Through charity, Hizbullah charms Lebanon

Fatima Badran's favorite poet is William Wordsworth.

"Maybe we are against the morals, the culture of the West, but not the language," says Mrs. Badran, who teaches English at a school run by Hizbullah, the Shiite Muslim guerrilla movement fighting Israeli troops in southern Lebanon.

In a classroom that feels a world away from the combat zone, her favorite sonnets and English adages are neatly penned on a bright palette of construction paper. The rainbow of colors seem a sharp contrast to the black cloak that envelopes all but a few fair inches between her eyebrows and her chin.

Now, more than ever, the face of Hizbullah is unpredictable. On April 18, as Israel formally told the United Nations it will unilaterally withdraw its troops by July 7 from southern Lebanon, the raison d'tre for Hizbullah's military activities appears to be months away from extinction.

But it is in schools like this one that Hizbullah has been investing its resources as it builds up a base of supporters beholden to the group's Islamic sociopolitical agenda.

In the vast network of womb-to-tomb services that put Hizbullah - or Party of God - on the map as the agency that gets things done, low-tuition with high-equality education is an important one. And in the Al-Mahdi School - named for a Shiite imam - Mrs. Badran plays an honored role.

Badran's husband, a Hizbullah guerrilla, was killed in 1997 in a clash with Israeli soldiers, leaving her with a month-old baby. Now, as the widow of a shahid, or martyr, she takes care of her aging mother and young daughter with Hizbullah support.

"People like us are supported financially and emotionally by all of Hizbullah. They visit us periodically and make sure we're OK," says Badran, whose black chador is dusted with patches of white chalk after a day of lessons at the blackboard.

Except for its dress code, Al-Mahdi's wide, clean hallways and well-equipped classrooms look much like those of a middle-class school in an American suburb.

Built eight years ago, the school now has some 1,000 students, who get an education at a fraction of the cost they would elsewhere. A room full of up-to-date desktops and a modern science lab provide an attractive alternative to crumbling government schools which haven't enjoyed maintenance or new materials in decades. In them, classrooms are so packed beyond capacity that many students are turned away. Those who can afford it send their children to private schools, where tuition is about triple of what Hizbullah charges.

But most important, says Badran, the state school system - serving Lebanon's many religious sects - leaves Islam's holy text, the Koran, out of the curriculum. Growing up during the country's 15-year civil war, she says, brought her closer God.

"When people suffer a lot, they go back to Allah," she says. "And people have more opportunities to do that now because a lot of the Islamic institutions we have here didn't exist 10 years ago."

In the spectrum of Middle East politics, Hizbullah is viewed through different lenses. The US has logged it on the State Department's list of terrorist groups. To Israel, Hizbullah is an inferior if pesky militia that has nonetheless managed to inflict painful casualties on its soldiers and on the residents of northern Israel, who periodically come under Katyusha rocket attack. For Syria, Hizbullah is leverage to reclaim the Golan Heights lost to Israel in 1967. And for Iran, the group's financier, Hizbullah is the guardian of local Shiites - now estimated to be the largest religious minority in Lebanon.

But for many in Lebanon, Hizbullah isn't about geopolitics - it's about staples like geometry and grain. And, on the verge of declaring victory, Hizbullah's profile has perhaps never been higher.

In poor neighborhoods throughout south Beirut, Hizbullah flags flutter at intersections and painted portraits of the movement's leaders seem more common than traffic lights. Green palm fronds and colored tinsel decorations, set out to welcome Muslim pilgrims returning from their Islamic pilgrimage of hajj, deck the alleyways like Christmas in springtime.

But so too are the symbols of Hizbullah visible on the city's more secular and affluent turf to the north, where Lebanese of all denominations appear to give Hizbullah credit for providing social services the government is unable to - and for driving Israel to the brink of withdrawal.

And across the country, everything from television news to healthcare is available courtesy of Hizbullah. In the Bekaa Valley, where the group enjoys increasing support, it recently opened a credit bank for poor farmers, who until then had nowhere to go for loans to buy seeds.

"There's a continuing initiative by Hizbullah to provide more services," says Judith Harik, an expert on Hizbullah at the American University of Beirut (AUB). "People all over would love to have the state provide them because they don't want to be beholden politically, but the state doesn't do it."

Without an enemy on Lebanese soil to rouse support, however, many analysts wonder whether Hizbullah will be able to maintain its current level of funding, which one Lebanese source estimates to be about $20 million a month from Iran alone.

"Hizbullah will face a challenge - how it's going to respond to maintaining its social welfare programs," says AUB political scientist Nizar Hamza.

Meanwhile, generous funding keeps many loyal to the cause. In south Lebanon, where the daily sounds of Israeli artillery serves as a morning alarm clock, people often weigh a village's worth by its number of martyrs. Heading home on the road from school as she points out Israeli positions in the hilltops, Badran explains that her village, Deir Zahrani, has four martyrs. But her husband was the only one among them with a wife and child, making her something of a heroine.

On the wall of each room of her home is a framed, poster-sized photograph of her husband - and on her finger, the wedding ring that says she's still his. She has no plans to remarry, although Islam says she could do so after four months as a widow. "I have my work," she says, "I have my daughter to take care of. I'm proud to be the wife of a martyr."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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