A State within a State The Footrace to Rebuild Lebanon

The militant Islamic group Hezbollah has seized an opportunity to show how much power it still wields by assuming a key role in the Lebanese reconstruction effort. With its generous assistance programs, the organization is shoring up its influence among the country's Shiites.

Ruins in southern Beirut

Ruins in southern Beirut

Mohammed al-Safadi is sitting in a rubble-filled wasteland wiping the dust from his forehead. The Lebanese minister of public works and transport is visiting Haret Hreik, one of Beirut's southern suburbs. He seems out of place in his elegant suit and his smooth-shaven, aristocratic face. Behind his back, huge chunks of concrete crash to the ground about every five minutes. Bulldozers and cranes maneuver among the ruins of bombed-out high-rise buildings as workers wearing facemasks scurry through the rubble. The effort to rebuild Haret Hreik, a Hezbollah stronghold, is clearly in full swing.

Hezbollah has set up a tent city for volunteers near the demolished building that once housed its propaganda TV station, Al-Manar. The tent city serves as both the command center for the cleanup operation in Haret Hreik and as a place to receive political guests. Red banners proclaiming the militia's "divine victory" hang everywhere. The words "Made in the USA" are emblazoned on a poster lying on a pile of rubble. In this neighborhood, Israel is seen as the Americans' henchman.

When the TV crews finally arrive in the tent, Safadi gets up from his plastic chair. "The resistance movement is doing great work," he says in praise of the Shiite Hezbollah party. "Cooperation with government institutions is going very well."

Parts of Lebanon are in ruins once again, in a country that had only recently recovered from a 15-year civil war and the lengthy period of stagnation that followed. During its invasion, the Israeli army demolished both Hezbollah's bases in the south and infrastructure throughout the entire country. While Israel withdraws and the United Nations assembles its 15,000-troop peacekeeping contingent, Hezbollah and the Lebanese government are caught up in a race to lead the rebuilding effort.

Hezbollah has multiple faces in Lebanon. On the one hand, it is a militant organization that undermines the government's authority and attacks Israel with its Katyusha rockets, thereby boosting its popularity ratings in the Arab world. On the other hand, Hezbollah is a charitable organization that is gaining respect and influence with its generous aid to Shiites in the multi-denominational country.

Hezbollah has opened assistance offices throughout the country to coordinate the cleanup work and building repair services it offers war victims free of charge. According to the Shiite militia's propaganda machine, each of 5,000 families made homeless by the war has received a $12,000 grant. The effort seems to be paying off, as more than 35 percent of the capital's southern suburbs are apparently inhabitable once again.

The Lebanese government, loath to allow Hezbollah to claim all the credit for reconstruction, is sending politicians like Safadi to put in appearances in Beirut's demolished neighborhoods. Prime Minister Fuad Siniora has promised to pay every citizen who has lost his apartment or house $33,000 from the national treasury.

Hezbollah assistance offices have been opened across the country.

Hezbollah assistance offices have been opened across the country.

Arab governments, the United States and the European Union have put together a "multi-billion dollar package" to rebuild Lebanon as quickly as possible. Private charities, such as the Hariri Foundation established by murdered former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as well as political parties, like the Free Patriotic Movement of General Michael Aun, a Christian, are also angling to do their part.

But Hassan Karut, an elderly resident of Haret Hreik, is skeptical that these big promises will ever materialize. The old man has good reason to be mistrustful. "No one has ever paid attention to us Shiites here," he says, "except Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah." The fact that Lebanon, a country divided along religious lines, has such a weak government only encourages the 1.2 million Shiites, the country's largest and poorest population group, to place its bets on Hezbollah rather than the government or the West.

Money from Iran

Nasrallah's charitable activities are largely funded by money from Iran. This enables Hezbollah, which the new UN contingent will supposedly keep in check in the future, to continue to strengthen its influence in Lebanon now that the war has ended. It will likely remain a "state within a state," according to Beirut resident and Hezbollah expert Michael Young. "It will not abandon its military identity," says Young, "and it will hold onto its weapons for the foreseeable future. Any decision to the contrary will probably be reached only in Tehran."

For the first time, the Lebanese prime minister conceded last week that the government has been helpless until now. The government's "authority over the various parts and various activities of the country, again in certain aspects, became very insignificant," Siniora said in an interview with Canadian broadcaster CBC.

Although the Lebanese army is now stationed in the south, Siniora continues to reject disarming Hezbollah by force. "It's through dialogue that we have to reach that point," Siniora told the CBC, reiterating the administration's mantra -- one in which no one in Lebanon or abroad has any faith whatsoever.

Two of Siniora's cabinet ministers are Hezbollah members and have threatened to resign if the prime minister insists on going it alone and disarming the organization. Their threat apparently had its desired effect -- as a deterrent. "The consequences would be new elections and further destabilization of Lebanon," says a close associate of Siniora. "That's the last thing this country needs at this point."


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