BEIRUT,(Reuters) – Hezbollah handed out bundles of cash on Friday to people whose homes were wrecked by Israeli bombing, consolidating the Iranian-backed group’s support among Lebanon’s Shi’ites and embarrassing the Beirut government.
“This is a very, very reasonable amount. It is not small,” said Ayman Jaber, 27, holding a wad he had just picked up from Hezbollah of $12,000 in banknotes wrapped in tissue.
Israeli and U.S. officials have voiced concern that Hezbollah will entrench its popularity by moving fast — with Iranian money — to help people whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the 34-day conflict with Israel.
Hezbollah has not said where the funds are coming from to compensate people from an estimated 15,000 destroyed homes. The scheme appears likely to cost at least $150 million. The Lebanese government has yet to launch anything similar.
Trying to bolster a five-day-old truce, Lebanese troops moved deeper into south Lebanon a day after France dealt a blow to hopes of building a strong U.N. force to help the army take control of the region as Israeli troops withdraw.
The United Nations said it had received substantial offers of troops for Lebanon, but was disappointed that France was only offering to send 200 additional soldiers.
“We had hoped — we make no secret of it — that there would be a stronger French contribution,” said U.N. deputy secretary-general Mark Malloch Brown.
International and Lebanese government aid efforts risk being overshadowed by Hezbollah’s swift action on reconstruction.
Hezbollah said it had so far given the one-time cash payment to 120 families whose homes in the southern suburbs of Beirut were destroyed in Israeli air strikes. The money is to help families rent and furnish alternative accommodation.
“We have full information on all the buildings that have been destroyed or damaged,” said a Hezbollah official at one of 12 assistance centres the group has set up in the suburbs.
“Later on, we will either pay for new flats or rebuild the buildings that were destroyed.”
Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah promised the compensation in his first speech after the truce took hold.
France’s reticence to contribute more troops follows disastrous peacekeeping missions in the past. It lost 58 paratroopers to a Shi’ite suicide bomb attack in Beirut in 1983 and some 84 soldiers in Bosnia in the early 1990s.
“I’d like to remind you of the experience of painful operations where U.N. forces did not have a sufficiently precise mission or the means to react,” French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told RTL radio.
The Italian government formally approved the deployment of troops to Lebanon. It did not say how many would be sent, but officials have said Italy was ready to offer up to 3,000 troops.
Prime Minister Romano Prodi said Italy wanted to contribute, but that the mission must have clear rules of engagement.
The Lebanese army began deploying south of the Litani River, about 20 km (13 miles) from the border with Israel, on Thursday.
A senior security source said about 4,500 Lebanese troops were already south of the Litani and more units were joining them on Friday as the force builds up to an eventual 15,000.
Some troops reached the village of Shebaa, near the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms enclave, a key source of tension between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas before the recent war.
Hezbollah fighters have melted away as the Lebanese army arrives, but they have not left the south or given up the rocket launchers they used to bombard Israel during the conflict.
Malloch Brown said Hezbollah’s disarmament required an agreement between the group and the Lebanese government. At least 1,181 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed in the conflict that erupted after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.
In the occupied West Bank, Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinian militants near Bethlehem after a nearly two-hour standoff, Palestinian security sources and witnesses said.