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Beirut Crowd Protests Trump Recognizing Jerusalem As Israel's Capital

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start the program today in the Middle East, where President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has been reverberating. After days of relative calm, a demonstration turned violent outside the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon this morning. There were clashes between protesters and riot police who used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. NPR's Ruth Sherlock was at the demonstration, and she's with us now from Beirut. Ruth, thanks so much for joining us.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: First, would you tell us a bit about this protest?

SHERLOCK: So members of different Lebanese and Palestinian political parties and students and other protesters had gathered on this road near the U.S. Embassy. And people were generally waving Palestinian flags and chanting the Palestinian national anthem. And some people I spoke to there were quite positive. One man thought that President Trump's decision was actually a good thing in the sense that it has inspired the Arab world to be more active in getting behind the Palestinian cause. But there was also a lot of anger. And here's what the speeches sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: So at one point in his speech, this man says, remembrance is resistance - with your loudest voice, live and die for Palestine.

MARTIN: How did all this escalate, though, from speeches to violence?

SHERLOCK: Yes, there was an altercation right at the front of the protest next to where the police were behind a barrier and in riot gear. And they started firing tear gas and rubber bullets and water cannons into the crowd. We were there, and I started to record what was happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

SHERLOCK: So we just ran away because the fight got very close to us. We both got tear gassed. It was coming to the end of the protest. And suddenly, there was a commotion at the front, and police started firing tear gas into the crowd. Some people seemed to throw rocks back at the police. There's a man carrying a woman who seems to have been hit very badly with tear gas. She's screaming.

MARTIN: So it seemed to get pretty intense there - a lot of anger and a lot of frustration. But you were telling us earlier that this is actually a rare incidence of violence among the protests that have taken place in the region so far. Do I have that right?

SHERLOCK: Yes, absolutely. And, you know, Lebanon is a very relevant country for the situation. It hosts some half a million Palestinian refugees. And so there have been lots of protests here but mostly in Palestinian refugee camps, and they've remained largely peaceful. And actually, across the Middle East, the reactions haven't been as violent as some people worried about. The response has mostly been a diplomatic one.

So the Lebanese government is one of several countries in the region who has condemned this decision. And foreign ministers from several of these countries have now called on the United States to reverse it. And they've said that there should be a U.N. Security Council meeting about this. But, of course, the U.S. has power to veto any situation that arises in the Security Council. So it's largely rhetoric.

That rhetoric escalated over the weekend. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, has been accusing Israel of having no values other than - and I'm using his words - occupation and plunder. So U.S. officials are urging Middle Eastern leaders to try to calm the rhetoric and calm people down. They remind people that this decision to call Jerusalem the capital of Israel - it doesn't actually impinge - or it's not meant to impinge - on any peace talks or prejudge any borders that might come out of those peace talks.

MARTIN: And what about Israel? Has the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoken out today?

SHERLOCK: Yes, he has. He actually spoke at a press conference in France, and he said that Palestinians should come to grips with Jerusalem being Israel's capital. And he said - the way he framed it was the sooner they do that, the sooner a peace deal can be reached.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock joining us from Beirut. Thank you.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.