Charity, Not Bombs, Boosts Image of Militant Islamists
BEIRUT — The tough images of war and terrorism haven't changed over the years in the propaganda films put out by Hizbullah, an anti-Western, anti-Israel group in southern Lebanon.
The Iran-backed guerrillas - who bombed Beirut's US Marine compound in 1983 - are shown operating in the Israeli-occupied "security zone" in southern Lebanon, behind what they call the "Kosher Curtain."
One film sequence shows a bearded suicide bomber telling the camera he is looking forward to "martyrdom," then cuts to show him detonating his truck full of explosives next to an Israeli base.
But inside Lebanon, the image of Hizbullah is evolving from resistance fighter to charity campaigner. The militia's leaders have been using humanitarian and welfare projects to win grass-roots political support among poor Shiite Muslims of southern Lebanon.
Elsewhere in the region, the formula has been tested in Turkey, where the Islamic party, Welfare, rode to power earlier this year with popular support earned by aiding residents with well-organized, door-to-door campaigns.
Moderate Egyptian Islamists have been following the same track. And in Algeria, appealing to the poor gave election victory to an Islamic party in 1992 elections - until the Army intervened.
In Lebanon, the symbols of support are placed neatly in Hizbullah offices across the country. Hexagonal metal boxes with gold-colored bumps and slits for donations - models of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Islam's third-holiest site - stand in corners.
The appeal on the side resembles a Salvation Army advertisement: "Support the Islamic Resistance," it reads. A donation box for women's and children's health programs often hangs nearby.
THE charity campaigns are a striking contrast to the perception in the West that Hizbullah's purpose is war against Israel or Western targets.
"We provide services for people who are not able to afford it, where there are no government services at all," says Hadi Ammari, head of a Hizbullah-supported health clinic in the south of Lebanon.
Hizbullah has 45 medical dispensaries and a network of clinics and hospitals. Most financing comes from Iran and Arab states, and the rest from charity.
"We are respected in Lebanon because people know that we help for nothing and spend money on people, not to line our pockets," says Mr. Ammari.
Hizbullah's growing influence worries wealthy politicians because, as Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri says, Hizbullah provides "another source of loyalty." Leaders in Beirut have traditionally ignored Shiite Muslim areas, leaving them the poorest in the country.
The militia is infamous in the West for the Beirut Marine barracks bombing. Later Hizbullah and Islamist allies took more than a dozen Americans and other Westerners hostage.
Though rarely thought of in the West as a real political party, Hizbullah charity boxes today are full of cash, and the party's anti-Israel, anti-peace platform has won it and its allies nine slots in the 128-seat Lebanese parliament.
Hizbullah building crews have also been winning hearts and minds since 1993 when, in the aftermath of a week of Israeli bombardment against south Lebanon villages, they reportedly rebuilt most houses before the United Nations could even assess the damage. Iran is said to have footed the bill.
Support has grown since Israel's "Grapes of Wrath" attacks in April, when Shiite villages were shelled to root out guerrillas. "People started liking us more," says Ammari, a portrait of Iran's late Ayatollah Khomeini staring down from his wall. "They know that Israel is not fighting terrorists but people who are fighting for their own territory."