The Promise and Politicization of Post-War Reconstruction in Haret Hreik
Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”
By Eric Lob
After the month-long war between Israel and Hizbullah (The Party of God) in July 2006 decimated Lebanon’s Shiʿi territories, the party was obligated to fulfill the promise of its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, to make these territories more beautiful and better than before. As had been the case with previous conflicts against Israel, Hizbullah’s reconstruction and development organization, Jihad al-Binaʾ (JB) (Construction Jihad), was technically in charge of the reconstruction. During the early stages of the reconstruction, JB removed rubble and cooperated with the party’s think tank, the Consultative Center for Studies and Documentation, to conduct surveys, produce maps, and collect data that assessed the damage.
On 24 May 2007, Hizbullah established a non-profit and private planning agency called Waʿad (the Promise) – which was named after Nasrallah’s promise – to supervise and coordinate the reconstruction of demolished apartment buildings in the Haret Hreik neighborhood or municipality of Southern Beirut. Waʿad also undertook rebuilding operations in the areas of South Lebanon that were under Hizbullah’s political control. Hizbullah established Waʿad to complement and bolster JB’s resources and capabilities during this sizeable reconstruction. The party likely also did so in an attempt to circumvent the terrorist designations and economic sanctions that the United States had imposed on JB during the first year of the reconstruction on 20 February 2007 – even though Waʿad was subjected to the same designation and sanctions nearly two years later during the reconstruction on 6 January 2009.
Despite facing US designations and sanctions, JB and Waʿad seemingly performed an impressive feat of engineering by reconstructing and renovating 270 buildings, 941 apartments, and 1,771 stores, warehouses, and commercial spaces in Haret Hreik between 2006 and 2012. One resident – who had his apartment reconstructed and renovated by JB and Waʿad – heaped unadulterated praise upon them while showing off his new residence, which, as Nasrallah had promised, was allegedly more beautiful and better than before (author interview, 15 July 2012). In reality, JB and Waʿad had reinstated the pre-war status quo for approximately 200 private property owners (including the abovementioned resident) – who ostensibly were members and supporters of Hizbullah – in an attempt to advance its political and social priorities. They included controlling and taking credit for the reconstruction, preserving population density and preventing population displacement or outside resettlement, reaffirming a mediator or interlocutor status between the community and the state, renewing legitimacy among the community and maintaining service provider credibility, reasserting dominance and exercising political sovereignty over the territory and constituency, and achieving spatial hegemony and further reducing the spaces of contestation.
During the reconstruction, Hizbullah, JB, and Waʿad sidelined municipal officials and public authorities (even those who were affiliated with the party), architects and academics, and public dwellers (e.g., tenants, visitors, shoppers, mosque-goers, and churchgoers) and other stakeholders in prioritization, planning, and decision-making. In the process, Hizbullah, JB, and Waʿad disregarded the preferences and aspirations of these stakeholders regarding improved livability, including less population density and traffic congestion as well as more public space (e.g., sidewalks, playgrounds, and parks), pedestrian circulation, natural lighting, ventilation, and privacy. In the end, the reconstruction was marked by a noticeable dearth or even absence of public debate, deliberation, participation, inclusiveness, consultation, consensus, transparency, and accountability, with the exception of a few minor superficialities, such as the selection of building finishes, tiles, and colors.
Ultimately, the reconstruction constituted a top-down and exclusionary process that triggered local discontent among the abovementioned stakeholders and other residents. Despite Hizbullah’s attempts to protect JB and Waʿad through their NGO status, they were exposed to heightened expectations and created a buffer for the party during the reconstruction. The fact that input and feedback on the reconstruction were primarily relegated to property owners and minor superficialities narrowed the scope of this process, but also raised its stakes and rendered it contentious, as revealed by Waʿad’s director general, Hassan Jechi, as quoted by Scarlett Haddad:
Residents at first were worried and skeptical, then enthusiastic, and in the end insistent, demanding that [we] change the décor of the kitchens, the tiles in the bathrooms, etc… [One of our biggest challenges was] obtaining the approval of residents, who often changed their minds and with whom it was necessary to constantly negotiate.
