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The grass roots of success.

HIZBOLLAH HAS come a long way from its origins in 1982 as a rag-tag group of guerillas fighting the Israelis. It is now a tightly-organised group with an impressive military structure, a television and radio station, and an extensive programme of social services.

Hizbollah, backed up by this coordinated infrastructure, ran a successful campaign in Lebanon's parliamentary elections held last August and September, winning eight seats in the legislature. The pro-Iranian group now figures as the main element in a 12-seat Islamic fundamentalist bloc.

A major reason for Hizbollah's successful move into the political mainstream is the backing it has procured through an extensive programme of social services for the Shia population, in place of the scant assistance provided by the Lebanese government.

The electorate in the mainly-Shia area of Baalbek in the Beqaa region, which voted overwhelmingly for the Hizbollah list of candidates, remembered the help rendered by the Islamists during the previous winter's snowstorm which engulfed the area. Hizbollah organised teams of relief workers to open roads and distribute food and blankets to cut-off villagers.

Hizbollah's organised effort overshadowed the "too little too late" assistance provided by the Lebanese state. Hussein al Husseini, then parliament Speaker and traditional feudal lord in the Baalbek region, was conspicuous by his inaction and apparent unconcern.

The Beqaa, an agricultural region traditionally neglected by the state authorities in Beirut, is Hizbollah's birthplace and springboard from which the group has spread its influence into other areas of the country.

Hizbollah finances a wide-ranging welfare system in the region which includes: a free taxi service for farm hands to reach remote fields and villages; sponsored supermarkets which sell food at reduced prices and where particularly impoverished families can get free food packages with ration cards; and low-cost or even free medicine and hospitalisation at one of two hospitals in Baalbek built and financed by Hizbollah.

Residents in Hizbollah's other main area of influence, Beirut's teeming southern suburbs, have also enjoyed similar services. When Hizbollah seized control of the suburbs from rival Shia group Amal in 1988 it embarked on an aid programme to improve daily life for the residents of the woefully-deprived area.

Hizbollah provided badly-needed drinking water to the area's residents, organising the daily replenishment of local reservoirs. A system was also arranged for mobile generators to pump up water into the roof-top cisterns of private buildings which had remained empty due to the lack of state-provided electricity.

Education is another arena in which Hizbollah is active. The Islamic group pays school fees for children of poor families, thereby ensuring ample recruitment of young Shias into its ever-swelling ranks in the future. One sublime irony is that many Shia students who are Hizbollah sympathisers are sponsored by the Islamic group to study a Western-style education at the American University of Beirut.

The Shia of south Lebanon, in an area which has for long been the stronghold of Amal, are also feeling the seductive allure of the fundamentalists. When Israeli troops moved out of their so-called "security zone" in south Lebanon last February and smashed their way into two villages, it was the Jihad al Baniya (Holy Struggle for Reconstruction), an offshoot organisation of Hizbollah, that financed the repairs of over 1,000 homes and shops once the Israelis had pulled back.

Hizbollah is making serious inroads into Amal's support in south Lebanon. Amal's leader Nabih Berri recognised this reality when he felt obliged to form a coalition electoral list with his increasingly-popular Hizbollah rivals for the parliamentary elections.

Berri, who is not bankrolled to the same extent as Hizbollah, is fighting a losing battle for the heart of the Shia community in Lebanon. It still remains a moot point exactly how much Iran finances Hizbollah's social welfare programmes - neither Hizbollah nor Iran are letting on. But while funds are accumulated locally from the alms-giving (zakat) of wealthy and pious Shias, it is generally believed that the lion's share of the bill for the welfare projects is picked up by Iran.

Hizbollah's outcry for an improvement in the daily life of the thousands of deprived Shias in Lebanon was a call picked up more by Iran, which forsees the strategic opportunities that could arise from supporting fellow Shias in Lebanon, than by the Lebanese state itself.

The Hizbollah candidates in the country's new parliament will work to ensure state expenditure is more evenly distributed to cover the long-neglected Shia areas in the Beqaa, the south and the capital's southern suburbs.

With Hizbollah now enjoying a role in state institutions, time will tell if the traditional propensity of Lebanese parliamentary politics to corruption and financial misdealing will contaminate the group or whether Hizbollah will continue its welfare programmes.
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Title Annotation:Lebanon's Hezbollah Islamic fundamentalist group
Author:Trendle, Giles
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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