Lebanon running on empty

Marketplace Staff Aug 9, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s not often you get a formal schedule for a war, but the Israeli cabinet obliged today. They voted to push the army farther into Lebanon, and they estimated it’ll take ground troops 30 days to drive Hezbollah north away from the border. In the month that’s gone by already since the fighting started, Israel’s managed to maintain a tough economic blockade. Across Lebanon, deliveries of food, medicine and other supplies have been stopped. Reserves are holding up for now. But Ben Gilbert reports some essentials are running out.

BEN GILBERT: Thirteen-year-old Joseph Shalkey is bouncing like a ping pong ball between gas pumps and cars as angry motorists demand his attention.

GILBERT: Busy huh?

SHALKEY: Yeah it’s very busy, every day.

Joseph grabs the gas nozzle and flips open the gas cover on a waiting car. In the past two hours, he says he’s filled up 150 cars. There are four pumps, and he and every other attendant can service a vehicle about every 30 seconds. That’s because the government has imposed a two-gallon gas limit on each vehicle.

At the pumps, it’s hot, and people are angry. Some have waited hours. Vehicles snake back a mile from the gas station and out of site around a curve on Beirut’s Seafront Boulevard, called the Corniche. 26-year-old bus driver Abdul Razak Abdul has been in line for an hour.

“I needs around 15 gallons of gas to fill the tank,” he says.

Abdul will go from station to station to fill his tank today, and that means a long time in line.

The reason for the rationing is simple: Lebanon imports 95 percent of its gas and it’s running out. The government is conserving the gas by allowing the sale of only about 10 percent of the usual 1.2 million gallons consumed per day.

SAMI HADDAD: “We have enough supplies to last us 10 days.”

That’s Lebanese Minister of Trade and Economy Sami Haddad. The problem is moving it around.

HADDAD:“Obviously with gasoline we are at mercy of the Israeli army. It’s very dangerous, Israel is bombing anything that moves, particularly trucks.”

Across Beirut, the gas lines are everywhere, and they’re affecting everyone. Three well dressed young men pushed a late-model black BMW to one station.

Back on the Corniche., 30-year-old Amr Handalee from Beirut sat sweating in his Red Honda, where he’d been for the past four hours.

AMR HANDALEE: I’m here since 8 a.m. in the morning. I need gas, I need gas. I have half, but I need for emergency, maybe.”

Like Handalee, many Lebanese are filling up their tanks in anticipation of the worst. They want to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice. Handalee lived through Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, but now he has a wife and 4 month old daughter. His jewelry business is wrecked for the summer, and he’s sick of war.

HANDALEE: “I hate it really. From bottom of my heart, I hate this country. I wish I could go out from Lebanon, after this war no more Lebanon. We need 10 years to rebuild this country. If we rebuild our country, if we rebuild it . . . it’s too bad, huh?”

Things begin to look up for Handalee as his car slowly creeps up toward the front of the queue. Soon he’s makes it to the pump. The meter starts going, but then the pump stops. The owner flips a switch and walks away.

HANDALEE: “No more fuel. He went and turned off the drain, and he’s going home.”

The station has run out of gas. Drivers in line are stunned. Handalee grits his teeth. He’s willing to wait around, but there’s no gas truck in sight.

Joseph, the 13 year old pump worker, takes it in stride though. The gas truck was supposed to arrive this morning, but it never came. The truck will come “tomorrow, or after tomorrow,” he says.

In Beirut, I’m Ben Gilbert for Marketplace

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