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September 13, 2006

Hezbollah Ahead of Lebanese Govt in Reconstruction


by Jackson Allers

BEIRUT - Sectarian political fissures are widening in Lebanon nearly one month after a United Nations brokered cease-fire went into affect, due in part to a muted political battle being waged internally between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government as both attempt to show displaced Lebanese residents that they are committed to rebuilding their lives and their homes.

This delicate political game of gaining populist allegiance through Lebanon's post-conflict reconstruction period is pitting Hezbollah's construction wing, Jihad al-Binaa, against Lebanese governmental and quasi-governmental reconstruction organizations like the Lebanese Civil Defense, the Development and Reconstruction Council, and the Higher Relief Council.

According to analysts such as American University Professor Judith Swain Harik, Jihad al-Binaa has won the initial battle of hearts and minds in large part because they are the most experienced in the reconstruction field in Lebanon.

Jihad al-Binaa, which translates to "reconstruction campaign" first started in Iran after the Iranian revolution, and was exported to Lebanon in the early 1980s to deal with reconstruction needs in the neglected Shia areas of Lebanon.

"This is an interesting organization because it is chock full of professionals – contractors, engineers, architects, demographic experts – anything to do with reconstruction," Harik told IPS. "And because many of them were educated abroad and came back to a depressed job market, Hezbollah had a huge pool of professionals to choose from for this reconstruction work."

Indeed, representatives for Jihad al-Binaa estimate that there are more than 2,000 engineers and architects involved in the monumental task of assessing the huge swaths of destruction throughout southern Lebanon, the southern suburbs of Beirut, and in pockets of northeastern Lebanon such as Baalbek. That number is likely much higher given the fact that Jihad al-Binaa has received hundreds of volunteers from both the professional and civilian ranks – many of whom are not Hezbollah members.

Since the Aug. 14 cease-fire, Jihad al-Binaa head Kassem Aleq said that of the more than 15,000 houses affected in southern Lebanon, more than 80 percent have been surveyed for structural damage and for assessing what type of compensation Jihad al-Binaa would be able to offer to the affected families.

"We are cooperating with the government in the south, and it is going very well. We hope to be finished with damage assessment in the south by mid-September," Aleq told IPS.

At the Sasawia al-Mahadi school near the Palestinian camp of Shatilla in south Beirut, Jihad al-Binaa has spent the last four weeks operating its administrative hub for the residents of the Shia Muslim-dominated southern suburb of Beirut, al-Dahiyeh.

Foot traffic from Dahiyeh residents has lessened considerably since the initial days of the cease-fire, due in large part to the fact that according to Kassem Aleq, Jihad al-Binaa has finished damage assessments in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

In Dahiyeh alone, Jihad al-Binaa determined that there were more than 19,000 destroyed or partially destroyed apartment units.

Standing in the bombed out ruins of her son's apartment in Harat Hreik, the symbolic center of Dahiyeh, Rana Moussawi said that she had received $10,500 to cover rent payments for her son's apartment.

"If it wasn't for Jihad al-Binaa, my family and I would be sleeping in the streets right now," said Moussawi.

Like Moussawi, thousands of Shia Muslim Lebanese whose houses were the primary targets of Israeli air strikes over a 33-day bombing campaign, Jihad al-Binaa has acted to compensate displaced families with rent and furniture subsidies that are determined according to the assessments of the Jihad al-Binaa engineers.

In an auditorium of the Sasawia al-Mahadi school, detailed maps of Dahiyeh are hung up and buildings color-coded to indicate damage assessments. Red for completely destroyed buildings. Green for partially destroyed buildings.

Moussawi's building was color-coded green.

Others like Imad Khalil had variations of the same story. Khalil was sure that he had lost the thousands of dollars sunk into his residential business, Imad's Salon for Men, in the Bir al-Abd section of Dahiyeh. It was one of the hundreds of businesses damaged during the unremitting barrage of Israeli missiles fired into Dahiyeh.

Like many of his Shia friends living and working in Beirut, they had no allegiance to Hezbollah before the conflict. They lived secular lives like much of the Lebanese youth of Beirut – clubbing and watching the latest pop videos. But, seven days into the cease-fire, a Jihad al-Binaa engineer showed up to survey the damage to his salon and one week later, Khalil was given a green card and told to go to the Shaheed (Martyr's) Institute to collect his money.

"They gave me almost $5,000, and I really believe that what they gave me was accurate to what was damaged during the air strikes," Khalil said. "I must say that this gives me a whole different impression of Hezbollah."

Khalil opened up for business this week after making the necessary repairs to his shop.

Critics of Hezbollah such as Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze community in Lebanon, question where Hezbollah is getting the more than $190 million dollars it is said to have in its coffers to compensate the mostly Shia victims of the war.

Few analysts doubt that at least some of this money is coming from Iran, but Kassem Aleq, head of Jihad al-Binaa, told IPS that the money had mostly been raised by donor campaigns inside Lebanon and from its diaspora in Europe and Africa.

Still, Jumblatt and others in the staunchly anti-Syrian March 14 coalition say that the fact that Hezbollah is compensating people autonomously is a further indication that Hezbollah seeks to remain outside of the Lebanese national framework.

Analysts like Judith Harik say that Jihad al-Binaa has spent years outside this framework, developing its relationship to the Shia community in ways that the government was unwilling to entertain.

She points to the efforts of Jihad al-Binaa to modernize and rebuild the dilapidated school sanitary facilities in Dahiyeh in the 1980s and Jihad al-Binaa's work in single-handedly revitalizing the water and sewage systems to the southern suburbs in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

Harik says there are several obvious parallels to the first Israeli invasion in 1982 and the recent conflict with Israel. Both invasions left the Lebanese government cash-strapped, and secondly, there is a parallel in the response of the government in attending to the needs of a displaced Shia community that was a victim of the Israeli aggression.

"Successive governments leading up to now, like the [former prime minister Rafik] Hariri administration have put building priorities on revitalizing the downtown area of Beirut, and money was not going to the southern suburbs and to peripheral areas of the country like the Bekaa valley and southern Lebanon" Harik said.

"Jihad al-Binaa has simply filled the vacuums left by the government because there has been little political will to deal with revitalizing areas of the infrastructure that were seen as being too hard to deal with," she added.

Among the issues faced by both the government and by Jihad al-Binaa in the south is the fact that little can be done to assess the needs of families who have yet to return to their homes.

Although Jihad al-Binaa has compensated a great many families in the south, it is in this area where the populist battle will be most heavily fought in the coming months.

But cracks in the Lebanese government's veneer of unity surrounding the reconstruction effort are showing up. Fadl Shalaq, head of the Development and Reconstruction Council, resigned from his post Aug. 23 because of what he told a local paper was his disagreement with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's reconstruction plan.

Analysts say Shalaq's resignation puts into question the transparency of the government's reconstruction plan, especially when considering the nearly $1 billion raised during a donor conference in Sweden last week.

In the meantime, Jihad al-Binaa says it is happy to see the government stepping in to take responsibility for reconstruction and in compensating residents of destroyed areas of Lebanon.

"We want to let the government do its job, and we [Hezbollah] believe it is the job of the government to rebuild Lebanon," said Jihad al-Binaa head Aleq. "Until then, we will step up our cooperation with the people in trying to find solutions. Hopefully the job will be done soon."

(Inter Press Service)

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Jackson Allers writes for Inter Press Service.

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