Counter-protesters gathered near the Cenotaph in central London ahead of a pro-Palestine demonstration on Armistice Day which is expected to be one of the largest political marches in British history.
A large crowd of people bearing St George’s flags was seen walking along Embankment and shouting “England till I die” shortly after 10 am on Saturday.
Clashes broke out as police attempted to stop them from reaching Whitehall but the group pushed through, with some shouting “let’s have them” as officers hit out with batons.
A service took place at the Cenotaph on Whitehall at 11am, which passed off peacefully, and a two-minute silence was observed.
The Met Police posted on X, formerly Twitter: “While the two minutes’ silence was marked respectfully and without incident on Whitehall, officers have faced aggression from counter-protesters who are in the area in significant numbers.”
The force added that it “will use all the powers and tactics available to us to prevent” the counter-protesters from confronting the main march.
Many were carrying Palestinian flags while others clutch placards emblazoned with slogans such as “free Palestine”, “hands of al Aqsa”, “end Israeli apartheid” and “end the siege” and “baby killer Biden stop arming Israel”.
Organisers of the demonstration calling for a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel anticipate more than 500,000 people will join.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has issued a plea for “unity” amid tensions over the march on the day the UK marks the end of the First World War.
There are concerns about the risk of counter-protests, particularly around the Cenotaph, even though the demonstration is not intended to go near the monument.
Scotland Yard will deploy nearly 2,000 officers across central London in a major policing operation over the weekend.
On the eve of the mass protest, the Prime Minister said in a statement: “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.
“Remembrance weekend is sacred for us all and should be a moment of unity, of our shared British values and of solemn reflection.”
Home Secretary Suella Braverman remains under pressure from all sides after accusing the police of bias when they resisted pressure to ban the pro-Palestinian march.
After her comments were widely criticised and sparked calls for Sunak to sack her, Braverman on Friday expressed her “full backing” for the Metropolitan Police at a meeting with Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley.
The officer in charge of policing London during Saturday’s protest told the PA news agency that the force has been “clear” on how it polices protests.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor said: “Our job is to ensure that we police without fear or favour, that we balance the rights of everybody, be that protesters, counter-protesters, or people living or coming into London.
“And our job this weekend is to ensure that people are kept safe, and that is what my focus is on.”
Transport Secretary Mark Harper said he had granted consent for transport police to make orders banning protests at three London railway stations so that people can travel “free from intimidation”.
The number of officers on duty in London will be double the usual amount, with 1,850 officers on Saturday and 1,375 on Sunday.
An exclusion zone will be put in place using metal barriers covering Whitehall, Horse Guards Parade, the Westminster Abbey Field of Remembrance and other relevant areas, to prevent those on the march from entering the locations.
The Cenotaph will also have a dedicated 24-hour police presence which will remain in place until the conclusion of Remembrance events on Sunday.
The Met said the march and all speeches must end at 5pm, and a Section 60 and 60AA power will be in place covering Westminster and parts of Wandsworth and Lambeth between 10am on Saturday and 1am on Sunday.
This provides officers with additional powers to search anyone in the area for weapons, and requires people in the area to remove face coverings that are believed to be concealing their identity.
A dispersal zone will be in place covering key central London locations including Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus.
Press Association – Ben Mitchell