New York Times
Charity Wins Deep Loyalty for Hezbollah
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
TYRE, Lebanon, Aug. 5 — Hezbollah paid for his wife’s Caesarean section. It brought olive oil, sugar and nuts when he lost his job and even covered the cost of an operation on his broken nose.
Like many poor Shiites across southern Lebanon, Ahmed Awali, 41, a security guard at an apartment building in this southern city, has received charity from Hezbollah for years. He says he is not a member. He does not even know the names of those who helped him.
Hezbollah fighters move like shadows across the mountains of southern Lebanon; its workers in towns and villages, equally as ghostly, have settled deeply into people’s lives.
They cover medical bills, offer health insurance, pay school fees and make seed money available for small businesses. They are invisible but omnipresent, providing essential services that the Lebanese government through years of war was incapable of offering.
Their work engenders a deep loyalty among Shiites, who for years were the country’s underclass and whose sense of pride and identity are closely intertwined with Hezbollah.
Their presence in southern Lebanon is so widespread that any Israeli military advance will do little to extricate the group, which is as much a part of society as its Shiite faith.
“The trees in the south say, ‘We are Hezbollah.’ The stones say, ‘We are Hezbollah,’ ” said Issam Jouhair, a car mechanic. “If the people cannot talk, the stones will say it.”
Hezbollah is nowhere but everywhere. In this city, the gateway to the fighting and the location of several of southern Lebanon’s largest functioning hospitals, clues about its fighters surface daily.
A doctor at one of the hospitals, Jebel Amal, said it currently had about 450 patients. Hospital officials, however, seemed eager to show off a few wounded women and children, but would not allow access to any other patients.
On Wednesday, a mass funeral was canceled. Authorities cited the security situation. Minutes later, the sound of rockets being launched swooshed from an area near where the burial was to have been held.
“Just because I’m sitting here in this café doesn’t mean I’m not a resistance fighter,” said Haidar Fayadh, a cafe owner, who was smoking a water pipe as his patrons sipped tiny plastic cups of coffee near pictures of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.
“Everyone has a weapon in his house,” he said. “There are doctors, teachers and farmers. Hezbollah is people. People are Hezbollah.”
The group is at once highly decentralized and extremely organized. Mr. Awali, whose job as a guard pays $170 a month, far lower wages than average, ran out of money for food shortly after his second daughter was born. He mentioned this to one of his neighbors, and days later, people with bags of groceries showed up at his tiny one-room apartment.
“They just put it down in the middle of the room and left,” said Yusra Haidar, Mr. Awali’s wife, sitting on a stoop outside their building, her young daughters, now 6 and 9, eating grapes at her feet.
But it was the health insurance, when Ms. Haidar was facing a difficult pregnancy, that saved the family. They applied for and received the insurance by submitting photographs and filling out paperwork. Someone from Hezbollah — he did not identify himself — came to inspect their apartment, and ask about their finances, checking their application.
They were issued a medical card that they can use in any hospital in Lebanon, Mr. Awali said. The $1,500 needed to pay for Ms. Haidar’s Caesarean section was now taken care of. Mr. Fayadh’s brother also is covered by the insurance, an alternative to state insurance that the group has made available to poor people for only about $10 a month.
“This is what Hezbollah does,” Mr. Fayadh said, with the Hezbollah station, Al Manar, flashing on the television screen behind him.
Most connections with the group are indirect. Its fighters are a part of the population, and identifying them can be close to impossible. On a mountain road not far from the Israeli border on Tuesday, a beat-up, rust-colored Toyota was parked with its doors open. Several men in ordinary clothes were standing on the road. They were in a hurry. One was carrying what appeared to be a hand-held radio, the trademark Hezbollah talking tool.
“No photo, no photo,” he said, walking away from the car.
The next day, the same man, in the same clothes, was standing in a hospital parking as hospital authorities were preparing to bury 88 bodies in a mass grave.
“They are ghosts,” said Husam, a thin unemployed man in a black T-shirt who was waiting for coffee at Mr. Fayadh’s shop. “Nobody knows them.”
