Lebanese cope, once again, amid the ruin of war

Up to 750,000 people have been driven from their homes as Israeli shelling has destroyed electricity and water supplies.

For Elias Mouawad, it's been a week without customers at his shop in the western neighborhood of Hamra where he sells souvenirs and trinkets.

"Who's paying for this war?" he asks. "It's not Israel, or America, or Syria. It's us, with our lives and our businesses."

Tourists have fled Israel's two-week-old bombardment of Lebanon and the locals have little spare money for much of anything Mr. Mouawad sells.

Mouawad is not alone. Few Lebanese have escaped the effects of an Israeli bombardment that has reduced Lebanon to "a devastated country," in Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's words.

Economists say Israel's sea and air blockade and fierce bombardment of roads, ports, airports, telecommunications, bridges, and other infrastructure has plunged the nation back to 1990, when it emerged from ashes of a 16-year civil war.

Adnan al-Hajj, economic editor for the daily newspaper As-Safir, said Israeli bombing has razed an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 homes, and left a much higher number in partial ruin. He put the cost of rebuilding those homes alone at $300 million, not including financial help to the inflated ranks of the homeless.

Experts say rebuilding infrastructure after the last war accounts for about $5 to $6 billion, the rest mainly went for bloated bureaucratic costs. "It's very hard to tell how long rebuilding will take," says Sami Atallah, lead economist at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. "First you need to get the money because Lebanon has no resources whatsoever to embark on a reconstruction drive."

"It's truly amazing, to transform a country into a ruin in less than 10 days," says Finance Minister Jihad Azour. Israel's pounding of Lebanon, in retaliation for Hizbullah's capture of two of its soldiers on July 12, has killed at least 422 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians, and 42 Israelis.

In Beirut, power cuts are long and frequent, the city streets dark and unfamiliar when night falls. Rubbish is piling up on the roadsides, and many shops remain shuttered, as do the usually bustling restaurants. The gleaming, rebuilt downtown became a ghost town when tourists left. The summer season was expected to bring in at least $3 billion.

At a market in the Hamra neighborhood, customers flood in at opening time and fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy foods fly off the shelves. A floor manager who will give his name only as Ribal says basic food prices are going up because of the cost of transport – few people are willing to drive a truck along damaged roads under Israeli fire, so a delivery van can cost $200 instead of $20.

"We have enough supplies for the time being, despite the Israeli siege by sea and air," Azour says. "But we can't get it to people. We need to have an immediate cease-fire and a resolution of the problem because here we are facing a humanitarian disaster."

As well as bombarding fuel supplies, Israeli jets have also bombed grain stores and food factories including a dairy, which has exacerbated food shortages – milk is now hard to find in the capital.

Sabah Issa, who sits watching her children run around in the Al Medina Theatre in Hamra, says the sharp rises in prices are putting foods beyond her reach. "Prices have doubled," she says.

The theater is home for Issa and her 25 relatives who fled Israel's bombing of their village in the south with only a little money and the clothes on their backs. On small side roads under fire, it took seven hours to travel from her sister's home in the southern town of Nabatieh, instead of the usual hour and a half to Beirut.

"They bombed the house next to ours and it came down on top of our neighbor with her two babies and killed them all," Issa says. "So we fled, and they bombed us in our cars as we left."

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