Pro-Palestine marches to continue after Sunak ‘extremists’ speech

<span>People taking part in a recent Peace March for Palestine in Middlesbrough.</span><span>Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty</span>
People taking part in a recent Peace March for Palestine in Middlesbrough.Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty

Pro-Palestine protests are to continue across the UK on Saturday after Rishi Sunak’s warning that democracy was being targeted by “extremists”.

In an address to the nation on Friday, the prime minister spoke about “forces here at home trying to tear us apart”, in the aftermath of the 7 October attacks by Hamas against Israel.

Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, Sunak said “our democracy itself is a target” and decried a recent “shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality”.

He described the victory of George Galloway in the Rochdale byelection as “beyond alarming”. He also spoke directly to those taking part in pro-Palestine protests, urging organisers to demonstrate peacefully and “with empathy”.

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He said he had told senior police chiefs the public expected the protests to be policed rather than simply managed.

Sunak said: “I want to speak directly to those who choose to continue to protest: don’t let the extremists hijack your marches. You have a chance in the coming weeks to show that you can protest decently, peacefully and with empathy for your fellow citizens.

“Let us prove these extremists wrong and show them that even when we disagree, we will never be disunited.”

The prime minister said a line had to be drawn so that while people should be able to “march and protest with passion” in support of Gaza, demonstrators “cannot call for violent jihad” to justify the actions of the Palestinian militant group Hamas – a group that is proscribed in the UK, which bans any show of support – or “call for the eradication of a state or any kind of hatred or antisemitism”.

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, appeared to back Sunak’s message calling for unity in the country.

He said: “The prime minister is right to advocate unity and to condemn the unacceptable and intimidatory behaviour that we have seen recently.”

Sunak’s comments were also criticised, particularly by those he took aim at, including Galloway, who secured almost 40% of the vote in a constituency that has a strong Muslim population.

Galloway accused Sunak of using Britain’s Muslim population as a “whipping boy” and treating them as “second-class voters”.

“And that is what he was doing in Downing Street today, a despicable and dangerous thing,” said the newly elected MP, who has been a divisive figure in British politics in recent decades.

“And secondly, alarmed at the growing support for Palestine, for Gaza in Britain, the attempt is being made to paint these peaceful demonstrators – almost always demonstrating without a single arrest being made, without so much as a paper cup being dropped – they are trying to conflate peaceful democratic protest in Britain with some kind of mob, with some kind of violence and intimidation.”

The Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, said: “The British people will take no lessons from a prime minister and Conservative party who have sowed the seeds of division for years.”

Ben Jamal, the director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, responded to the prime minister’s address by suggesting he “look in the mirror” and expel some senior MPs from his party.

Posting on X, Jamal said: “So Rishi Sunak wants to deal with ‘extremists’. Maybe he should start with politicians, political commentators and religious leaders who support a state, on trial for genocide, in its mass slaughter, and deliberate creation of famine. Not those protesting against it.

“As for his ire at those who seek to divide us, does he ever look in the mirror, or around his cabinet table? Come back when you’ve kicked Suella Braverman, Robert Jenrick [and] Michael Gove out. That’s just for starters.”

Many of the protests this weekend are directed against Barclays Bank, which the group claims holds “substantial financial ties with arms companies supplying weapons and military technology to Israel”.

Branches of the bank will be the focus of protests on high streets from Abergavenny, south Wales, to Worthing, West Sussex, according to the group.