As soon as the U.N. brokered cease-fire went into effect in Lebanon last Monday, Hezbollah's social welfare machine shifted into high gear. The organization, which is branded a terrorist group by the United States, has been registering thousands of Lebanese who have lost their homes during the 34 days of fighting between Israel and the Lebanon-based militant group.
Just days ago, the badly bombed southern Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik was a ghost town. Now, it is alive with traffic and the sound of heavy machinery clearing the debris of more than a month of Israeli bombardments.
In front of the rubble that is the remains of Hezbollah's television station, al-Manar, a truck blares music over a loudspeaker glorifying their cause.
In the piles of rubble that were once people's homes, large red banners have appeared, with the words, Made in the USA. Everywhere is the slogan: The Divine Victory. No where is it mentioned that Hezbollah provoked the Israeli military campaign by crossing the border on July 12 and kidnapping two Israeli soldiers.
Since the cease-fire took effect, Hezbollah has launched a new battle, this one a monumental public relations effort backed up with millions of dollars in cash. The Party of God does not want the people to turn on it, and it is soothing potential anger with stacks of one hundred dollar bills.
At one Hezbollah registration center people are filing in at a steady pace. They are welcomed by friendly volunteers who offer water and candy. Those making claims have only to bring their official identification and some sort of proof that they owned or rented a damaged or destroyed apartment. In most cases, residents receive their compensation within 48 hours.
Hezbollah official, Bilal Naim said the party is helping all Lebanese Muslim and Christian - whose homes have been destroyed or damaged. "In the south, in the Bekaa [Valley], in the north of Lebanon, everywhere in Lebanon, the same thing, everybody who lost their house or apartment we will give them $10,000 in the south and Bekaa, and $12,000 in Beirut for the stability to rent a new apartment and to buy furniture," he said.
Critics of Hezbollah say the money is coming from its biggest backer, Iran. But Naim says it is coming from donations as well as from money the group already had designated for building mosques and community centers.
Hezbollah began handing out compensation on Thursday, just three days after the cease-fire took effect. The Lebanese government, meanwhile, has not announced any plans to assist the homeless and displaced.
Hezbollah has a reputation for being a well-organized social machine. During Israel's two-decade long occupation of south Lebanon, which ended in May 2000, the group ran hospitals, schools and other community projects in the absence of the Lebanese government. But even with this reputation, people are still surprised at how fast it has mobilized during this crisis.
Hadi Mohammed Mahmoud has come to a compensation center at Al-Mahdi al-Shahid school. His apartment was not far from Hezbollah headquarters and was totally destroyed in an air strike. He says he was very impressed when he saw how Hezbollah embraced us, how they took care of us and they came and told us you are our brothers, our family, do not worry about this, we will rebuild and compensate you.
In addition to his home, Mahmoud also lost his electronics business. For now, Hezbollah is concentrating its efforts on helping people whose homes were damaged or destroyed; compensation for businesses will come later.
Nazira Farhat also lost her home to an Israeli air strike. She says she fled with just one suitcase of essential items after Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets on her neighborhood warning residents to evacuate. She has also come to the school to collect her $12,000.
A Hezbollah official checks over her paperwork and then casually pulls out a bundle of $100 bills from a black nylon bag, and hands them over to Farhat. It is not enough to replace the home, jewelry and furniture she says she has lost, but it is a start. Farhat seems satisfied; she says she cannot dwell on her possessions when others have lost their lives.