Bint Jbeil is More than Just Hizbollah's Southern Stronghold

Posted in Broader Middle East | 26-Aug-08 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

It is already a tradition to spend a few days in Bint Jbeil whenever I am in Lebanon. In the media, Bint Jbeil is known for being Hizbollah's stronghold in southern Lebanon and as it is written at the entrance to the town, it is the capital of liberation.

The town of 70 000 with no more than 40 000 living there and the rest living and working mostly in Africa and the United States is undergoing a real estate boom. After the July 26 war, Qatar offered to finance the rebuilding of the town. The progress made since the last time I visited the town a few months ago and saw the construction sites is remarkable.

In spite of its label, Bint Jbeil is a calm, peaceful place, and it is safe to walk around. It’s not like you'd see the armed wing of Hizbollah marching through the town. They are there and sometimes you may spot here and there security forces that presumably belong to Hizbollah, but the weapons are not lying on the streets; there are no military exercises to be seen in broad daylight and if it weren't for the proximity to the Israeli border, one could easily mistake the town for a rather isolated resort.

Because of the construction sites, life in the town seems more dynamic. People are anxious to move in to new homes and literally no one that I talked to would welcome another conflict. Quite the opposite. This is not to say that they would not defend themselves should Hizbollah engage in yet another high cost adventure. It was interesting that when I asked about the 2006 war no one said that Hizbollah started it. However, they all agreed that they have had no choice but to protect their homes and families. The easiest explanation is that they are Hizbollah members or sympathizers, thus no wonder they take this stance. Nonetheless, while doing extensive research, I discovered that this is not the core reason. The story brings us back in time when Lebanon emerged as a republic. All governments in Lebanon until present considered only parts of the country to be worthy of its care, but never the whole country. Therefore, the problems of Bint Jbeil and the villages nearby - and not all are Shia villages - did not start with either Israel or Hizbollah, but rather with the state of Lebanon that did not exercise its sovereignty and duties as it should have.

Regardless of the reason, whether it is highly generalized corruption, sectarian mentality, disrespect for fellow citizens or some other motive, this behavior is shameful and it comes at a price for all parties.

Other parts of Lebanon are also in this situation, but southern Lebanon is perhaps the most alarming case because of Hizbollah's adventures across the border. From a socioeconomic perspective, Hizbollah did well, and politically they can do even better, but the armed wing has no place there or elsewhere as long as the country's name is Lebanon and is not being governed de jure by Hizbollah. The uncertainty about who does what and when in Lebanon is to the detriment of all, Hizbollah included.

I wish I had a penny for all the times I have been told privately or at small gatherings in the south that they'd like to have the state active there. To know that someone is taking care of their rights, and they were not talking only about the inalienable right to feel secure, but about all the other rights they officially have as citizens.

The head of the EU Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, who was also in Bint Jbeil for a short visit, said it well when he said that "the willingness to live in peace with each other must of course come from the region, from Lebanon, from Israel, from Palestine, from Syria, and even from Iran and other countries surrounding you. But we as Europeans are willing, if you want peace, and its my impression that you want peace, to help you build a stable situation here in the Middle East."

The European Union and the international community at large can help but without a real partnership between the people and the state, there is nothing to be done from outside. Money alone is no substitute for citizenry.

There were groups and parties that took advantage of the void to establish a powerful base and keep the distance between state and people. Through an aggressive pro-citizenship and pro-Lebanon campaign, the state can regain its terrain, and in time the trust of the people. Nothing of value is built overnight, but there are certainly actions that can be immediately employed to reach a positive end.

Manuela Paraipan is WSN editor Broader Mittle East.