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The battle for the South

Hezbollah winning hearts and minds over the government

by Nicholas Blanford

The battle is on for hearts and minds in South Lebanon. Taking advantage of the devastating Hizbullah-Israel war last summer, the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora is hoping to undercut Hizbullah’s traditional dominance of the border district through a two-pronged approach of external financial assistance and international diplomacy.

The former is being conducted through a novel scheme of allowing nations to “sponsor” the reconstruction of southern villages. The purpose of direct funding is to bypass the state’s turgid bureaucracy and allow money to reach where it’s needed with minimum delay.

According to government-compiled statistics obtained by Executive, as of February 8, 2007, $145.5 million has been pledged to fund the reconstruction of 241 villages in South Lebanon and the western Bekaa; foreign direct funding accounts for $121.1 million of the total. The largest contributor is Saudi Arabia with $64.9 million for 42 villages, followed by the United Arab Emirates with $23.2 million for 16 villages and Kuwait with $19.2 million for 17 villages.

Gulf sheikhdoms rebuilding the South

Separately, Qatar is funding the reconstruction of four towns and villages in the border district—Bint Jbeil, Ainatta, Aitta Shaab and Khiam. Qatar has so far provided $34 million in housing assistance, according to the government figures. The Council of the South estimates total damage in the four towns at $124.5 million.

Apart from Syria, which is sponsoring two villages with a $3 million contribution and Indonesia which also is sponsoring two villages with $784,000, all the state sponsors are from the Gulf.

The political ramifications of the state sponsorship are not lost on Hizbullah. Indeed, it is especially ironic that Qatar—a country that houses the largest US base in the Middle East and has economic relations with Israel—is sponsoring the reconstruction of four towns in South Lebanon where Hizbullah fought its most stubborn defense against the Israeli onslaught last summer. Among the 42 towns and villages being sponsored by Saudi Arabia are Hizbullah strongholds such as Nabatieh and Zawtar Sharqiyeh.

Hizbullah has decided to bite its tongue and say nothing about the sources of funding, although it is fully aware that the motives behind it are not purely altruistic. By allowing key Sunni Arab countries a stake in the villages of the South, the government is hoping to chip away at the district’s reliance on Iranian funds delivered through Hizbullah.

To that end, Seniora is promoting the idea of constructing community libraries in southern villages complete with internet access to potential sponsor countries. In a recent conversation, Seniora explained to me that he hoped to open up the villages to the outside world through the internet.

Seniora’s preoccupation with South Lebanon is evident from a military map he keeps on a stand in the corner of his office in the Grand Serail. The map is covered in a red rash of dots marking Israeli cluster bomb strikes during last summer’s war.

The prime minister has invested much of his diplomatic and political energy in trying to convince the international community, chiefly the Americans and leading European nations, of the wisdom of an Israeli withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms. His seven-point plan—drawn up during the war as part of the negotiations over what became UN Security Council Resolution 1701—recommends that the Farms be turned over to the jurisdiction of UNIFIL pending a formal agreement between Beirut and Damascus on the sovereignty of the 25-square kilometer mountainside.

Resolving Shebaa Farms a necessity

Resolving the “bleeding wound” of the Shebaa Farms has become a cornerstone of the government’s foreign policy, Seniora says, and he wastes no opportunity to raise the subject with his international interlocutors.

“I don’t think there is an official in the world that has not heard of the Shebaa Farms,” he told me recently in an interview.

In 2000, the UN ruled that the Shebaa Farms is Syrian territory occupied by Israel, and that the Jewish state was not required to abandon the mountainside to fulfill Resolution 425 which called for an Israeli pullout from all Lebanese land.

It is a mark of Seniora’s diplomatic tenacity that the UN has agreed to take another look at the sovereignty of the Farms and to assess whether a modus vivendi can be reached that is satisfactory to all parties.

UN cartographers are presently attempting to delineate the geographical perimeters of the Farms, after which it will be up to the UN to assess what do next. Seniora hopes that an Israeli withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms will remove the last raison d’etre for Hizbullah’s military wing. What is the need for a resistance if there is no longer any occupation to resist?

However, Hizbullah long ago finessed this argument by declaring that the resistance is required for as long as Israel remains a threat to Lebanon. Such a nebulous, open-ended condition means that Hizbullah would retain its arms until at least the conclusion of a comprehensive Middle East peace—far longer than Seniora and his political allies care to contemplate.

Seniora believes that the level of foreign support for his government will be measured by the international response to his Shebaa Farms initiative. “This is one of the very important tests of support for this government. Economic support is essential, but not sufficient. We need the political support as well,” he says. He added that he was seeing the “first signs of readiness” from the international community to support an Israeli withdrawal.

Seniora’s actions may be limited

But that readiness may not translate into action. The US is reluctant to give Israel the necessary coercive shove for a withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms because of the fragility of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s domestic standing. The Olmert government may well yet collapse due to the continuing political backlash from the Hizbullah-Israel war. That argument is heightened by the fact that Israel can be offered no guarantees that Hizbullah will disarm if the Shebaa Farms are liberated.

“Hizbullah’s arms are an obstacle to the [proposed Israeli withdrawal from the] Shebaa Farms rather than a solution,” one Western ambassador told me recently.

For now, Hizbullah has chosen to fight its battles on a political level against the government in Beirut rather than militarily against Israel from its traditional stomping ground south of the Litani river. But that may not last much longer. Hizbullah has indicated it is willing to mould some form of national resistance force—similar perhaps to the Hizbullah-trained and -directed multi-faith Lebanese Resistance Brigades, which participated in attacks against Israeli occupation forces in the late 1990s.

If the confrontation between the government and the opposition continues to stagnate, Hizbullah may begin to look anew at the military possibilities in the South—further complicating Seniora’s efforts to reach a peaceful solution.

NICHOKAS BLANFORD is a Beirut-based journalist and author of Killing Mr Lebanon – The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its impact on the Middle East

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