LONDON (AP) — Britain’s interior minister on Thursday accused the country’s largest police force of being more lenient toward pro-Palestinian demonstrators than other groups, deepening a political feud sparked by the Israel-Hamas war.
In a highly unusual attack on the police, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said London’s Metropolitan Police force was ignoring lawbreaking by “pro-Palestinian mobs.” She described demonstrators calling for a cease-fire in Gaza as “hate marchers.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was under growing pressure to fire Braverman, a divisive figure popular with the authoritarian wing of the governing Conservative Party. Sunak’s spokesperson, Max Blain, said Braverman’s article had not been approved by the prime minister’s office before publication, but that Sunak still had full confidence in the home secretary.
Pro-Palestinian protests have been held in London and other British cities every weekend since the war began more than a month ago. The government has criticized organizers for planning a march on Saturday because it is Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I, when many in Britain pause to remember victims of war.
The march is a day before the main Remembrance Sunday commemorations, when King Charles III, senior politicians, diplomats, military leaders and veterans are to attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph war memorial in central London. The planned route does not pass close to the monument, which is steps from Parliament.
Sunak has criticized planned protests on Remembrance weekend as “provocative and disrespectful.” But after summoning police chief Mark Rowley for talks on Wednesday, Sunak said the government backed “the right to peacefully protest. And the test of that freedom is whether our commitment to it can survive the discomfort and frustration of those who seek to use it, even if we disagree with them.”
That appeared to end the dispute, but Braverman escalated it dramatically with an article in the Times of London newspaper. She accused the police of acting more leniently toward pro-Palestinian demonstrators and Black Lives Matter supporters than to right-wing protesters or soccer hooligans.
Braverman said “there is a perception that senior police officers play favorites when it comes to protesters,” and called demonstrations calling for a cease-fire in Gaza “an assertion of primacy by certain groups,” particularly Islamic extremists, “of the kind we are more used to seeing in Northern Ireland,” an apparent reference to demonstrations by Irish republican groups.
More than 3,600 people died in 30 years of violence involving Irish republicans, British loyalists and U.K security forces in Northern Ireland. Many politicians there called Braverman’s comparison insensitive and inaccurate.
Colum Eastwood, leader of the Irish nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, said Braverman showed “ignorance of the conditions faced by the civilian population in Gaza, ignorance of the role of the Met police, ignorance of the complex history and traditions of marching and protest in Northern Ireland.”
“She has managed to offend just about everyone – no mean feat in a divided society,” he said.
Opposition politicians said Sunak’s unwillingness to fire Braverman showed weakness on the prime minister’s part.
“He must know that this isn’t the way that a home secretary should behave,” said opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer. “He must know in himself that the role of responsible government is to reduce tension and to support police in the difficult decisions they have to make.”
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken part in the Saturday demonstrations since the war began, sparked by Hamas’ deadly incursion into Israel on Oct. 7. The protests are organized by left-wing groups and Muslim organizations. There also have been large rallies supporting Israel and demanding Hamas free the hostages it seized in its Oct. 7 attack.
Police say there have been almost 200 arrests across London related to the conflict, including 98 for suspected antisemitic offenses and 21 for alleged anti-Muslim offenses.
Protests can be banned in Britain only if there is a risk of serious disorder. Police said that threshold has not been met, though they are worried that “breakaway groups intent on fueling disorder” may show up, including far-right activists.
The home secretary is responsible for law and order and immigration policy, including the government’s stalled plan to send asylum-seekers who arrive in Britain in boats on a one-way trip to Rwanda.
Braverman, a 43-year-old lawyer, has become a leader of the party’s populist wing by advocating ever-tougher curbs on migration and a war on human rights protections, liberal social values and what she has called the “tofu-eating wokerati.”
Critics say Braverman is trying to position herself for a party leadership contest that could come if the Conservatives lose power in an election expected next year. Opinion polls for months have put the party 15 to 20 points behind Labour.
Countries around the world have grappled with how to handle the strong emotions stirred by the Middle East conflict. France’s interior minister last month issued an order to local authorities nationwide to ban pro-Palestinian protests, citing risks to public order. France’s highest administrative authority overturned the blanket ban a week later and said decisions should be made locally, based on risks to public order.
Since then, France has seen several pro-Palestinian protests, some authorized and peaceful, some banned and quickly dispersed by police.
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.