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Hezbollah rebuilds despite political quagmires, the global recession and sanctions

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The bombing of Beirut’s southern suburbs by Israel in 2006 destroyed and damaged hundreds of buildings.   Now, despite three years of political instability, the global financial crisis and United States sanctions, the Hezbollah-run

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The bombing of Beirut’s southern suburbs by Israel in 2006 destroyed and damaged hundreds of buildings.   Now, despite three years of political instability, the global financial crisis and United States sanctions, the Hezbollah-run organization tasked with reconstruction has nearly completed rebuilding, and the affected neighborhoods are once again buzzing with activity.

Hassan Jeshi, the head of Hezbollah’s reconstruction program, called, Waad, or “The Promise,” says the $400-million effort has so far rebuilt 70 of the 260 buildings destroyed in the war, and repaired nearly all of the more than 1,000 buildings damaged.  He says the project will finish by the end of 2010.

“We passed the half way mark in repairing all the buildings,” Jeshi said. “We are delighted because … people are coming back to their homes, and they are happy.”

Amidst tall yellow cranes and freshly painted new apartment buildings, the sound of hammers, saws and dump trucks has given rise to renewed life in the areas devastated by Israel’s month-long bombing campaign that left thousands of Lebanese homeless.

In two separate walks through Beirut’s southern suburbs, GlobalPost had the chance to interview some of the estimated 800,000 people who live here, all mostly Shiite Muslims.

As an indication of both the extent of Hezbollah’s tight control in the southern suburbs and the group’s paranoia about Israeli spies, this reporter had to obtain permission from Hezbollah to tour the area, and was accompanied on both occasions by a Hezbollah security agent, who stood within earshot of all interviews.

People who live in the southern suburbs (called simply “Daheeyah,” or “suburb,” in Arabic) see Hezbollah as the protector against, rather than instigator of, conflict with Israel.   The group’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12, 2006, sparked the war.

Still, residents blame Israel, and the U.S., for the destruction here.

“Hezbollah is trying to give us better,” said Abbas Dhani, 50, a school principal, as he walked into his newly rebuilt apartment building in the Hart Harayk neighborhood. “They are defending us.  We are near to Israel, so we have to suffer.”

Dhani, like other residents of the southern suburbs whose homes were destroyed, received $12,000 to pay rent for a year  after his home was destroyed and to buy new furniture until Hezbollah could  rebuild.  He says times have been tough since the war and  he lost a good paying job at a school that was also destroyed.  Still, the pain of the last three years is offset by the value of his new rooftop apartment, which has risen from $35,000 to $90,000, he says.

The southern suburbs were originally constructed on the orchards and fields south of Beirut as Shiites from southern Lebanon escaped violence caused by Israeli onslaughts, Christian militias and Palestine Liberation Organization guerillas during Lebanon’s 1975 to 1990 civil war.

As the refugees arrived, the southern suburbs’ concrete apartment towers, most of them about 10 stories high, were hastily constructed, often not meeting the minimum standards for building safety.  Many were built illegally.  Electricity, sewage and water problems still plague the old buildings.

Now, few who are moving back in miss much about their old apartments.  As a subtle message to Israel, the buildings are essentially all being built on the same grid, and the apartment layouts are basically the same.  But there are new, modern additions.

“The building is now built to withstand an earthquake,” said Ilhama Nahlay, a housewife who recently moved into her new apartment.  She spoke on the steps to her building as two men behind her worked on installing the elevator in the tower’s shiny new entranceway.

Waad falls under the responsibility of Hezbollah’s reconstruction wing, called Jihad al Binaa.  Jeshi, the general manager, won’t say from where his organization receives its money, only to say that Arab countries have donated money and materials through NGOs and the Lebanese government.  But Hezbollah is widely believed to receive millions of dollars in funding from Iran every year.   Despite the Islamic Republic’s funding other projects overtly in Lebanon, Jeshi says he doesn’t know anything about it.

“I didn’t take money from Iran, and no one from Iran came here to give us money,” he said. “I have relations with Hezbollah, and if Hezbollah has their relations with Iran, OK, but I have no business with Iran.”

Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., and last year Waad was added to the U.S. Treasury terrorist list.    The designation froze all funds related to the group in the U.S., and made it illegal for Americans to donate money to the project.

“The Waad Project is another example of Hezbollah’s use of deceptive tactics to support its military and terrorist apparatus,” said a treasury department press release quoting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey.  The Treasury Department accuses Waad of reconstructing not just buildings, but Hezbollah’s command bunkers and underground weapons storage facilities.

But Jeshi says the terrorist designation had no effect on the reconstruction funding or progress.  The global recession, he says, has also had little impact.

“The NGOs are still giving money,” he said.  “They are still giving me reconstruction materials, marble, iron, concrete and ceramics.  And still money is coming from the government.”

That last part is a particular sore point between Waad and the Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is a part.  Oil-rich Arabian Gulf countries like Qatar and Kuwait pledged more than a billion dollars to the Lebanese government for reconstruction after the war in 2006.    The aid is still being distributed, but residents who lost homes in the southern suburbs are slated to each receive around $50,000 from the government.

The government refused to give the money directly to Hezbollah, so the group set up Waad to pool the money by having residents sign over their government issued checks to the group.

But residents often don’t acknowledge that the government had anything to do with the reconstruction.  And Waad says only 37 percent of the overall cost, or around $87 million, has come from the government — far less than it says was pledged.    The government says it has distributed more than $150 million to residents in the southern suburbs, and that money is still being disbursed.

Ironically, Jeshi says the biggest challenge to reconstruction has been the steady ebb and flow of laborers from Syria, who have left and come back over the last three years as political tension, and the security situation, fluctuated.  Hezbollah ministers resigned from the government in the wake of the 2006 war, and a power struggle ensued for 18 months, paralyzing the March 14 government and nearly returning the country to civil war.

Between 2006 and 2008, clashes between Hezbollah supporters and rival young men from March 14 often degenerated into riots or armed clashes. Eventually, Hezbollah flexed its military muscles, and briefly took over parts of largely March 14 areas in Beirut by force in May 2008. More than 70 people died in the fighting.

But now Jeshi says that since a political agreement was reached, the country has been stable, and work has progressed quickly.

Still, there are some things that can’t be replaced.  Ilham Nahlay, the housewife whose home was destroyed in 2006, says all her family’s photographs, souvenirs and mementos were lost in the bombing.  And, pointing to her two teenage daughters standing shyly nearby, she says the whole family still fears another onslaught.

“Still now, when they hear about war, they pack their things and want to leave,” she said. “We’re still afraid.”