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UK pro-Palestine protest organisers seek police meeting over threats and abuse

Organisers say stewards had to create a physical barrier to protect protesters from pro-Israel counter-demonstrators
Pro-Palestine marchers pass pro-Israel counter-demonstrators in central London on 18 May 2024 (Benjamin Cremel/AFP)

The organisers of a succession of pro-Palestine protests in London have demanded a meeting with Metropolitan Police chief Mark Rowley over abuse and threats they say were directed at stewards and protesters by pro-Israel counter-demonstrators during last Saturday's march.

Organisers criticised the police on Tuesday for failing to protect its volunteers and participants in the protest as they passed the counter-protest in Piccadilly Circus in the centre of the city.

In a letter to the Met, organisers said police had allowed counter-protesters to assemble on the agreed route despite assurances that they would be kept away from the main pro-Palestine demonstration, which organisers say attracted 250,000 people.

The organisers said stewards, who included many Muslim women, had to create a physical barrier for several hours to prevent an incident, which led to them being threatened and having phones shoved in their faces. 

The letter was signed by the six organisations that make up the coalition that has organised regular demonstrations to call for a ceasefire in Gaza since the start of Israel's war against Hamas in October: the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Stop the War Coalition, the Palestine Forum in Britain, Friends of Al Aqsa, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Muslim Association of Britain. 

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“The treatment of the pro-Israel counterprotest by the police showed a completely different approach to that of the pro-Palestine demonstration," the organisers said in the letter to Rowley.  

“As a result, the whole demonstration had to run a frightening gauntlet of abuse, insult and provocation, the aim of which was clearly to create a physical confrontation. We want an explanation of how and why this was allowed to happen and an undertaking that future counterprotests will be properly policed.”

Images posted online showed pro-Israeli marchers holding Israeli flags with protesters holding pictures of Israelis held captive by Palestinian groups and signs that said "Rape Supporters off our streets, Enough is Enough".

In a statement posted on social media, the Metropolitan Police said that Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist, the Met's lead for public order policing, would write to the organisers to offer them a meeting.

It said: "We recognise that on Saturday the groups were too close together as the main march passed through Piccadilly Circus. We regret that this created a particularly hostile atmosphere and we’re grateful to the stewards who worked with officers to keep everyone safe.

"If there are specific allegations of abuse or intimidation that are reported to us they will of course be investigated."

The concerns were raised by the pro-Palestine groups on the same day that they faced criticism from John Woodcock, also known as Lord Walney, the UK government's adviser on political violence and distruption, in a new report in which he suggested that the police should be granted new powers to stop marches going ahead and accused organisers of links to "antisemitism and extremism".

Woodcock's key recommendations included calling for protest groups to be banned from organising or raising money if they cause "serious disruption... to influence government or public debate", and to expand police powers to "recommend a march is not permitted to go ahead on a particulate date....[if it] risks serious public order".

Organisers of the pro-Palestine demonstrations have been repeatedly attacked by senior members of the government, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who in March said the Gaza war protests were an example of "extremists" undermining British democracy and called on the police to take tougher action.

They point out that the police have characterised the protests as predominantly peaceful with few arrests, and have drawn attention to the regular presence of a large Jewish bloc within the march.

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