Hundreds of thousands of people marched through central London in a pro-Palestinian march on Saturday demanding a permanent ceasefire, a day after the exchange of hostages held in Gaza for prisoners held in Israel amid a four-day temporary ceasefire.
Protesters old and young chanted for a ceasefire as they marched down Park Lane to Whitehall, some draped with Palestinian flags, donning keffiyehs and armed with “Free Palestine” signs and olive branches.
Organisers of Saturday’s march, which has drawn hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to London’s streets and elsewhere in the UK since the conflict began, said the temporary truce showed that a permanent ceasefire is possible.
“We welcome the fact that Israeli women and children and Palestinian women and children, who have been held in illegal detention, have been returned to their families,” Ben Jamal, the director of the Palestinian Solidarity campaign, said.
“But without a permanent ceasefire, the message being given by Israel and by governments who do not press them for a permanent ceasefire the message to Palestinians in Gaza is you have a temporary stay of execution.”
More than 13,000 Palestinians are thought to have been killed since Israel launched its offensive after the 7 October Hamas attacks that killed 1,200 in southern Israel. As diplomats hope to announce plans to extend the four-day temporary ceasefire in Gaza well before it ends, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his defence team said Israel’s military was already preparing for the restart of hostilities after four days.
“Pausing is something you do for Netflix, for a genocide you end it,” said Sarah, a theatre practitioner in her 30s. “I’m here to platform voices that in the western hemisphere can easily be demonised just because of where these voices are held in the bodies of Arab people.”
“I’m so happy to see the diversity of people here,” she said. “And in solidarity, I’m here to be part of that platform.”
The 1,500 Met police officers on duty this weekend handed out flyers warning demonstrators against the use of racist words and images or celebrating terrorism. Nearby two women were handing out ma’amoul biscuits to demonstrators, in celebration they said, of the freed prisoners.
“The Met supports the right for people to make their voices heard through protest providing it is done lawfully. However, the law also protects people from racist and religious abuse and prohibits the promotion of terrorism,” deputy assistant commissioner Ade Adelekan said on Friday. “While the majority of protesters have complied with these rules, a minority have crossed the line.”
One protester was arrested in London near the start of the protest on suspicion of inciting racial hatred, the Met police said. “Officers spotted him carrying a placard with Nazi symbols on it,” police said.
Throughout the march, stretching down Park Lane and on to Whitehall, protesters repeatedly chanted: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The phrase, which refers to land between the Mediterranean Sea and River Jordan, is often used in support of Palestine, but some say it is widely understood as a demand for the destruction of Israel.
Among the vast crowd was 29-year-old Alaïa, holding a sign saying: “They wanted to erase Palestine from the world, so the whole world became Palestine.”
“It’s like saying that you’re being compassionate and you give someone water for a day just to kill them four days after,” she said, adding that the UK government’s decision not to call for a ceasefire made her feel sick to her stomach.
“Children have been taken away and now they’re grown women and men, and you allow them out for four days before you’re going to rip them away again,” she said.
Palestinians search for bodies and survivors under the rubble of a residential building following an Israeli airstrike on the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip.
“It breaks my heart, I feel like I don’t know what to do with myself. We’re expected to go to work and act like everything’s OK,” she added, looking to the nearby Winter Wonderland, noticeably stark in comparison to the swelling demonstrators.
Among those on the march was 67-year-old Roger King, who travelled to London from Birmingham to help see an end to Gaza’s bombardment. When asked about the British government’s response, he called it “disgusting”, adding that the Labour party was not far behind.
“What Israel is doing is totally disproportionate to what Hamas did – which was not right, absolutely not right,” said King, who has attended every march since the conflict began on 7 October, and will continue until it’s resolved.
“This collective punishment that they dish out without any care of killing innocent civilians and children, it’s criminal, and they all ought to go before a court.”