pic: PA
The march and protests were largely peaceful. Pic: PA

There was little – well, zero – sympathy for that point of view on the other side.

As I spoke to the pro-Palestinian protesters later, I pointed out that the pro-Israeli camp had the right to peaceful protest too.

Another person interrupted: “No, they don’t, because there’s a genocide – they’re murderers.”

“Anyone who is complicit, anyone who is silent is complicit, that’s correct,” another protester interjected.

Nearly 33,000 Palestinians have now been killed in Gaza since the start of the conflict, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants – although the majority of those killed have been women and children, the ministry says.

Some 1,200 people, mostly Israelis, were killed when Hamas rampaged into southern Israel on 7 October and kidnapped some 250 others.

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London: Protesters call for ceasefire in Gaza

Can the police continue to cope?

In London, separating that strength of feeling, keeping the peace, are the police.

Before the march began, the Metropolitan Police had said that more than £30m had been spent policing the protests.

Some have questioned whether that can carry on. This was the eleventh march organised by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.

One man was arrested on suspicion of a terrorism-related offence during the protest.

“In my experience, this is the most prolonged series of protest events we’ve had for any cause – so at some point, it has to become unsustainable,” Graham Wettone, a policing commentator for Sky News, said.

“It becomes unsustainable for society and for the disruption to society to effectively police every single one because you’re going to have officers having rest days cancelled for months and months.”

The context of the protests has changed too.

When hundreds of thousands marched in November, it wasn’t the British government’s position to call for a ceasefire.

Now – arguably in part thanks to the protests – it is.

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No sign deep divisions will heal soon

I spoke with Ben Jamal, the director of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, as he walked at the head of the march.

I asked whether protests like this – and the policing required to monitor them – were still necessary, when the British government wants the same thing, more or less?

Unfortunately I wish that were the case,” he told me.

“It is true there’s a shift in the government position, and that is because of popular pressure so that emboldens people to keep marching and protesting.

“But the government position at the moment is to support a temporary pause and the government position at the moment is to continue selling arms to Israel.”

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So the marches will apparently continue – and so will the counter-protests. Their organisers have pledged to attend each demonstration.

Today was visceral confirmation of how deep the divisions really are.