By Petula Dvorak and Robert Samuels
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Thousands of people came from across town, across the river or across the country to circle the White House yesterday in a passionate demonstration supporting Lebanon, the country at the center of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.
Hundreds of red-white-and-green Lebanese flags bearing the country's emblematic cedar tree waved beneath Lafayette Square's canopy of elms as demonstrators demanded a cease-fire, many of them mourning their war-ravaged homeland.
"There are a lot of kids, a lot of women dying, and the amazing thing is no one is doing anything about it," said Hassan Alaouie, 42, who traveled with his wife and two children from Dearborn, Mich., to attend the rally. "This is the least we can do." Alaouie, who works for a medical billing company, came to the United States from a border village in Lebanon 20 years ago, but much of his family is still there. His brother lost his home in Beirut to an Israeli missile, and his parents had to flee to a safe house in the north.
By Washington standards, yesterday's event did not equal protests that swelled with hundreds of thousands of participants. Organizers estimated "tens of thousands," but law enforcement officials, who no longer make official crowd counts, estimated the crowd at less than 10,000.
The rally was held on the day that Hezbollah and the Lebanese government accepted with reservations a cease-fire declared by the United Nations to end the month-long conflict. The Israeli cabinet is to vote on the cease-fire today.
The primary organizer was the ANSWER coalition, a left-wing group that has sponsored numerous antiwar rallies that often attract socialists and anarchists. The National Council of Arab Americans and the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation also were sponsors.
Most of the people at the White House yesterday were Muslim families and students, who took breaks in the shade to feed children or bow toward Mecca for noon prayers.
"We came with seven buses from Ohio. We drove all night," said Julia Shearson, director of the Ohio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in Cleveland.
Shearson, a convert to Islam, said she brought her 5-year-old daughter, Dalal Alaai, because she fears for her future. "We're very frightened of the escalation in this conflict," Shearson said.
For about two hours before the march, thousands of protesters gathered near the stage in Lafayette Square. Cedars were painted on faces and T-shirts; hair was dyed in the colors of the Lebanese flag and hundreds of Palestinian flags and banners were waved.
Speakers decried the actions of Israel and the United States, which they described as an occupation, and proclaimed solidarity with the civilians caught in the crossfire of the conflicts in the Middle East.
The crowd grew most agitated when speakers denounced President Bush's references to Islam.
"Mr. Bush: Stop calling Islam 'Islamic fascism,' " said Esam Omesh, president of the Muslim American Society, prompting a massive roar from the crowd. He said there is no such thing, "just as there is no such thing as Christian fascism."
By early afternoon, the march wound its way around the White House. As the marchers turned onto 15th Street NW, they encountered about two dozen counter-protesters.
"There is no other God but Jesus!" shouted one of the counter-protesters. He held a megaphone in one hand, a Bible in the other.
The crowd shouted back: "Rah, rah, Hezbollah!" and "Long live Hezbollah!"
Syed Hussain, 19, of Columbia carried a neon green sign that read: "Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization."
"They're just defending themselves," Hussain said. "I hope this rally helps to show people that, so when they see us shouting 'Hezbollah,' they know what it means."
Jerry Scheer, 46, watched with his hands on his hips.
"I've never seen anything like this. I'm from Kansas," said Scheer, of Wichita, who expressed his displeasure with the rally. "But this is the only country in the world that would allow them to do this."
Staff writers Sandhya Somashekhar and Martin Weil contributed to this report.