BEIRUT (AFP) – Salam Hassoun is thrilled by the new flat Hezbollah has built for her to replace the one Israeli bombs destroyed during the 2006 summer war on the Lebanese Shiite movement.
The war ravaged Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold that includes the teeming neighbourhood of Haret Hreik, where a mammoth Hezbollah-orchestrated reconstruction drive is underway.
The deafening explosions of Israeli bombs have been replaced by the grinding cacophony of earth-movers and cement mixers contracted to rebuild 241 of the 282 buildings destroyed in the bombing.
The project, dubbed Waad (pledge in Arabic), has won the heart of Hassoun but has also raised a storm of political dust between Hezbollah and the government, whose authority in the southern suburbs has lagged for decades.
“I used to dream of an apartment where the living room was separated from the dining area and where the kitchen would be much bigger, and Waad gave me that,” Hassoun told AFP during a Hezbollah-organised tour of Haret Hreik.
“May God protect (Hezbollah chief Hassan) Nasrallah. He has kept his promise,” she said from her ninth-storey flat in one of several spanking new towers.
Project director Hassan Jechi told AFP 400 million dollars have been allocated to transform the southern suburbs into a modern, residential area.
In Haret Hreik’s so-called “security area”, where Nasrallah once lived and Hezbollah had its headquarters and which became “ground zero” in Israel’s onslaught, reconstruction is now at its zenith.
Jechi said Hezbollah institutions will move out of the area, where developers “will only put residential buildings and a public park to give residents a breathing space.”
Waad has adopted modern criteria to build earthquake-proof apartment blocs, widen streets and pavements in this once-congested area and put parking lots and artesian wells where there were none.
“The war damaged 1,200 buildings and destroyed 282 others,” said Jechi, adding that in addition to the 241 buildings Waad is rebuilding, Hezbollah association Jihad For Reconstruction is restoring 951 others.
People have already moved into 20 buildings and the entire project should be completed within 18 months, he added.
Jechi and Hezbollah are evasive when it comes to revealing where they are getting the funds to carry out this massive project, amid wide speculation that Iran is Hezbollah’s main financial backer.
“There are donations from Arab countries (which are given through the government), material assistance given through Waad while the rest is footed by Jihad For Reconstruction,” Jechi said.
Both Waad and Jihad For Reconstruction are on a US list of “terrorist” organisations.
Oil-rich Gulf countries pledged millions of dollars for the reconstruction of Lebanon after the 2006 war.
The donations are disbursed by the Western-backed government, which has had strained ties with Hezbollah, primarily over its refusal to give up its formidable arsenal.
The parliamentary majority says Hezbollah’s arms undermine the authority of the state, but the group refuses to disarm, arguing that its weapons and militia are essential to defend the country against Israel.
Jechi complained that the government was only providing 30 percent of the 400 million dollars needed by Waad to rebuild the southern suburbs, which Hezbollah detractors consider a state-within-a-state.
The government’s contribution “is slow and insufficient,” he said.
But Fadi Aramouni, who heads the state-run Central Fund for the Displaced says “the government did not promise to rebuild (the suburbs) but pledged to give compensation.”
According to him, the government has so far disbursed 100 million dollars in compensation and is expected to give an equal amount.
Aramouni dismissed Jechi’s criticism, adding the claim that Hezbollah had embarked in a major reconstruction drive that need more funds than those pledged by the government.
“Hezbollah has adopted a costly plan while the government is providing funds to restore buildings to what they were before the war,” he said.
Analaysts say the reconstruction drive has triggered new rivalries between Hezbollah and the authorities and is bolstering the popularity of the Shiite militant group.
“Hezbollah will certainly benefit from this reconstruction project because it is cementing the loyalty of the people,” said Ahmad Baalbaki, a professor of sociology.
In contrast, for decades the government neglected the development of the southern suburbs, and Hezbollah stepped in to fill the void.
“Before Hezbollah, in the 1980s, even in the 1970s, the southern suburbs was like a jungle. Where was, then, the authority of the state,” he asked.