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Hezbollah Entwined in Lebanon’s Social Fabric

By Zeina Karam

Associated Press, published in Arab News, The Middle East's leading English Language Daily, 12 August 2006

BEIRUT, 12 August 2006
— In bombed-out southern villages and refugee-filled schools across the country, Hezbollah supporters go door to door, checking if people have enough food and medicine.

That is the second prong of the group’s strength in Lebanon, where it is putting up stiff resistance to thousands of Israeli troops in the south and has fired, according to Israel, more than 3,500 rockets into the north of the country since the war began a month ago.

In the heat of the battle, Hezbollah’s deep political and social roots in Lebanon are overshadowed by its military power, manifested in cadres of fighters, their rockets, anti-tank missiles and Kalashnikov rifles.

Away from the war front, Hezbollah runs a sophisticated network of schools, clinics and social services. It has 14 members in the 128-member Parliament, two Cabinet ministers, a magazine, and a radio and TV station.

“Hezbollah is a grass-roots movement,” says Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University and expert in Hezbollah affairs.

“They provide cradle to grave benefits, they take care of all your social, medical and welfare needs. It is precisely those social services that embed the Hezbollah movement in the (Shiite) community,” she said.

While Hezbollah’s popularity among Lebanon’s 1.2 million Shiites stems mainly from its struggle against Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon, the group also cultivated much respect for its efficient network of services in the south, the eastern Bekaa Valley and Dahiyah — Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Even now, despite crippling Israeli airstrikes that have destroyed most of Hezbollah offices across the country, the group is assisting in relief efforts.

In a makeshift Hezbollah-run kitchen in Beirut on Thursday, two cooks stirred huge pots of rice and meat pilaf for delivery to schools across the capital where hundreds of thousands of people are now taking refuge.

Abbas Noun, in charge of the operation, said about 40 people were working to churn out some 8,000 portions a day.

The group also has medicine distribution centers and volunteer doctors who go around bombed-out southern villages and schools — 170 in the Beirut area — checking on people and providing them with medicine.

Shiites, believed to be Lebanon’s largest community, are the poorest among the country’s many religious communities. To many who have long complained of neglect by the state, Hezbollah fills the void.

“That’s why we see such die-hard support for them among Shiites,” Ghorayeb said.

Hezbollah’s network of social charity organizations include “Imdad,” Arabic for supply, which provides educational and medical services for the poor and physically disabled. “Mu’asasat Al-Shahid,” or Institution of the Martyr, takes care of the welfare of the families of Hezbollah fighters who are killed in the battle against Israel.

Another organization, Jihad Al-Bina, a name best translated as “construction for the sake of the holy struggle,” rebuilds homes damaged in Israeli attacks and provides water and garbage collecting services to residents of southern and eastern Lebanon.

The group also has five hospitals, 14 clinics and 12 schools across the country, a Hezbollah official said. He said some of those organizations, such as Al-Shahid institution.

Along with Hezbollah’s military infrastructure, the group’s social and economic network has also come under attack since the war began July 12.

Israeli airstrikes have destroyed Hezbollah charity offices and schools in the market town of Nabatiyeh, the southern port city of Tyre and Dahiyah. Israeli commandos targeted the Hezbollah-run Dar Al-Hikma Hospital in eastern Lebanon’s town of Baalbek on Aug. 2. A Hezbollah-affiliated charity in the town has also been destroyed.

The Hezbollah official said the group’s social work has not been affected.

“Work on the ground is continuing same as before, as if nothing happened. Each of those organizations had contingency plans,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.

Israeli officials acknowledged as much. In a recent interview with The Associated Press in Jerusalem, Israeli Army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal said Hezbollah institutions, not just military infrastructure, should be crippled.

“In the war on terror in general, it’s not just about hitting an army base, which they don’t have, or a bunker. It is also about undermining their ability to operate...,” he said.

Hezbollah supporters say their loyalty to the party is unflinching. “Hezbollah is the people and the people are Hezbollah,” said Hussein Ayoub, a 56-year-old ex-fighter who said the group paid for his children’s tuition and a heart surgery he had several years ago. “I am ready to sacrifice with my life for the party,” said Ayoub who has been living in a Beirut school with his family since Israeli airstrikes destroyed his house in Dahiyah.


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