Hizbollah eyes recovery, not new war

BEIRUT — Hizbollah may have declared victory against Israel and lives to fight another day, but with Lebanon in ruins and thousands of families homeless it may not risk provoking such a war again any time soon.

The Israeli government has come under fire at home for its handling of the 34-day war. It failed to destroy Hizbollah whose fighters fought fierce battles on the ground against the overwhelming military might of the region’s superpower.

But the price in lives and destruction was high for Lebanon, highest among Hizbollah’s own Shiite Muslim support base.

“Hizbollah does not want at this stage a resumption of violence,” said Michael Young, commentator for the Beirut Daily Star newspaper.

“That is why Israel has escalated, because it sees Hizbollah is in a tight spot.”

“You have an up and coming Shiite middle class. These people have invested time, money and effort. People don’t want everything to be flattened every 5-10 years. Hizbollah has to take that into account.” Aware of the potential for rising discontent, Hizbollah has scrambled to compensate Lebanese for homes that were hit in a war that displaced around a million people — a quarter of the population.

The group began handing out up to $12,000 in cash to help cover the cost of rent and furniture for those who lost their homes — jumping in before state relief efforts had even got off the ground.

The sheer scale of the destruction, estimated at 1,200 dead and $3.6 billion in physical damage, not to mention a potential surge in unemployment as businesses shut down, make the coming months tough for Lebanon.

While most Shiites blame Israel and the war has failed to dent their support for Hizbollah, no one is in hurry for a rerun.

“Hizbollah will now wait. It has to recover. Its priority is now reconstruction. The same guys who did the fighting are now doing the reconstruction,” said Timur Goksel, who was spokesman for UN peacekeepers in Lebanon for over two decades and now teaches at the American University of Beirut.

“But if the Israelis are still in Lebanon in a couple of weeks we will see skirmishes. Hizbollah will not shy away from local skirmishes but the problem is these can escalate.”

While Israel failed to wipe the group out, Hizbollah spent a lot of Iranian- and Syrian-supplied firepower it had been building up since the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000. Analysts say Israel also hit some of its longer-range rocket capabilities.

“I don’t think Hizbollah will rush into another war but Israel may impose it upon them to come out looking like they did better,” said Paul Salem, director-designate of Carnegie Middle East Centre.

“Hizbollah will fight if they have to fight but they are not looking for it. They were not looking for it the first time but they played with fire. This time they will not.”

Hizbollah will not let Israel troops stay forever. Hizbollah may have let the Lebanese army into the south but that does not mean its fighters are gone.

“In my 20 or more years in the south, I never saw a uniformed, armed Hizbollah fighter in the streets,” said Goksel.

“That has not changed. They live in these villages but now they have put the uniform and the gun under the bed.”

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