Hizbollah hopes to engineer a quick recovery

By Roula Khalaf in Beirut

Financial Times

Published: August 28 2006

Deep in devastated south Beirut, the engineers of Hizbollah, the Shia movement that fought Israel’s army, are rebuilding the fabric of their heartland in the city, and thereby reclaiming their constituency.

Construction Jihad, the civil engineering arm of Hizbollah, was bombed out of its headquarters in Beirut’s southern suburbs during the recent 34-day conflict.

But within a day of the UN-brokered ceasefire, engineers from Jihad al-Bina’a, to give its Arabic name, were at work in the streets of the suburbs and south Lebanon assessing damage from Israel’s bombardment.

Today, Construction Jihad’s makeshift premises in a south Beirut branch of the Mahdi school, the organisation’s education association, is a hive of activity. Between pictures of Hizbollah leaders holding children, and the party’s yellow flags, a large map of the area is plastered on the wall, dividing neighbourhoods into small numbered zones. Engineers huddle along the length of a table strewn with forms detailing damage to individual properties from the conflict between Israel and Hizbollah.

Since the ceasefire two weeks ago, Construction Jihad has moved into high gear, dispatching agents to areas affected by the conflict to measure the damage – they estimate 15,000 properties were destroyed or damaged – and send the forms back to this central office. This information is entered into computers, before people are paid compensation from the party itself, or assisted with reconstruction.

Construction Jihad is part of a social network, including schools, hospitals and a banking institution, that was critical to Hizbollah’s ability to fight Israeli troops during the occupation of Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s.

“We help build a society of resistance,” says Kassem Allaik, the 48-year-old head of Construction Jihad, an industrial engineer who was partly educated in the US. “Our aim is to create the conditions so people can stay on their land to confront the enemy.”

Publicly, the Lebanese government says Hizbollah’s ability to step in fast and provide services is complementing the work of the state. But privately, politicians complain that Hizbollah’s vast independent network undermines the state and encourages criticism of the cash-strapped central government.

Hizbollah’s rapid mobilisation has also raised concerns abroad. France on Friday called for international aid, especially from Arab states, to support Lebanon’s reconstruction and compete with “radical forces”.

Despite the widespread belief that Iran is the main financial backer of the Shia group, which has paid as much as $12,000 in compensation to families whose houses were destroyed, Mr Allaik insists that each Hizbollah association is self-financed and relies on individual donations from sympathisers.

Mr Allaik says about 1,000 professionals are now working with his organisation, most of them volunteer engineers. Construction Jihad has appealed for more help through newspaper advertisements and on al-Manar, Hizbollah’s television station.

The association emerged after Israel’s 1996 offensive against Hizbollah in southern Lebanon, when it rushed to rehabilitate property – though it had been created many years before.

Hizbollah hopes the reconstruction of housing will take just a year. By then, the group apparently expects to have re-entrenched its displaced constituency and, along the way, reasserted its control.