in the southern Lebanese town of
Bint Jbail. Predictions of quick
reconstruction after bombing last
summer by Israel have not panned
BINT JBAIL, Lebanon, Jan. 16 —
In August, Mohammed al-Seyed watched with some pride as
tractors driven by Hezbollah men rolled in to begin
scooping away the rubble and debris of a month of war
with Israel, while engineers and others set to work.
More than five months later, however, with winter here
and Lebanon’s government enmeshed in political crisis,
the tractors are gone, the army of men has disappeared
and Bint Jbail’s town center still resembles Dresden
after World War II.
“They told us everything was going to be rebuilt soon,”
Mr. Seyed said Tuesday, speaking of town leaders.
“They’re not doing anything now. We want to build but
they won’t let us. They promise to pay us, but they
don’t. All we want is our homes back and they won’t even
let us have them!”
There may be as many excuses for the slowdown in
rebuilding in the south as there are political factions
in this nation. Some people blame the weather; some say
residents living abroad are just taking their time; some
officials cite disagreements over the amounts paid to
those who have lost their homes. In one rare admission,
a senior Construction Jihad official said his group was
overwhelmed by the destruction.
“Our goal initially was to work with our own hands, but
we soon realized we weren’t enough, so we decided to
begin reimbursing people,” said Abou Ali Bayloun,
regional director for Construction Jihad in the southern
port town of Tyre. “It is natural that the workers in
the area will not be enough in the area. It needs a lot
of workers to do this.”
But politics is at the heart of the problem. Hezbollah
and its supporters point fingers at the government of
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora; the government reflects
the accusation back at Hezbollah. Residents now blame
Ultimately, some analysts say, neither side wants to
take responsibility for the task of reconstruction. The
government avoids direct involvement on the ground,
trying to avoid blame for inefficiency, while Hezbollah
has also reduced its activities and is capitalizing on
residents’ frustrations for the lack of action.
“One side doesn’t want to be accused of slowing things
down,” said Habib Debs, professor of urban planning at
the American University of Beirut. “The other side wants
to blame the government for not doing anything. So
nothing is being done and both are happy that neither is
Certainly, the two sides lack coordination and
cooperation, which alone is a serious barrier to
reconstruction. Fear, too, plays a role: residents who
could begin building have hesitated, fearing further
conflict with Israel or, worse, civil war.
“People are terrified,” said Ali Eid, deputy mayor of
the town of Srifa, one of the few southern towns
witnessing major construction. “They know that if
there’s problem in Beirut, it will spread and spread
south. We’ve started because we had to. But Bint Jbail
is closer to any war that may happen.”
The political wrangling unleashed in the war’s
aftermath, culminating in the walkout by six
Hezbollah-aligned ministers in November and six weeks of
unbroken demonstrations in Beirut by Hezbollah and its
new allies — including Christian and Druse groups that
were once its mortal enemies — has raised sectarian
tensions, especially between Sunnis and Shiites.
Officials of the Siniora government insist that they
have done what they could for the Shiite-dominated and
Hezbollah-friendly south, but that the political crisis
has prevented major decisions from being made.
“Hezbollah has been part of all the committees,” said
Mohammad Safadi, minister of public works and
transportation. “They are part of the decision-making
process so they are as much to blame.” Mr. Safadi said
that up to 40,000 households had received government
payments of up to $40,000 each to rebuild their homes
and could proceed at will.
But officials in Bint Jbail and other southern towns
accuse the government of adding red tape and withholding
aid to punish them. Bint Jbail’s leaders say that
electricity service worsened after Mohammad Fneish, the
minister of electricity and water resources, resigned
with the other Shiite-aligned ministers. They say that
telephone service is still spotty because the minister
of telecommunications is Marwan Hamadeh, an ally of the
Druse leader Walid Jumblat, an outspoken critic of
“The whole south is in the same situation as us,” said
Haitham Bazzi, who heads a committee on reconstruction
for the old section of Bint Jbail. “They have forgotten
us, despite the war and everything we went through.
That’s why many people here are fed up and want the
government out even before the politicians do.”
The town — which has 6,000 full-time residents and
almost 30,000 living abroad, most in the United States —
was adopted by the government of Qatar, which promised
to finance the reconstruction. But many villagers feared
that residents would take the payments and abandon the
village, so Ali Bazzi, the mayor, lobbied to get the
Qataris to hire a construction company to rebuild the
whole area and preserve its historic nature.
He outlined big dreams for his decimated town in August.
It was to become a model city in the south, with new
apartment blocks, wider streets and modern
infrastructure. A group of local residents and college
professors stepped in with its own competing plan, which
would rebuild the historic homes, preserving the town’s
character while leaving the high rises at the town’s
periphery. The debate, local residents say, continues.
Now the reconstruction plan is moving in stages, said
Hussein Saad, a member of the city council. The first
stage, now complete, entailed reimbursements of up to
several thousand dollars for reparable damage to homes.
The second will pay up to $40,000 for rebuilding
demolished homes. And finally a third will rebuild homes
in the historic older district. The foundations of a
temporary market are in place, to house stores and
stalls until the bombed-out market is rebuilt.
But city officials say that much of the process has been
stalled as they wait for approvals from the Department
of City Planning, a branch of the Ministry of Public
Works and Transportation in Beirut. Mr. Safadi, the
minister, acknowledged the delay but said he had found a
way to work around the problems.
The cabinet has drafted new legislation allowing all
residents of the south to expedite construction, but
said the legislation would normally have to be passed by
Parliament. Instead, the cabinet has encouraged city
governments to move ahead.
“We simply can’t wait for Mr. Berri to hold a session of
Parliament any more,” Mr. Safadi said, speaking of Nabih
Berri, the speaker of the Parliament who has backed the
opposition and has refused to convene Parliament. “We
can no longer hold the people ransom.”
In the rubble of Bint Jbail on Tuesday, Mr. Seyed’s
voice continued to rise. “I am going to pitch my tent in
the center of town and stage my own protest,” he said.
“We’ll bring down the city government. We’ll bring down
the whole damn show.”
Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut.