Main Op-Ed Page

A War-Torn Lebanese City in Ruin
Bint Jbeil bears the scars of weeks of fighting with Israeli forces, but many regard Hezbollah's charge to battle as a point of pride
Gregory Katz
Send E-mail to Writer
Houston Chronicle
Saturday, September 23, 2006
Block after block of destruction
  Bint Jbeil's own ground zero
BINT JBEIL, LEBANON There used to be a city here.

Where there were businesses, now there is rubble. Where there were small apartment buildings, schools, homes, now there is rubble. Block after block of destruction, Bint Jbeil's own ground zero.

Now that Israel's invasion force has nearly completed its withdrawal and many Lebanese have returned to their homes, the scope of the damage is becoming clear. It is evident that Lebanon faces a multibillion-dollar, three- to five-year rebuilding task.

Yet many residents of this small city hail the Hezbollah militia for picking a fight with Israel by killing and kidnapping Israeli soldiers July 12 and then holding the Israeli army at bay for 34 days until a cease-fire was reached.

"This is a victory for us," said car dealer Nidal Shawara. "Israel is trying to take our land again, and Hezbollah is protecting the land here. Israel wanted the land up to the Litani River, but they couldn't take it, and they had to move back."

This is the official Hezbollah line, reinforced by hundreds of prominent new billboards praising Lebanon's "divine victory" over the widely despised Jewish state. But this does not feel like a country that has vanquished its opponent.

Hezbollah's fighters in Bint Jbeil and other towns along the border did repulse an Israeli invasion, but the country endured a frightful pummeling from the Israeli air force that killed more than 1,000 people and inflicted widespread damage, particularly in the south.
Help on its way
Help is coming from a number of disparate sources. Rivals like the United States and the Iranian regime are kicking in millions, with President Bush pledging $230 million in emergency aid.

The oil-rich Qataris, Kuwaitis and Saudi Arabians are funding a number of projects, and the International Monetary Fund is working on reconstruction along with dozens of nongovernment aid organizations.

Some privately funded luxury real estate projects in central Beirut are going ahead despite the bombing, and well-to-do Lebanese-Americans and other Lebanese expatriates are making substantial donations to get their country back on its feet.

But even the most enthusiastic analysts point out that the problems that led to the war have not been addressed, leaving the very real possibility that hostilities could resume at any point, derailing reconstruction in the blink of an eye.
Still ready to fight
Hezbollah has not disarmed, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for private militias inside Lebanon to give up their weapons, and Israel remains active along the border. The scene is set for future confrontations, residents say.

Marwan Beydoun, a butcher in Bint Jbeil, said the 15,000 armed U.N. peacekeepers flooding into the border region would be powerless to keep the combatants apart.

"Neither the United Nations or anyone else can stop Israel and Hezbollah from fighting again," he said. "What can the U.N. do? They can't do anything."

U.S. officials who say the war caused between $3.5 billion and $5 billion in direct damage are optimistic that Lebanon can recover its economic equilibrium fairly quickly if the U.N. resolution calling for Hezbollah and others to disarm is fully implemented.

They maintain that disarmament would create a stable environment that would encourage investors to return.

Many people, however, think Hezbollah is too strong to be disarmed, given the weakness of the Lebanese government, which has not extended its control to Hezbollah strongholds in the south or to the southern suburbs of Beirut.

"I don't think the Lebanese government will even try to do the unthinkable," said Fawaz Gergez, author of Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy.

"The Lebanese prime minister never said he would disarm Hezbollah but said he would try to find a formula to integrate them into society. Hezbollah is more than a militia, more than an army. It's a social and political movement."

Gergez said that to try to take Hezbollah's weapons by force would lead to a major civil conflict inside Lebanon.

"Lebanon cannot afford that; it would be suicidal," he said, "and the prime minister understands that."
Damage is clear
The direct damage to Lebanon is visible. More than 80 bridges have been destroyed, leading to huge traffic tie-ups. An estimated 20,000 homes have been flattened, and thousands of small businesses and shops have been leveled. Electricity plants and communications facilities are badly damaged.

One of Lebanon's leading economists, Marwan Iskandar, says his company's research shows the indirect costs of the war will far exceed the direct cost of the damage, which he estimates is $5 billion.

"The indirect loss is far more, and you can't measure it yet," said Iskandar, the managing director of M.I. Associates. "Part of it is the loss associated with the emigration of 70,000 young Lebanese who are seeking work outside Lebanon because of the war. Suppose the direct destruction costs $5 billion, and suppose we put all that in to regain the level we were at on July 12. You are paying all that money to get back what you had, not to add to it."

Lebanon might be able to reach that point in three or four years, he said. But the country would have sacrificed all of the potential growth those years might have brought. And Lebanon would have fallen further behind competitors who were able to expand their economies during that time.
Endangered trend
There has also been serious damage to Lebanon's emerging reputation as a pleasant, sunny haven for wealthy residents of the Persian Gulf seeking second homes to escape the Gulf's stifling heat.

These "Gulfies" as they are known locally by grateful shopkeepers had financed a boom in luxury developments. But this trend has been endangered by the fighting, which also wiped out what had been expected to be a $1.5 billion tourist season, Iskandar said.

He is also gloomy about the prospects for curbing Hezbollah's military strength. He said his research indicates that Hezbollah, which enjoys strong financial support from Iran, has an annual military budget of about $2 billion.

He said this means that in recent years Hezbollah has been able to spend $5 billion on cement alone to fortify its tunnels in southern Lebanon.

"No private army in the world can match that, and we can see their defense works well," he said, adding that it is very easy for Iran to continue funding Hezbollah's operations because there are no controls on cash brought into Lebanon.

With the cease-fire holding and the Israeli withdrawal expected to be complete within several days, aid officials say the relief program is winding down because food-, medicine- and water-distribution systems are generally working well.

"We're out of the emergency phase," said David Orr, a spokesman for the World Food Program. "Within a week or 10 days of the cease-fire, more than 90 percent of the people had returned to their home areas, and that was an early indication that stability was returning"

The agency plans a final food delivery for mid-October, Orr said, and plans to leave the country shortly after that.

But there are still many areas with water and electricity shortages, officials said.

U.N. spokesman Khaled Mansour said two persistent problems remain: the need for shelter for people whose homes were destroyed and the discovery of more than 500 locations in the south with unexploded Israeli cluster bombs.

He said it would take explosives experts more than two years to cleanse the area of the small, hard-to-detect bombs, which have already killed 15 Lebanese and wounded more than 80 since the August cease-fire.

"We don't yet have the maps from Israel that would show us where the cluster bombs were used," he said. "The bombs are very unstable, and it's really dangerous. You can be an expert, and still it explodes in your face.

"It's an economic issue because the bombs are in houses, schools, hospitals and fields. It's a major problem in the south."
E-mail this article: E-mail this article
bullet Houston Chronicle
bullet "IDF Looks to Reclaim the Bint Jbail Symbol" - 07/25/2006
bullet "Hail Bint Jbeil" - 07/27/2006
bullet "The Smell of Dead People" - 07/31/2006
bullet "Survivors Rise From Rubble Of Battered Lebanese Village" - 08/01/2006
bullet "Barbarians at the Gate" - P h o t o  A l b u m
bullet "Bint Jbeil: Lest We Forget" - P h o t o   A l b u m