LONDON (AP) — Tens of thousands of people turned out on central London’s streets Saturday for a pro-Palestinian march calling for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza.
Police said that while the majority of people protested peacefully, 18 people were arrested including at least five people who were detained on suspicion of inciting racial hatred.
The National March for Palestine in central London was the latest in several huge protests staged in the British capital and many European cities every weekend since the Israel-Hamas war began last month.
Saturday’s protests came on the second day of a four-day cease-fire that has allowed critical humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip and given civilians their first respite after seven weeks of war.
The Metropolitan Police said officers arrested a man on suspicion of inciting racial hatred after he was spotted carrying a placard with Nazi symbols on it. Four others were detained for distributing “literature featuring a swastika inside a Star of David.”
The pro-Palestinian rallies in recent weeks have triggered heated debate in Britain over the freedom of protest as well as police powers to clamp down on what some in the Jewish community see as hateful, racist or antisemitic language or actions.
Earlier this month, the U.K.’s former interior minister, Suella Braverman, came under heavy criticism when she described pro-Palestinian protesters as “hate marchers.” Critics accused her of inflaming tensions, and she was sacked by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak soon after.
On Saturday officers handed out leaflets march that sought to clarify what would be deemed a criminal offence, after the force faced pressure from senior government officials to be tougher on alleged displays of antisemitism at the protests.
“Anyone who is racist or incites hatred against any group should expect to be arrested. As should anyone who supports Hamas or any other banned organization,” said Deputy Assistant Police Commissioner Ade Adelekan.
“We will not tolerate anyone who celebrates or promotes acts of terrorism – such as the killing or kidnap of innocent people – or who spreads hate speech,” he added.
The force said 1,500 officers were deployed to police the march.
Hundreds also gathered outside the Egyptian Embassy in London for a demonstration organized by Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Islamist group. Police said two women who were seen holding “offensive” placards were arrested for a racially aggravated public order offense.
In Paris, a march staged for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women drew both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli activists as well as other groups.
Some protesters, waving Palestinian flags and posters reading “Free Palestine,” walked in a show of solidarity with “Gaza and Palestine’s women who are being murdered.”
A group of Jewish women also joined the march to denounce crimes committed by Hamas, including rapes and killings, chanting, “We are women, we are proud, we are Jewish and we are angry.”
Meanwhile, some pro-Palestinian protests were organized over the weekend in France’s major cities including Strasbourg, Lyon and Marseille.
In Vienna, many marched amid first snow in the city, waving Palestinian flags at a “Peace for Palestine” rally. Organizers called on the Austrian government to back a cease-fire in Gaza, the release of all Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners, and the lifting of the Gaza blockade.
Organizers warned potential participants ahead of Saturday’s demonstration that any antisemitic or far-right actions would be “stopped immediately” and offenders would be asked to leave the event.
Tens of thousands of people are also expected to take part in a march organized by the Campaign Against Antisemitism charity on Sunday to show solidarity with the Jewish community in the U.K.
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Stephanie Liechtenstein in Vienna contributed.
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