Creating people's geographies
The Independent 24 August 2006
Hizbollah has trumped both the UN army and the Lebanese government by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars – most of it almost certainly from Iran – into the wreckage of southern Lebanon and Beirut’s destroyed southern suburbs. Its massive new reconstruction effort – free of charge to all those Lebanese whose homes were destroyed or damaged in Israel’s ferocious five-week assault on the country – has won the loyalty of even the most disaffected members of the Shia community in Lebanon.
Hizbollah has made it clear that it has no intention of disarming under the UN Security Council’s 1701 ceasefire resolution and yesterday afternoon, Major-General Alain Pellegrini, the commander of the UN Interim Force in southern Lebanon – which the Americans and British are relying upon to seize the guerrilla army’s weapons – personally confirmed to me at his headquarters in Naqoura that “the Israelis can’t ask us to disarm Hizbollah”. Describing the ceasefire as “very fragile” and “very dangerous”, he stated that disarming Hizbollah “is not written in the mandate”.
But for now – and in the total absence of the 8,000-strong foreign military force that is intended to join Unifil with a supposedly “robust” mandate – Hizbollah has already won the war for “hearts and minds”. Most householders in the south have received – or are receiving – a minimum initial compensation payment of $12,000 (£6,300), either for new furniture or to cover their family’s rent while Hizbollah construction gangs rebuild their homes. The money is being paid in cash – almost all in crisp new $100 bills – to up to 15,000 families across Lebanon whose property was blitzed by the Israelis, a bill of $180m which is going to rise far higher when reconstruction and other compensation is paid.
In the 20sqkm of Beirut’s southern suburbs which have been destroyed or badly damaged in 35 days of Israeli bombing, 500,000 residents – most of them Shia – lost their homes. But money is being poured in. For example, one Shia owning four floors of an apartment block, Hussein Selim, has already received $42,000 in cash for his possessions and lost furniture. And Hizbollah has pledged to rebuild the entire municipal area from its own – or perhaps Iran’s – funds.
A frightening side to this long-term promise for believers in the UN ceasefire is that Hizbollah has encouraged its Shia population to rent homes in Khalde, south of Beirut, since it intends to delay its entire city construction project for a year – because of its conviction that the ceasefire will break down and that another Israeli-Hizbollah war will only wreck newly built homes.Across the devastation of southern Lebanon, Hizbollah has now visited hundreds of thousands of Shia families for details of their losses. In some cases, Lebanese government officials – largely distrusted by the local population – have also made notes of compensation costs but all the authorities have done so far is to start the repair of water pipes and power lines. I found bulldozers working for Hizbollah’s “Jihad al-Bena” company, clearing rubble from streets and tearing down half-destroyed houses. “We are doing this for nothing at the moment, but we know we will get paid because we trust Sheikh Hassan,” a construction team leader told me. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, has promised to indemnify all survivors.
Driving more than 100 miles across the south of the country yesterday, the sheer enormity of Hizbollah’s task – and of the Lebanese government’s failure – becomes evident. Looking across thegreen countryside of southern Lebanon, the villages appear undamaged as they bask in thesun. But the closer you get, the more you notice vast grey fields of rubble that were once homes. Some villages – Bint Jbeil, for example, and Zibqin – have been half-destroyed.
In Zibqin itself, I found one especially poignant ruin: the bombed remains of a mosque well over 1,000 years old which the Lebanese believe contains the body of Zein Ali Yaqin, son of the Prophet Yacoub – Jacob in the Jewish faith – and grandson of the Prophet Ibrahim, or Abraham. Two of Abraham’s sons – Yacoub and Ismail (Ishmael) – define the split between Islam and Judaism, the former believing God told Abraham to sacrifice Ismail and the latter contending it was Yacoub/Jacob who was to be sacrificed. Zein Ali Yaqin is thus of precious Jewish lineage – yet the casket containing his mortal remains actually moved on the floor of the shrine as Israeli bombs fell outside.
The explosives have blasted down an old façade and tumbled hundreds of rocks from the original outside wall of the green-domed mosque on the slope below, cracking open the interior walls and cascading wreckage on to the floor beside the cloth-covered tomb. “The Israelis did all this to their own man,” Hussein Barakat said as he hobbled down the road below. “Everyone here knows the origin of our little shrine, but look at it now.” Mr Barakat is 69 and was the only villager to remain in Zibqin when the rest of the villagers fled the Israeli bombardment. He has a wound on one finger and has been left half deaf from the sound of explosions.
Bodies of civilians and Hizbollah fighters were still being unearthed from the wreckage of southern Lebanon this week; four brothers, all members of Hizbollah it turned out, died together under Israeli fire in the eastern town of Khiam. Some civilian families searched in vain through the rubble for relatives. In Siddiqin, just east of Qana, I found one shopkeeper who had spent hours trying to discover the ruins of his two shops which had been turned to dust by aerial bombs. But he, too, believed that “Sheikh Hassan” would rebuild his home. A few miles away, I found a 65-year-old woman clambering like a cat over the pancaked roof of her home, looking for her family gold in clefts between the packed concrete.
It is Hizbollah’s army of workers which has been told to rebuild these villages. The guerrilla army’s political and economic organisation will hire the tens of thousands of men to reconstruct a virtual city within Beirut and turn south Lebanon’s wasteland back into the farming and tobacco-growing villages that existed two months ago.