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

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.

"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.

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"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."

That respect has built since Hizbullah was created in 1982, forming a model of public service and militancy – conducted efficiently, in a way that local governments could not – that translated into political power. The model was followed by Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and, without the militants, by the Welfare Party in Turkey in the late 1990s.

One example came when this conflict began a month ago and Hizbullah social services adapted to the influx of tens of thousands of displaced people to schools, public parks, and private homes. In Beirut alone, Hizbullah organized 10 mobile medical teams that cared for 14 schools each, in two-day rotations. This aid helped 48,000; another 70,000 people in houses were treated by other professionals.

"People are shocked: All their needs are covered by us, and their gratitude is great," says Ali Taha, a doctor who organizes the teams. He says half the needs of the displaced have been handled by service organizations linked to Hizbullah, such as orphans and martyrs foundations that have kept databases on the refugees.

"The pressure and responsibility of those institutes is much greater than before, to satisfy everyone," Dr. Taha said, the day before the cease-fire sent a stampede of people returning to their homes. "In peacetime, Hizbullah used to give medical services free to the poor, or for a small fee. Now everything is free."

It's a similar story nearby, in a Hizbullah kitchen near downtown Beirut. Volunteers work shifts over vats of rice and stew, to provide 8,000 hot meals a day – part of a 50,000 daily total they distribute across Beirut.

"[Hizbullah guerrillas] are sacrificing their lives, so this is the least we can do," says volunteer Hussein Saloum, who sold fresh fruit juice until falling buildings crushed his shop. "They are giving as much as they can, but the main gift is defending our lands in the south."

"This has a humanitarian purpose, and I feel I'm on a mission," says cook Ali Sirhan, whose restaurant in the southern suburbs of Beirut was damaged. "If I didn't fight there [in south Lebanon], I can fight here."

To understand that depth of support – and how Nasrallah still is seen to "win" here, even though his militia precipitated such a devastating Israeli attack – may depend on understanding the Shiite culture of martyrdom that stretches back to the 7th century.

"This is amazing ... people [still] say, 'We give all our spirit and soul to you [Hizbullah],' " says schoolteacher Mehdi. "You have to go back to collective thinking. People are not so materialistic, but believe in dignity, honor and sacrifice."

"It's really contradictory, because we carry the roots of both fatalism and optimism in us," says Mehdi. "We see people die, and the next day mourn them, and then hear music at night. People are so resilient."

But do people here blame Hizbullah? "Maybe in their heart, but they don't say it," says Izzat Shahrour, a bulky man with arms covered in bomb dust.

And a little help from Hizbullah can ensure that you are a believer. When Mr. Shahrour sent his family away from this district a month ago, he stayed behind to protect his immobile mother. But bombing destroyed a host of adjacent buildings, and the two were trapped in a basement for days.

Then a Hizbullah activist came around, calling out if anybody was left in the area. Shahrour was able to get his arm out through the debris. The man told him to wait. Thirty minutes later the rubble was removed with equipment and a car arrived. At the sound of a whistle, Shahrour scooped up his mother in his arms and raced with her to the car.

"They helped me out," says Shahrour. "They asked me how long we had not eaten, brought us juice, and said: 'Where do you want to go? We are ready.'

I am sure Nasrallah will help, because people believe in him, trust him ... he must help," says Shahrour, of the Hizbullah rebuild promise. "When he spoke, he gave us hope."

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