At Least They're Not Shooting

The Hijazi family book and stationary store in the town of Nabatiyeh has been around for 48 years. In one of Israel Defense Forces' bombardments, the store suffered a direct hit. Books and notebooks were burned or destroyed, and so was the store's facade. Last week Ali Durman, a representative of Hezbollah's Jihad al-Bina'a construction and development association, arrived at the store and granted the owner $500 as a first installment for repairs.

The Hijazi family is among the first to receive the partial compensation promised by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, but many families and business owners are still waiting. Such is the case for Abdallah al-Bitar, owner of the Al-Diamsi sweets shop in Nabatiyeh. Al-Bitar invested $22,000 in 1993 to remodel the store, and now it lies in ruins. This is also the case of the owners of the Nuno Shoes store, who do not know where they will find the funds to replace their ruined stock.

During Sunday night's well-structured interview with the private Lebanese television network New TV, owned by businessman Tahseen Khayat, Nasrallah tried to calm business and home owners. He detailed several rules for compensation: Those who have lost their homes will receive rent money for a period of one year, and additional funds to pay for basic furnishings. Later on Hezbollah will pay to have the house restored to its previous condition.

"And what about those who have more than one damaged house?" asked the interviewer. "We will grant money to live in one house, but we will repair both houses," replied Nasrallah. "Is the repair intended only for Shi'ites or Hezbollah members?" "Heavens no," replied Nasrallah, "anyone - Shi'ite, not Shi'ite, even those who are not Lebanese citizens or residents."

The compensation depends on the type of house and the area. For example, homeowners from the Baalbek area will receive only $10,000 to repair each housing unit, compared with $15,000 in Beirut's southern neighborhood. This is simply because building costs in Baalbek are lower. Jihad al-Bina'a's assessment chart shows, for instance, that building a square meter of a simple house costs about $200, compared with $500 for a luxury stone house. Compensation will be calculated accordingly.

A punch for Nasrallah

Where does the money come from? Nasrallah was asked.

"The money is clean and pure, and has no political strings attached," Nasrallah began, and immediately elaborated that Iran had donated a lot of money and had made a commitment to repair hospitals, bridges, roads and other infrastructure - "but in no way whatsoever set political conditions for the aid. Had they presented any political conditions, I would not have accepted the donation."

On the face of it, what can be wrong in humanitarian aid, even if it comes from Iran? Why shouldn't Hezbollah rebuild Lebanon if it can afford it? But this precisely is the bone of contention there. They know there are no free meals, especially not in Lebanon.

The controversy begins with the damage assessment. Against this background came last week's resignation of Al-Fadl Shalaq, head of the governmental Council for Development and Reconstruction. The council had started its damage assessment and had presented Prime Minister Fouad Siniora with a first draft. Siniora rejected it, deeming it unrealistic, and decided to reassign the assessment project to the Lebanese company Khatib and Alami, which has projects all over the Middle East.

Shalaq, a strong political opponent of Siniora and an avid Hezbollah supporter, saw this as a display of distrust and decided to resign, but not before making insinuations of corruption regarding the compensation distribution. Mainly, he accused the government of withholding compensation in order to raise public anger against Hezbollah. Siniora quickly responded with an order to begin payment immediately via direct transfers into the victims' bank accounts (and not through middlemen or institutes). He also sent, with a 10-day delay, government bulldozers to clear the ruins of Beirut's southern neighborhood.

At the same time he did not forget to throw a punch at Nasrallah. He said Hezbollah had asked for the government's help in paying compensation, and in doing so insinuated that Nasrallah cannot afford to cover his publicly made commitments.

In an interview this week, Nasrallah responded that Hezbollah is not a substitute for the government, but where the government cannot afford the payment, or gives only partial payment, Hezbollah will cover the remainder. "If the repair of a house costs $60,000 and the government decides to give compensation of no more than $35,000, we will cover the rest," said Nasrallah, the generous man puts the money where the stingy government won't.

Large sums are involved. According to Hezbollah's assessment, some 15,000 housing units were damaged, and reparing them will cost about half a billion dollars, including rent payments. In addition, the damage to tourism, agriculture and infrastructure - which Nasrallah did not promise to repair - is estimated at about $3 billion. Arab countries have promised the government donations totaling $2.5 billion, and more specifically to repair establishments and villages.

Iran's share is unknown, but it will most probably be several hundred million dollars. It is a fortune that each side will want to turn into political and economic capital. Representatives of foreign, mostly Arab, building firms have already started arriving for preliminary tours in Lebanon. Suppliers of heavy machinery are also standing in two lines: those of Hezbollah's and the government's construction association. In fact, they are required to stand in additional lines, since at least six governmental bodies and offices are involved in the rebuilding, and each has its own sectoral and political account.

The government and Nasrallah have their eyes set on the next stage, in which both sides will be asked to present their achievements and face criticism for their shortcomings - not regarding the war, which is still considered a victory, but in the project to rebuild the country.

Historic opportunity

Siniora sees the rebuilding as a historic opportunity to undermine Hezbollah's civilian base, specifically in Hezbollah-controlled domains in the south and Baalbek; and to invest in the Shi'ite regions, and thus change the government's image as a Sunni-Christian organization that does not care for the real poor of Lebanon, the Shi'ites.

For Nasrallah it is a struggle for his political base, especially after the damage he caused the country and particularly his people in the South, in Baalbek and in southern Beirut.

The rebuilding serves as a conflict ground also for Iran and Saudi Arabia, and several other Arab countries. Will the rebuilding of Lebanon be Arab or Iranian? Shi'ite or Sunni?

This is a new and encouraging arena of confrontation. For this is not about a civil war or violent struggles between sects and factions, but at long last a civic struggle, fought for resources and political influence through a peaceful tool: money. This is not a new "power tool" in Lebanon. Former prime minister Rafik Hariri used it when he bought the support of his opponents, Syrians included, through millions of dollars he slipped into their pockets, but he never threatened violence. For Hezbollah that would be a novelty, if indeed it puts down the gun and picks up the checkbook.