Hezbollah moves in to rebuild

Marketplace Staff Aug 18, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Half a million refugees have made their way back to southern Lebanon since the cease-fire Monday. You’ve seen the pictures, so you know what they’re finding. The United Nations says 11,000 homes and business were destroyed in that part of the country. Lebanese troops have been deployed to keep the peace. They’ve reached the Israeli border. And they’re finding Hezbollah never really left. It just moved from rockets to rebuilding. Ben Gilbert has more.

BEN GILBERT: Gamal Deeb came back to his shrapnel-scarred hilltop home in the village of Gandaria earlier this week. Rubble filled the street, and three homes next to Deeb’s had been blown to pieces no larger than a brick.

No less than 24 hours after a cease-fire took effect this week, Deeb says he had visitors who offered to help.

GAMAL DEEB [interpreter]: First of all, they come in civilian clothes, like regular guys. They checked my name and said, “OK, we’ll send you the engineering team.” Then the next day, this morning, the engineering team passed by and told me, “We’ll get everything straight.”

The visitors were from Hezbollah. And they’re doing what the party’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, promised to do in a televised speech on Saturday: To help rebuild what he estimated to be 15,000 homes and businesses in need of repair or reconstruction.

In hundreds of villages and towns across the south, smoke was still rising from the rubble when Hezbollah arrived with bulldozers to start clearing the streets.

Here in the south’s main commercial hub, Nabatiyeh, there’s no sign of government-backed reconstruction. But Zuhair Nahalay, who works for Lebanon’s Ministry of Agriculture, said Hezbollah contacted him shortly after the fighting ceased. Soon bulldozers arrived to clear the rubble from what had been his block of apartments and shops. Then came civil engineers and people to help his family find housing.

ZUHAIR NAHALAY [interpreter]: In the beginning, they’ll give us $10,000 to rent a place to stay. During this one year . . . they will build a new house for him, and then they come back to their own house. The Lebanese government, they don’t even come and check the bombing area. But Hezbollah come and check and they will give us money. Today or tomorrow.

Hezbollah has filled the gap left by the weak Lebanese central government for years. In southern Lebanon, the party runs schools, hospitals, and provides social services. And city governments in the region are closely connected, if not dominated, by the party.

In Nabatiyeh’s city hall, a Hezbollah calendar sits on a desk in one office, and a poster celebrating the party’s military wings hangs on a wall of announcements.

MUSTAFA BATREDDINE: We work like a team here.

Dr. Mustafa Batreddine, the mayor of Nabatiyeh, says more than 400 shops and residences have been destroyed or damaged in this town of 60,000 people. He says Hezbollah is the main force behind reconstruction in a region with deep distrust of the central government.

BATREDDINE: If you let the government do it, [it will be for their pocket]. The people trust Hezbollah. No corruption. No lies. They live with everybody. They are strong. Some other politics party, they work for lies and for the money.

The Hezbollah reconstruction wing is called “The Jihad Al Beenah,” or “The Holy War for Building.” These five-member teams are based in each of the hundreds of villages in southern Lebanon. They make their rounds with tape measures and clipboards in hand.

BATREDDINE: They have a list, they have specialist, engineer, they know cost of the wall, material, they know cost of all stuff, furniture . . . They know everything.

The teams also seem to be everywhere, but you’d be hard-pressed to actually identify them. Nabatiyeh’s mayor says that they are a part of the social fabric.

BATREDDINE: They are from the country. They are from our sons here. The normal people, the poor people, the nice people, the intellectual people — you have everything in Hezbollah. This is the society.

This easy maneuvering by Hezbollah poses a serious challenge to the Lebanese government, which is trying to establish its own legitimacy in southern Lebanon.

While government officials are looking for foreign donors and scrambling to launch the reconstruction, Hezbollah is already hard at work.

In Nabatiyeh, I’m Ben Gilbert for Marketplace.

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