Lebanon: Resolve in the Ruins
Eita Al-Shaab, Lebanon
The destruction in southern Lebanon from thirty-four days fighting and Israeli air and artillery strikes is more severe than that inflicted by the Israeli military during eighteen years of occupation.
In this village of around 8,000 people near the Israeli border, the closest Lebanese village to where two Israeli soldiers were taken prisoner on July 12, Israeli armored bulldozers moved into the village and began destroying houses after the fighting began. There was house-to-house combat, and after thirty or forty houses were bulldozed, Hezbollah fighters managed to drive them off. The upended wreckage of one of the bulldozers sits over a small hill from the rubble of the houses it helped destroy.
"What could we do?" asked Nizar Said, a 35-year-old mechanic, as he gave a tour of the destruction. "If we hadn't destroyed them, they would have destroyed the whole village." As it is, air and artillery strikes have left the rest of the houses in the village unlivable if not totally destroyed.
As Umm Ali shoveled glass and other debris from her living room floor into a bucket, she explained that her family moved from room to room as different parts of the house were struck. The living room is now more of a porch, with one wall missing. Her family are tobacco farmers, and they also lost their crop.
"It's the same with every house. All houses are destroyed, every house. If not totally destroyed, they are...damaged," she said. "We can't find a house to stay in. It is impossible to live in them. People are staying with their neighbors whenever there is a spot in a house."
It is estimated that 15,000 houses or apartments--more than half of those in the south--were destroyed across Lebanon during the thirty-four days of fighting; an estimated 30,000 homes and businesses were damaged. The scene in Eita Al-Shaab repeats itself as one drives across the south from east to west. Nonetheless, Umm Ali remained undaunted.
"We will continue to sacrifice for the Sayyed," she said, referring to Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah using his religious title.
The smell of death is strong across the south, from the bodies still under houses in Eita Al-Shaab to the hospital in Sour, (Tyre) where Abed Naim had come to claim the body of his father, stored with dozens of others in a refrigerated truck.
Naim is from Silaa, 20 kilometers east of Sour, and said that his father was alive under the house for three days but that because the Israeli presence, it was impossible to get the necessary earth-moving equipment to the house. The bodies of six of his relatives, ranging in age from one year old to sixty, were still under the house, he said.
"They were all civilians," Naim said. "If only 50 percent of us were with Hezbollah before, now it is 150 percent."
In addition to the heavy death toll, Lebanon's economy has also been crippled once again. Nadwa Bassoon reopened her women's clothing shop in Sour, the south's largest city, two days after the cease-fire as less fortunate shop owners nearby swept up shattered glass from an airstrike on a nearby radio transmitter.
At first glance, the low-cut dresses in her shop nor her own western attire suggest Bassoon, like Umm Ali, would refer to Nasrallah as "her leader." "We lived in war for twenty years, and no one cared about us," Bassoon said. "Now we see someone cares about us. Everybody likes peace--but if they don't leave us in peace, we must fight."
Sour is a popular tourist destination, and Bassoon took the loss of her biggest season in stride. "If you accept profit, you must accept loss," she said.
Across southern Lebanon (and much of the rest of the country), it is hard to find an opinion that differs. Even those who say they don't agree with Hezbollah or don't necessarily support them nevertheless say that Israel, by its aggression, has left them no other choice but to accept the resistance as necessary.
"We had no choice," said Mustafa Mortada, a resident of the Hezbollah-controlled town of Baalbak in the country's Beqaa Valley as he gave a tour of a neighborhood that had been pulverized by Israeli airstrikes. But sitting in the front seat of my car, away from the Hezbollah press officers to whom I had been routed almost as soon as I entered Baalbek, Mortada considered the cost.
"Is this worth Shebaa?" he asked, referring to Shebaa Farms, a fourteen-square-kilometer strip of land that Israel occupies between the Lebanese and Syrian border in the south. The return of the land is one of Hezbollah's key demands, along with the return of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. "How much money have Hezbollah and Israel spent fighting over Shebaa?"
For those who lost their homes, Hezbollah has reportedly been providing $10,000 or more in cash for each family to rent and furnish an apartment for a year. They began distributing the aid less than a week after the cease-fire, while the government has been slow to respond, waiting for foreign donations and dealing with a bureaucracy that Hezbollah lacks. But even though the money has allowed Hezbollah to continue network of patronage that has already made it strong in the south and the Bekaa, it is the Israeli aggression that drives support for the resistance.
As he described the fighting in Eita Al-Shaab, an old man who spent the entire war in the village turned to a small boy standing next to him when asked how people in the village feel about Hezbollah.
"What are you?" he asked the boy.
"Hezbollah," the boy replied.
"We are all Hezbollah," the old man said.