South Lebanon: the boom that never came

Five years after Israeli ouster, south Lebanon still awaits recovery.

By Jihad Siqlaoui – May 23 , 2005

Lebanese residents near the border with Israel had high hopes for an economic recovery when Israeli forces unilaterally withdrew five years ago, but the boom never came.

The border region has remained an economic wasteland, marred by sporadic violence.

The Shiite militia Hezbollah has maintained a heavy armed presence since the last Israeli soldier withdrew on May 24, 2000 from an 850-square-kilometer (330-square-mile) border zone in accordance with UN Resolution 425.

For Hezbollah, the battle is not over.

Across the countryside, Hezbollah fighters furrow themselves into ravines, transport mobile missile launchers and spy with infrared binoculars over the barbed-wire border fence.

Exchanges of cross-border fire and retaliatory Israeli air strikes intermittently take place around the Shebaa Farms, which lies at the intersection of Lebanon, Israel and Syria.

Now, as Lebanese elections approach, Hezbollah political candidates have raised posters in southern Lebanese towns calling for “liberation of the Shebaa Farms”.

The area was captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war but is now claimed by Lebanon with the consent of Damascus.

Hezbollah was originally formed by Iranian Revolutionary Guards after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and has repeatedly vowed to fight until the whole of the country is liberated.

The group is known to have thousands of active militants, a tightly-knit security apparatus and is an important player in Lebanese politics.

Hezbollah is also a major provider of social, educational and health services to thousands of Shiites in traditionally impoverished areas, mainly in Beirut’s southern suburbs and in the south and the east of the country.

Using a sustained campaign of guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah was instrumental in leading to Israel’s withdrawal after 22 years of occupation.

In spite of a widespread border demining operation, led by the United Nations with the aid of Arab states in an attempt to make the land farmable again, most villagers have not returned to their lands.

Antoine, 51, a spice seller in the border town of Ain Ebel, said he was “disappointed.”

“The main activity here, cultivating tobacco, doesn’t attract educated young people,” said Antoine. “Unemployment is increasing and so is the rural exodus. Promises of development aid were only lip service.”

Fadi Badrane, from the border town of Yarine which was destroyed during the occupation, said “only 45 of 250 residents have been able to come back thanks to Kuwaiti aid. Yarine is deserted most of the year.”

Others said lack of security has kept them from returning.

“The weak presence of state infrastructure and especially the lack of police is not reassuring,” said Marie, 48.

“Despite our respect for the men of Hezbollah, they are preventing us from farming our olive trees, because they use them as camouflage,” she added.

Still, few residents openly criticise Hezbollah for the state of the border region. Instead, they lodge their complaints against the Lebanese government and place their hopes for change in Lebanon’s elections starting on May 29.

Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah candidate for parliament, blamed the “incompetence of the government, which has not thought of any development plan”, and said Hezbollah would continue the fight.

“Social projects alone can’t fix the unemployment problem in an area where agriculture is not profitable,” he said.

“Our priority is to evacuate Israel from the Shebaa Farms and to fight against UN Resolution 1559,” he said, referring to a Security Council resolution of September 2004 calling for Hezbollah to be disarmed.