LETTER FROM LEBANON: Reconstruction Wars

It’s either heartening or slightly worrisome — or both — that the most dramatic thing the Lebanese Army did last week was cross a bridge. The Qasmiya Bridge lies 30 miles south of Beirut, at the main crossing point over the Litani River on the coastal road from Sidon. The bridge was destroyed by an Israeli air strike on July 12, the first day of the war in Lebanon. Working furiously for 48 hours, army engineers finished rebuilding the bridge just a few hours before the first tractor trailer carrying armored vehicles rumbled over. The bridge bowed but held, and Lebanon’s army soon took symbolic possession of territory it hasn’t controlled since the 1960s.

After a month on the sidelines of the war between Israel and Hizballah, the Lebanese Army–like the government itself–is in a race to restore its authority over a ravaged country. The U.S. wants the army, rather than the U.N. troops following behind it, to take the lead in disarming Hizballah and pushing the group’s fighters away from the border with Israel. But that may never happen. To a TIME correspondent following the 11th Brigade as it moved up into the hardscrabble hills above Tyre, it was clear that the army’s job will be largely symbolic and humanitarian. With cold war–era equipment–tin-pot helmets and clunky M-16 rifles that looked as if they had served in Vietnam–the units aren’t a match for either Israel or Hizballah. Locals who gathered along the road to welcome the army as it passed agreed. “It’s great that the army is here,” says Hassan Hashim, owner of the Sunset, a bombed-out restaurant in Tibnine, where the 11th Brigade set up headquarters. “But the only ones who can stop the Jews are Hizballah.”

Right now, though, most Lebanese have more pressing concerns. The army’s journey south revealed a landscape of ruin. The tobacco-farm country around Tibnine, a hill town about 10 miles from the Israeli border, is like a slide show of destruction–scorched earth, leveled homes, torched gas stations–shot in a gray scale of cement dust and summer haze. While refugees have flooded back into other areas of Lebanon, only the brave or desperate have returned to these parts, which are still strewed with unexploded bombs, many of them from antipersonnel cluster munitions. “There are thousands of these out there,” says a Lebanese military intelligence officer in Tibnine as he holds up a defused cluster bomb. “If you go out to pick tobacco right now, you’ve got a good chance of dying.”

Having claimed victory in the war with Israel, Hizballah is already mobilizing to win the peace. Almost as soon as the cease-fire went into effect last Monday, Hizballah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah went on television to promise that the Party of God would give $10,000 to all those whose homes were damaged or destroyed and that Hizballah would rebuild or repair the homes itself. And Nasrallah’s aides have dispatched a corps of engineers to survey war-torn areas. Its members show up wearing Hizballah yellow vests and matching baseball caps that say JIHAD OF CONSTRUCTION.

The rebuilding effort is shaping up as a proxy battle for influence in the Middle East. Oil-rich Sunni Arabs who are worried about the rise of Hizballah and other militant Shi’ite groups in Iran and Iraq don’t want to lose Lebanon. (Many of them have summer homes here.) The Saudis have already provided $1 billion in emergency funds to Lebanon’s central banks and an additional $500 million in reconstruction aid to the Lebanese government. The rebuilding frenzy could provide an opportunity for the U.S. to improve its tarnished reputation with the Lebanese people. So far, the U.S. has pledged $50 million in humanitarian assistance, but few expect American efforts to have much impact. “This is going to be a very politicized reconstruction,” says an officer from a U.S.-based aid group. To deliver aid effectively, “we have to work through existing institutions, but in the parts of Lebanon that need the most help, Hizballah is the only institution.”

Washington isn’t alone in being wary of getting too involved. Although many countries are willing to throw money at Lebanon’s problems, few seem inclined to make more serious commitments. The news that France–Lebanon’s closest ally in the West–would increase its force by just 200 soldiers to help the Lebanese Army take control of the south provoked dismay in Beirut. “We thought they were going to send thousands,” says a Lebanese military expert. “This means they don’t think it’s safe.” With Israeli commandos raiding a Hizballah stronghold in the Bekaa Valley on Saturday and Israeli drones still flying over Beirut and Hizballah ready to reload, it’s hard to disagree.

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