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Hizbullah shifts focus from war front to home front

In the second day of the cease-fire, many Lebanese returned home to find Hizbullah vowing to help.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2006


With perfectly pressed robes, the Hizbullah cleric stood out amid the grimy rubble as he tried to give hope to those Lebanese shocked by the destruction of their homes.

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"How do we get this help from Hizbullah?" asks one woman, referring to the promise by Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to repair and rebuild for owners of 15,000 destroyed homes.

"Where are you staying?" he replies in the manner of a seasoned bureaucrat. He says the family should fill out a claim form listing address, size of house, scale of damage, and furniture lost.

"You will get money in an envelope," reassures the black-turbaned cleric, who gave his name as Sayyed Nasri Nassar. "Don't worry, our people are coming to you."

The 34 days of conflict between Israel and Hizbullah uprooted an estimated 900,000 Lebanese and Israeli bombardment left apocalyptic scenes of destruction across Hizbullah strongholds of mainly Shiite south Lebanon and southern districts of Beirut.

But one day after a cease-fire, and just hours after Nasrallah promised that "the brothers, who are your brothers" would take on the reconstruction, Hizbullah's extensive social services system shifted from a war footing to sizing up the huge rebuild task.

Many non-Shiite Lebanese blame Hizbullah for recklessly bringing the current ruin on Lebanon, which officials estimated suffered $2.5 billion in damages. The government, of which Hizbullah is a part, will be responsible for repairing the widespread damage to infrastructure.

But Hizbullah's immediate promise to rebuild – along with widespread confidence here that the resistance won a victory over Israel – is tapping into fresh anger over the destruction, and winning more support for the "Party of God."

"Sheikh Nasrallah will help us rebuild – and God," says Jamal Mizhir, a pharmacist whose aunt collapsed into tears Tuesday when she saw her destroyed home in Beirut's Hizbullah stronghold of Haret Hreik. "When he makes a promise, he's an honest man," says Dr. Mizhir, sounding a frequently heard refrain here. "He always does what he says. That's why we trust him."

For more than two decades, Hizbullah's social networks have filled in for Lebanon's poor Shiites, when weak governments could not fulfill their needs. They operate hospitals, clinics, schools, and social centers.

That work, financed by rich Lebanese Shiites at home and abroad, through local donations, and with significant funds from outside, especially Iran, has done as much as Hizbullah's battles against Israel to win popular support among the Shiites.

They have provided a safety net, analysts say, that has melded the group – which the US labels a terrorist organization – with Lebanese Shiite society.

Even critics of Hizbullah in Lebanon often say they respect the group's integrity, efficiency, and commitment to helping its followers. Nasrallah promised to pay a year's rent for those with destroyed homes, saying Monday night that "we can't wait for the government."

"We don't believe in the government," says Marvat Dahaini, a woman dressed head-to-toe in black. "We believe only in Sheikh Hassan [Nasrallah]. He is our government."

"Hizbullah has a very clean record; anything could have been stolen from here but it wasn't," says Hanadi Mehdi, a literature teacher, casting her arm toward her damaged apartment block, as her brother emerged from a burnt doorway with his computer.

"Some things can't be replaced, like family photos. Your home is your history," says Ms. Mehdi. "The way people think, they have full confidence in Nasrallah, and feel they can confide in him.... Even people who don't support [Hizbullah] respect them."