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Israeli/Palestinian protests: policing fast moving events

Chris Hobbs attends the UK protests that have sprung from the tragic events in Israel

The chant was clear and resounding; “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ and was audible as I emerged from High Street, Kensington station. I’d already chatted to two BTP OSU (Operational Support Group) officers who were fully ‘kitted.’ The threat assessment was clearly hovering in the ‘red zone.’

I noticed a significant number of TSG carriers opposite the station and a group of Met sergeants and inspectors chatting. One mentioned that there had already been a couple of minor skirmishes and these officers were also in public order kit with helmets clipped.

I’ve observed several Palestinian protests over the years and the first saw significant violence against police with missiles being thrown. More recent protests have been primarily attended by middle aged, very well- behaved left-wing activists.

As I walked towards the crowd, it became obvious that this was different. The majority were young; in their teens and twenties, and the atmosphere was raucous. It was in marked contrast to the well-attended ‘Vigil for Israel,’   that I had walked through earlier in Whitehall. Given the dreadful events close to the Gaza border, that perhaps was to be expected. There were one or two concerns by police officers at the presence of two Iranian flags, but these were ‘Royal flags.’ It was explained that significant numbers of Iranians opposed to the regime which backs Hamas, support Israel.

A handful of Palestinian supporters did briefly materialise but were dealt with by police who were profusely thanked as the vigil concluded.  

Densely packed crowds

As I approached the Israeli Embassy, it became clear that the crowds were larger than at previous protests. I opted for the back roads which brought me into a side road that faced the High Street and the Embassy. The crowd was extremely dense and brought back memories of a situation at the Notting Hill Carnival when I became concerned as to the possibility of crushing.

I decided not to enter the densely packed chanting crowds where an abundant collection of flags and placards could be seen. Flares with their consequent smoke, made the atmosphere unpleasant and fireworks were launched into the air. What was also noticeable was the number of young children present and my concern was that an incident close to the barriers and gates in front of the Embassy could spark panic and a catastrophic crushing incident.

The public address system that was set up in front of the Embassy gates and barriers was woefully inadequate and it was difficult to hear the speeches. I’m sure there must have been some Hamas supporting placards there but if there were, I didn’t see them. The speeches ended earlier than I would have expected and the crowd thinned sufficiently for me to work my way to the barriers and the gates. There was no way any crowd would be able ‘storm’ their way through these ‘defences’ plus the cordon of ‘kitted,’ Met officers.

Chanting frequently broke out amongst the crowd which seemed to now consist of large groups listening to music or speeches; ‘in our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians,’ was another familiar chant.  Suddenly one of two serials of police began running back in the direction of the station. Their run ended outside a restaurant where a uniform Chief Inspector and a PC were in heated conversation with a group of male pro-Palestinian protesters.

The serial formed a protestive ring around the door of the restaurant as the acrimonious debate continued. I thought initially, that some form of insult had been hurled from inside the restaurant. Footage later suggested that a Jewish man had come to the attention of protesters, perhaps as a result of a comment he made, and he was pursued by this threatening group.

Fortunately, a Met Chief Inspector and PC were on hand to protect him and he eventually took refuge in the restaurant which was ‘guarded,’ by the two officers until the arrival of the above- mentioned serial of officers.

Previous pro-Palestinian protests had inevitably ended in an aimless walkabout and, as I predicted, this was to prove no exception. Strangely the march set off along the relatively deserted Kensington Gore by the park as opposed to a bustling Kensington High Street. Some protesters stayed behind.

The march was policed by a number of TSG carriers and their officers and after a while I opted to return to the Embassy. I received a message that there was trouble at High Street Kensington Station. But by the time I got there, all was quiet. BTP officers were debriefing and purchasing take-away food. Met carriers were also present. If there had been trouble, it was over.

Social media footage later emerged of police officers having to intervene between two rival groups at the station with some missiles being thrown. It would seem that a small group of pro-Israeli supporters had been seen which sparked a predictable confrontation.

A statement later issued by the Met stated that there had been three arrests including one for assaulting an emergency worker. Met and BTP commanders could, rightly, be satisfied with the final outcome. However, this didn’t stop a wave of criticism from right-wing elements of social media who seemed to suggest the Met should have broken up this ‘Hamas supporting,’ event.

The Home Secretary and the Deputy Commissioner

The Home Secretary seemed to endorse this as reports emerged suggested that she wanted stronger action to be taken and that even the ‘from the river,’ chant could be actionable as could the waving of Palestinian flags.

In fact, as stated above, police intervention against the densely packed crowd outside the Embassy that contained a significant number of young children, could have been catastrophic in terms of panic and a potential crushing incident.

The Home Secretary is, however, perfectly correct is stating that communities should not be intimidated and terrorised and doubtless convoys of vehicles displaying Palestine flags will not be tolerated in certain areas of London while ‘hate’ graffiti will be given a high priority.

Deputy Commissioner Lynne Owens has now produced a statement laying out the Met’s operational stance which strikes a balance between the right to protest and the need to ensure that communities are not intimidated; it is also emphasised that the law in terms of support for proscribed organisations will be enforced.

All police officers will be only too well aware that elements from the hard-left and the far-right plus all sections of the media, will be eager to heap criticism upon a beleaguered Met in the wake of proposed protests this weekend. Not only is a well-attended pro-Palestinian march inevitable but social media is also proclaiming a ‘stop the boats,’ protest in central London.

This will unquestionably be a challenging time for the Met and other forces. Officers, especially those in the Met, will be hoping that in the event of disorder, they won’t be thrown under the ‘IOPC bus,’ while public order commanders will be aware that there may be some difficult, ‘fast-time,’ decisions to be made.

Chris Hobbs is a former Special Branch officer who since the pandemic  has been following protests on behalf of Police Oracle as an observer 

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