Lebanon's health minister — named to the post by the country's Hezbollah group — said Saturday he has overcome U.S. concerns about his ministry potentially funneling finances to the militant organization by gaining public trust and ensuring transparency.
Jamil Jabak told The Associated Press that although he is not a member, he was picked to the post because Hezbollah has trust in him. Jabak insisted he is working for all Lebanese.
"People's trust in you is what erases" concerns, said Jabak, a physician who spoke at his private clinic in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh. He has maintained his practice since taking on the Health Ministry job.
Jabak was named in January by Hezbollah after the group made significant gains in parliamentary elections, allowing it to lobby and gain a bigger share in the Cabinet. After months of haggling, Hezbollah increased the ministries it can name to three, including the strategic Health Ministry.
U.S. officials then warned against funneling the ministry's resources to Hezbollah, which has an expansive social network of charity institutions and many wounded members from its role in the war in neighboring Syria.
But the Iranian-backed Hezbollah is under various sanctions by the United States, which labels the group a terrorist organization. Even Hezbollah officials say the increasing U.S. sanctions, including on its ally Iran, are hurting the group.
Jabak said Hezbollah avoided the sanctions on the ministry by reaching a deal with President Michel Aoun to appoint a man trusted by the group but not a member. "I treated many Hezbollah officials. They know through my work how transparent I am," he said.
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Jabak denied reports he was the personal physician of the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah. "I have not had the honor," he said. Jabak said his government won't accept any international monitoring of its spending. Internal auditing and domestic scrutiny will do the job, he said.
"Internationally, there was fear at the start but after meetings with all international organizations and the ambassadors, it became clear, something they already knew, that I don't have a political affiliation," he said.
But Jabak was cognizant of the challenges he faces. Domestically, nearly 1.8 million of Lebanon's more than 4 million residents are without health care. Over 1 million Syrian refugees live here, adding pressure to the country's debilitated infrastructure. Jabak has toured Lebanon to dispel concerns he was biased toward Hezbollah.
"What matters is that all civil groups working in Lebanon get an equal share from the ministry of health in terms of medicine support," he said. "Hezbollah and its institutions are part of Lebanese society."
Beaming with confidence that he has the public's trust, it is clearly because of his successful campaign to reduce, in some cases by over 50 percent, the price of medications for chronic and infectious diseases.
As the government negotiates spending cuts to deal with a deepening economic slump, Jabak said he successfully prevented cuts to his $500 million budget and is working to increase it from 1.7 percent to 3 percent of the national budget.
Jabak is negotiating a project with the World Bank to rehabilitate government hospitals and primary health care centers to improve public services, particularly for the poor. Lebanon has only 30 government hospitals but at least 120 private ones
He said there will be a monitoring mechanism for spending in this project: "I have nothing to hide," he said.
A graduate of Zaghreb university in 1982, Jabak returned to Lebanon to work in a number of hospitals. He is the first physician in the post in ten years and prides himself in knowing the secrets of the profession. He is negotiating exporting Lebanese medicine to Iraq and boosting medicinal tourism.
Jabak travels to Geneva on Sunday to attend the World Health Organization's 72nd Assembly, where he said he will raise Lebanon's health sector concerns, including the "dream" of medical care for every Lebanese.