Eager for Prosperity, Lebanese Keep Rebuilding

Despite a 15-year civil war and 17 days of Israeli bombing, this nation is intent on regaining its splendor

Daoud Younes's $250,000 dream house was destroyed by Israeli warplanes just as news came through that a truce had finally been brokered.

"Can you imagine it? It was 6 p.m. I was watching [Lebanese Prime Minister] Rafik al-Hariri announce on television that [there was] a cease-fire when my house was hit," Mr. Younes says. He's a Shiite Muslim businessman who built the three-story home with savings amassed during 17 years in Saudi Arabia.

Yet Younes felt fortunate. None of his 20 relatives who lived in the house was injured. All had fled their drab, hillside village of Adchit, a Hizbullah stronghold in southern Lebanon, and were sheltering with friends when the house was rocketed. Younes didn't discover the damage until the next day - after the truce went into effect April 27 that confined fighting to the nine-mile-wide "security zone" and ended a 17-day Israeli offensive against suspected Hizbullah positions.

Like Younes, many in southern Lebanon are unsure if the truce will hold, but they're rebuilding anyway. Their spirit is emblematic of a people impatient for a more solid peace after a 15-year civil war and desperate to restore their country to being the region's financial and cultural hub.

But there is much work to be done. The Lebanese government claims that more than 5,000 houses were damaged in April's air and artillery blitz and a further 1,000 destroyed. A recent extensive three-day tour of southern Lebanon suggests these figures were exaggerated, although there is significant damage in many villages.

In the village of Qana, Fijian United Nations peacekeepers are building a new shelter to replace the camp in which 102 Lebanese civilian refugees were killed when an Israeli bomb set their tents afire.

Optimism tinged with anger

Here the villagers' optimism is tempered by rage directed at Israel. Naja Jaber, a teacher who lives in a house near the open-air shrine, says she now feels duty-bound to impart more than French and arithmetic to the children of Qana. "We have to teach our children to hate the Israelis like they teach theirs to hate Arabs, otherwise we will be weak," she says.

Despite continuing instability in the south, Prime Minister Hariri says peace between his country and Israel is "inevitable." But, he says, "Israel has to make a tremendous effort, several times more than before the last aggression, to convince the Lebanese they really want peace."

He adds that "there is no other choice" and says he is confident that international cease-fire monitors will help the truce hold. "No one wants an escalation now," Mr. Hariri said in an interview at his palatial sandstone residence in west Beirut.

But he insists there can be no peace before Israeli forces withdraw from southern Lebanon. Then his Army would guarantee the security of Israel's northern border. "When peace has taken place, Lebanon will have a tremendous responsibility in assuring the security in the south," he says.

In the event of peace, there would be no need for "resistance" by Hizbullah, which Hariri says would be disarmed, like the other militias that fought in Lebanon's civil war. But, he says, "the Israeli occupation gives Hizbullah political cover to operate as an armed group."

But his country can't wait for a comprehensive peace before rebuilding. "We want to be ready for peace. Unless we create jobs for the people, there will be social and political problems that could risk blowing up the whole situation," he says.

It is unclear how much of the foreign investment that's required for Lebanon's multibillion dollar post-civil-war reconstruction effort may be discouraged by last month's fighting.

Mr. Hariri, a self-made billionaire who has invested heavily in the reconstruction, puts a positive spin on recent events. "Confidence in Lebanon has not been damaged. After the Israeli aggression, the country is still on its feet. Politically, we had an excellent result. The country is more unified than before."

Unity is desperately needed as Lebanon convalesces from the civil war. But its divisions are still apparent. In fact, crossing Beirut is still like traveling between vastly different countries. Grubby-faced children run barefoot in the teeming, Hizbullah-dominated southern suburbs where large posters of Iran's former leader, Ayatollah Khomeni, abound. Women dress modestly, and many of the Shiite Muslim families have at least five children.

Ten miles away, but worlds apart, is the prosperous district of Kasklik on the northern outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon's Christian heartland. Here, the children are dressed in designer clothes. Gleaming new Jeep Wranglers and Mercedes-Benzes fill the streets. Most families have just two or three children. The Francophile Christians who look to Europe rather than Tehran for their inspiration have little time for Hizbullah's "war of liberation" or anything else that is bad for business.

Most Lebanese are gripped by the fervor for reconstruction. Even during last month's shelling, bulldozers swarmed over central Beirut, which was devastated during the civil war. Nothing, it seemed, could distract the Lebanese from the biggest rebuilding project since Europe and Japan resurrected their cities after World War II.

The frenetic renovation of hotels along the capital's bustling sea front continues even at night. Residents are convinced Beirut will again be a financial and cultural mecca.

Prosperity needs peace

But critical to this dream is regional peace - the future of which may be affected by elections in Israel May 29.

Hariri implies their outcome doesn't matter: "From what [Israeli Prime Minister Shimon] Peres says, he's committed to peace in his own way. The Lebanese people are asking 'What can Likud do more than [Peres'] Labor Party did to them?' "

Asked if he would take his conciliatory tone directly to Jerusalem - as did Egyptian President Anwar Sadat - Hariri laughs. "They can see me on CNN. They don't need to see my face," he says, adding, "You need two to tango. The Israelis have to show they're committed to peace. Ask them to withdraw from my country. Don't ask me to go to the Knesset."

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