Gaza protest to draw record crowd to US embassy in London

Commemorations for war dead and a demonstration against Gaza present Met Police with major public order headache

Black Lives Matter protesters outside the US embassy in Vauxhall, London, in 2020. Getty Images
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America's tower block embassy has been tucked away in relative obscurity in a quiet part of London since it opened six years ago, but this weekend it will be thrust into the spotlight during the city's pro-Palestinian protest.

The latest weekly demonstration in the UK capital is expected to draw up to half a million protesters, making it the biggest crowd yet to assemble in the enclave of luxury apartment buildings south of the Thames.

Built at a cost of $1 billion, the modern glass building is meant to resemble a crystalline cube, which Americans say embodies the "core democratic values of transparency, openness and equality".

Once derided as "off location” by former president Donald Trump, who refused to take part in its opening ceremony, the embassy in Nine Elms will finally grab the world's attention as the culmination of the most controversial protest march yet against the Israel-Gaza war.

Organisers have been working on the plans for a month even though the date coincides with Armistice Day, the official commemoration of the end of the First World War.

Throughout that weekend the UK remembers its war dead, but police have said the legal threshold for banning the pro-Palestine march cannot be met. The UK government disputes this.

A compromise has been offered whereby the marchers avoid the Cenotaph war memorial, the focal point of commemorations, and instead make their way across the Thames to the US Embassy.

The march will be the fourth one held in London on consecutive weekends since the Israel-Gaza war broke out and the events have become increasingly controversial.

Given the close ties between the US and the UK, the embassy has huge symbolic status and London's Metropolitan Police will be aware that any confrontation with demonstrators will be beamed across the world.

Graham Wettone, a former Met officer and expert in public order policing, told the The National that the force will have carefully planned the route the marchers will take to the embassy and will be helped by it being an “island site” that can be ringed with officers.

“The difficulties you have is no event organiser can ever guarantee that everybody on their march is actually going to behave and abide by whatever conditions the police impose,” he said.

Nine Elms, where the embassy is located, is an area just south the river that has been extensively redeveloped in recent years, with tall buildings now dominating the skyline.

The Americans moved there in 2017 from an imposing building in Grosvenor Square, central London.

A moat, the first built in London since medieval times, sits at the front of the current embassy, doubling up as protection from a terrorist attack and a pleasing visual feature.

There has yet to be a repeat of the scenes outside the Grosvenor Square embassy in 1968 when protests against the Vietnam War descended into running battles with police.

A demonstration by the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 featured some pushing and shoving, but feelings aroused by the situation in Gaza and America’s long-standing support for Israel mean Saturday’s protest presents the biggest challenge for the Met since 1968.

Mr Wettone said police preparations will have been extensive. “The US embassy is a target that will have to be secured," he said.

"When there are public events, you go through various scenarios asking ‘what if someone does [or] tries this’ but it’s a very well-protected premises.

“They have their own internal security and are more than capable of locking their building down and securing it properly, as they did at Grosvenor Square. So potentially there could be disorder but the police are well-versed in working with the US Embassy.”

Ahead of the march, US Ambassador Jane Hartley said Israel had a right to defend itself, in accordance with international law, while reinforcing calls by Secretary of State Antony Blinken for “pauses” to allow aid to enter Gaza.

“We’ve made it very clear we care deeply about one, humanitarian aid getting in, two, the release of the hostages, and three, Israel obviously has a right to defend itself,” she told CNN.

“This was a terrible, horrific terrorist attack but what Secretary Blinken has also said, that how they defend themselves, is also very, very important and that means in accordance with humanitarian law and the rules of war.”

Ms Hartley said she believed concern was mounting over the humanitarian situation in Gaza and said the US was “working very closely with our allies” to get more aid in.

Britain prepares for Armistice Day - in pictures

Updated: November 10, 2023, 9:27 PM