Lebanon News

U.S. Embassy protest turns violent

Protesters remove barriers set by the police during a demonstration near the U.S. embassy in Awkar, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

AWKAR, Lebanon: Protests at the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon took a violent turn Sunday when Internal Security Forces charged demonstrators after firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons as the crowd was dispersing. The nearly three-hour demonstration in Mount Lebanon’s Awkar, north of Beirut, reflected a broad cross section of voices protesting in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, despite barricades and barbed wire erected by the ISF to keep the demonstrations a kilometer away from the embassy.

“I’m here because Jerusalem will always be the capital of Palestine, no matter what any U.S. president says,” an elderly man wearing a kaffiyeh told The Daily Star, standing a meter from the barricade. A young man holding a Palestinian flag chimed in, saying, “Trump is a dog.”

Upward of 1,000 people waved Palestinian flags, as well as those of Hezbollah; the Syrian Social Nationalist Party; Al-Mourabitoun, a small Sunni group mainly based in Beirut; and the Popular Nasserite Organization.

Clashes with security personnel ebbed and flowed throughout the morning. Close to the security barricade, a majority-male crowd of protesters chanted slogans as piles of burning tires and trash sent thick black plumes of smoke into the air just meters behind them.

Scuffles between protesters and police had already taken place by 10:30 a.m., and several injured people had been carried away from the scene by fellow demonstrators.

Away from the barrier, the crowd was calmer, with demonstrators of all ages and genders chanting and singing as they took smiling selfies with one another. At around 11 a.m., the ISF lobbed a round of tear gas at the crowd and doused demonstrators with water cannons. As people backed off the flashpoint at the front of the crowd, scores of demonstrators gave out lemons and onions to relieve the effects of the chemicals.

“No water, don’t give out water,” one man shouted, warning anyone within earshot that splashing water would only tempt victims to rub their eyes, worsening the reaction.

Despite a security warning issued by the U.S. Embassy Friday informing American citizens not to attend the protest, citing the potential for violence, several American activists defied the notice and demonstrated in solidarity with Palestinians.

“As Americans, we fund the occupation of Palestine and the continued dispossession of the Palestinian people,” Mike Avanzato told The Daily Star. “Especially now with the most openly hostile president to the Palestinian people, I think it’s important to show that the state is not synonymous to the people and that there is resistance in the United States.”

Mike Doyle, another American at the scene, agreed.

“I and other foreign nationals showed up in absolute solidarity with the people of Palestine. As an American, I feel a responsibility to speak out against the Zionist occupation that a government that claims to represent me has enabled since 1948,” he said. “The failure of the international community to trust the voices of Palestinians and always critique their forms of resistance is one of the world’s greatest travesties.” The Americans were joined by foreign nationals of all stripes throughout the protest.

The demonstrations began similarly to others that have taken place across the country since Trump’s Wednesday announcement, with chanting and the burning of effigies of the U.S. president and American and Israeli flags. It took a more sinister turn as residential buildings and small stores in the area were vandalized with spray paint, with local residents peering out at the havoc through windows and cracked doors.

Demonstrators yelled revolutionary chants and songs blasted the barricades for around an hour in a relatively peaceful manner until group leaders called for everyone to return to buses chartered to transport protesters, mainly from the south. But what seemed to be the end of the demonstration was only the beginning of the most violent clashes.

As demonstrators turned their backs to return home, ISF personnel behind the barricade launched a stream of tear gas canisters, sparking chaos in the densely packed, exiting crowds. Unable to escape the chemicals, many were choking, with tears streaming from their eyes while locked in the crowd.

The ISF then proceeded to storm the crowd, beating protesters with batons. One man under the care of the Lebanese Red Cross displayed a circular red welt that appeared to be a rubber bullet wound.

“My friend was beaten because he was helping someone who had lost consciousness,” Lebanese May Makki told The Daily Star hours after the protest. “There was an indiscriminate use of violence, it was very disproportionate [to protesters’ actions]. Literally everyone was getting beaten up. Cameras were broken, cellphones [too]. The police were the ones with the arms and in this huge imbalance of power, we cannot really [criticize] the violence from protesters,” she said.

In addition to civilians, journalists attempting to cover the events were beaten. The Daily Star reporters were struck by the police for taking photos and videos, despite identifying themselves as press.

According to Georges Kettaneh, secretary-general of the Lebanese Red Cross, about 57 people were treated in the field and eight were transported to nearby hospitals.

“We were able to clear the scene in about an hour to an hour and a half,” he told The Daily Star.

An ISF statement said the security agency was “forced to disperse” the crowd. Four Lebanese and six Palestinians were arrested the statement said. In the course of the protest, 19 security members were reported to be wounded, and one was taken to a hospital.

A spokesperson from the U.S. Embassy told The Daily Star that they had no comment on the events.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 11, 2017, on page 3.

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