WORLD

PARTY (OF GOD) TIME

Hezbollah is rebuilding Lebanon. Not everyone is happy about that.

MARTIN PATRIQUIN October 30 2006
WORLD

PARTY (OF GOD) TIME

Hezbollah is rebuilding Lebanon. Not everyone is happy about that.

MARTIN PATRIQUIN October 30 2006

PARTY (OF GOD) TIME

WORLD

Hezbollah is rebuilding Lebanon. Not everyone is happy about that.

MARTIN PATRIQUIN

To the truly cynical, the destruction of Beirut’s Dahiya suburb was Hezbollah’s windfall—God’s gift to the Party of God. A primary target of Israel’s intense month-long shelling, the suburb suffered hundreds of casualties, with some 5,500 homeowners left homeless. Following the ceasefire, Dahiya was a heap of misery and smouldering rubble; the sadness and ravaged landscape remain, but are tempered with a sense of near-optimism. Things are moving along, and in Dahiya as in the rest of the country affected by Israeli bombs, it is thanks in large part to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah excavators shovel debris into Hezbollah dump trucks. Hezbollah assessors inspect apartments and dole out US$12,000 5 cash to anyone who lost theirs. Hezbollah2 affiliated architects and engineers plan new ? houses and infrastructure. Hezbollah doc$ tors give out free medication, and Hezbolx

lah cooks provide hot meals to some 25,000 people every day in Dahiya alone. When the Lebanese government recendy (and, for most Lebanese, belatedly) announced payments of US$53,000 to owners of homes destroyed during the war, Hezbollah promptly deemed the payment insufficient, and promised to top up each amount. “Hezbollah is an NGO,” says Bilal Naim, a member of Hezbollah’s central council, without even a whiff of irony. “Hezbollah is unifying all of Lebanon, and it has Lebanon’s stability as its goal. We paid for Christians, the Sunni, for all the religions, in the name of Lebanon, whether you lost an apartment or your car.”

Since its inception in 1982, the Party of God has been the party of Shiite Muslims, to the exclusion of everyone else. The recent war with Israel, however, has allowed the group to polish a populist pan-Lebanese image. That Hezbollah is able to do so is thanks in large part to political and media savvy, not to mention the Lebanese government’s perceived post-war inaction. The group that once kidnapped journalists now welcomes them in a media tent in the heart of Dahiya, from which it gives guided tours. Inside, a display of cartoons—Condoleezza Rice as a bucktoothed harlot with grenades for earrings; Israeli soldiers either targeting babies or wetting their pants; a Hezbollah fighter blocking a missile with his chest as Lebanon’s population cowers behind him—speaks to the group’s core beliefs: America is violent and untrustworthy, Israel is evil and cowardly, and Hezbollah is the only group that can do anything about it.

Coupled with Hezbollah’s new-found appreciation of the media is the group’s desire for political alliances with former enemies. Its political wing has forged ties with Michel Aoun, a Christian MP whom Hezbollah would like to see as prime minister. Hezbollah also garnered the support of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Communist party, two

THEY SAY IT’S A “DIVINE VICTORY,” BUT WHAT KIND IS THAT? OUR ECONOMY WENT BACK 25 YEARS.’

resolutely secular political groups normally put off by Hezbollah-style religiosity. However, the crux of Hezbollah’s populist drive, according to professor Abdallah Soufan, remains amid the wreckage of war. “It’s very important for Hezbollah to maintain that Robin Hood image,” says Soufan, who teaches Arabic cultural history at the American University of Beirut. “When they started they were a religious party, but they’ve realized that, to get support from Lebanon as a whole, they have to promote themselves as defenders of the country and to lay off the religious side.” Outright dissent against Hezbollah among prominent Lebanese, particularly Shiites, remains verboten. One of the few notable exceptions is Sayyed Ali al-Amin, the Shiite mufti of the south Lebanon city of Tyre. He once called Hezbollah “the party of Satan” and was openly critical of Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, which touched off the war (although he is effusive in his praise for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, a former classmate, who has formidable “intelligence and skill as a leader”). Al-Amin questions Hezbollah’s mass popularity, instead suggesting the Hezbollah media machine allows it to be the loudest, but certainly not the largest, Shiite voice. He blames Hezbollah, not Israel, for the “regrettable and avoid-

able” war, which he says served only to devastate the Lebanese people. He says it all with astonishing serenity, given that he lives and preaches in the Hezbollah stronghold of Tyre— and despite numerous threats against his life.

On the streets of Beirut, meanwhile, blunt (if measured) criticism of Hezbollah is heard on every corner. The group is invariably described with a mixture of awe for succeeding where all other Arabs have failed, and disgust at Hezbollah’s haughty belief in its own populism. “They say it’s a ‘divine victory,’ but what kind of f-ked-up victory is that?” asks Salim Farih, 31, as he spits out a roasted pumpkin seed at a Beirut pub. “Our economy went back 25 years. The only thing I’m proud of is that Israel now knows it can’t get in here easily. And Hezbollah does so many good things for its community.”

Even this much isn’t necessarily gospel, however, among some Shiites. Lara, who didn’t want her last name used, was in her Dahiya apartment on July 14 when the bombs began falling. She had to bring her brother to the hospital after he was hit with exploding glass. She returned the next day, only to find the building locks changed. “I’m convinced Hezbollah changed the locks, and that they came into my house,” Lara says. The house was nearly completely destroyed, but her family did not receive any compensation. Lara is sure it had to do with the pictures of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and anti-Syrian journalist Samir Kassir, both assassinated in 2005, around the house.

Of course, the supposed unity between Hezbollah and the rest of the country may collapse under the weight of Lebanon’s warstunted economy. Despite the government’s (and Hezbollah’s) best efforts, bridges and roads are still out and crops across south Lebanon are going unharvested, thanks to the painfully slow process of ridding the countryside of Israeli bomblets. “Already you hear some Sunnis saying the Shiites are responsible for the war,” says professor Soufan. “You didn’t hear that when it was happening.” Despite talk of unity, it seems Lebanon could already be reverting to its usual caustic sectarian state. M