Mr. Jouhair, the mechanic, says his son, Wissam, is a medic at the hospital in Bint Jbail, a town that is now largely leveled after Israeli fighter jets bombed it last week. Mr. Jouhair worked to avoid questions about his son, but it seemed clear he had been helping heal wounded fighters.
Hezbollah’s help for Mr. Fayadh came in the form of a canceled electricity bill. Some months ago, a bill amounting to thousands of dollars came for his café. He could not pay it.
“Hezbollah intervened for me to get the price down,” he said, fiddling with his empty plastic cup. “They said, ‘This is insulting for the people.’ ”
The bill came from Beirut. The electric company had sent out bills for a large sum before, something that was particularly frustrating for Mr. Fayadh, who had to transfer his four children from private to public school two years ago, because he could no longer afford the $1,000 annual fee for each child. He blamed the government of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which he said was corrupt and arrogant, ignoring the needs of southerners.
That sentiment is expressed by many here, who see themselves as separate from the Lebanese in the north and center of the country who support a government coalition that is often referred to as March 14, for the day in 2005 when thousands rallied to support them.
“I don’t trust them,” Mr. Jouhair said, as a Hezbollah station played on a radio under a small tree near his tire changing shop. “They do not represent me.”
Hezbollah members also act as silent police, keeping tabs on neighborhoods. Members in cars cruise about, stopping and asking questions at any sign of commotion. Late Friday afternoon, in a suburb of Tyre, men gathered to speak to a visitor and, within minutes, a bearded man in a button-down blue shirt and belted slacks walked up to the group.
“What’s going on here?” the man said, squinting in the sun. “What is she asking about?”
Residents identified the man as the Hezbollah security officer in the neighborhood. He carried a hand-held radio and fielded three cellphone calls in the course of a few minutes. He refused to identify himself. When asked about Hezbollah in the area, he replied, “Hezbollah is us, from the smallest child to the oldest man.”
The deep attachment to Hezbollah here has its roots in recent Lebanese history. In the Israeli invasion in 1982, Shiites across the south welcomed the Israelis, because they had come to fight the Palestinians, who had made their lives difficult for years. But as the occupation dragged on, Israelis came to be hated by the Shiites here, a feeling that is now passed on to small children growing up in the Lebanese south.
“What is that sound?” said Hani Rai, a neighbor of Mr. Jouhair, directing the attention of his small daughter Sara to the whine of a drone in the sky. “Voices of Israeli planes.”
Sara, who is only 3, can already recite a chant glorifying Mr. Nasrallah.
Now, Hezbollah’s military branch is separate from its social works, but in its early days it began together, organizing water delivery for people in Dahiya, the Shiite area in south Beirut, the scene of some of some of the most complete destruction in this war.
Several residents who knew Hezbollah members said they were trained and groomed for up to five years before becoming full-fledged members. The military wing is so secretive that sometimes friends and family members do not know a loved one is a part of it.
Mr. Rai said he was stunned to learn that a close friend of his, Muhammad, was a Hezbollah fighter. He learned of his membership only after his killing some years ago. His body was returned to his family in an Israeli military prisoner exchange, Mr. Rai said.
“When he would leave for a mission, he would say, ‘I’m going to Beirut,’ ” he said.
Mr. Rai has also been helped by Hezbollah: It paid for a relative’s heart operation.
In Tyre, even in this time of war, the group is still as elusive as ever. On Saturday afternoon, after Hezbollah fought Israeli commandos for several hours here just before dawn, men with serious faces, several of them bearded, walked purposefully through the halls of Hakoumi Hospital. Several stood by a large stack of coffins. One studied a list. Another looked distraught, his hair disheveled, his clothes unkempt. When a reporter approached, they turned and walked in the other direction.
“You are sitting here. Do you see anybody from Hezbollah?” said the hospital director, Dr. Salman Zainedine. “I’ve been here for a long time. I haven’t seen one Hezbollah body in this place.”