Even after Hizbullah declared the official end of the reconstruction in May 2012, the popular dissatisfaction did not subside. One resident of Haret Hreik complained about “low-quality housing, un-cleared debris, insufficient parking, and the lack of greenery and public space, notwithstanding mosques” (author interview, 26 July 2012). In response, the municipality of Haret Hreik – which was affiliated with Hizbullah, but, as previously mentioned, had been sidelined by it during the reconstruction – launched a program in which youth volunteers planted trees around the area (author interview, 14 July 2012). While visiting the neighborhood on 14 July 2012, the author witnessed groups of youth volunteers planting trees. Although these activities may have partially resulted from grassroots pressure for more greenery, they may have also been inspired by and implemented in cooperation with JB’s environmental protection campaign.
In addition to generating complaints about implementation, the reconstruction created perceptions of favoritism. Coinciding with Hizbullah’s ceremony and rally that announced and commemorated the official end of the reconstruction in May 2012, residents of South Lebanon criticized the party for having dedicated greater resources to the reconstruction of Haret Hreik, the location of Hizbullah’s headquarters – a policy that corresponded to the government’s compensation scheme. In Haret Hreik, one resident insisted that, “Waʿad had exclusively serviced the owners of apartments and excluded their renters” (author interview, 26 July 2012). Another resident alleged that JB and Waʿad had mainly serviced individuals and families who joined and supported Hizbullah – a common trend among its NGOs and service providers, not to mention those of other political and religious groups (author interview, 26 July 2012). This accusation contradicted Jechi’s claim that Hizbullah had not interfered in the reconstruction, except to assist with zoning and traffic. However, in reality, Jechi and Waʿad’s board reported directly to Hizbullah’s political authority or bureau without going through the agency. Furthermore, Hizbullah members and party cadres directed JB, and its employees were affiliated with the party, even if its Central Unit of Social Services attempted to present the NGO as autonomous.
Aside from the criticism of the reconstruction’s implementation and favoritism, perceptions existed among Lebanese Shiʿa regarding the party’s corruption and embourgeoisement during this period. Jechi himself expressed concerns about the large sum of money totaling approximately $400 million that had been allocated to the reconstruction. The financial cooperation that tenuously existed and opaquely transpired during the reconstruction between the Lebanese government and Hizbullah further blurred the distinction between the two – especially since the party sat on the government’s reconstruction committee for Southern Beirut. Hizbullah claimed that it had distributed the largest portion of the reconstruction costs in the amount of $280 million and relied on only $120 million from the state. However, the fact remained that Hizbullah and Waʿad had accepted and depended on post-war funds, indemnities, and compensations from the state to partially finance the reconstruction. This undeclared partnership made it difficult for Hizbullah to disassociate itself from a government that was widely perceived as sectarian, inefficient, and corrupt.
One explanation for Hizbullah’s top-down and exclusionary reconstruction model was that its military and political priorities superseded its socioeconomic and developmental goals. Hizbullah’s primary existence and raison d’être as a military organization and a political party – the self-proclaimed Islamic Resistance in Lebanon – meant that its socioeconomic and developmental objectives were subservient to its military and political ones. Hizbullah’s war with Israel in 2006 and its battles against Syrian rebels and Sunni extremists since 2011 have subjected Lebanese Shiʿa and other citizens to continuous and intensified conflict and instability. So long as this remains the case, Hizbullah will likely continue dedicating its resources to the immediate and pressing needs of post-war reconstruction. Moreover, as Hizbullah continues its military operations and becomes increasingly integrated into the state, the party will probably continue using reconstruction to advance the strategic aims of maintaining a territorial and social base, reducing migration from target neighborhoods, and strengthening the support for the Islamic resistance and its community.
References and Further Reading
Mona Fawaz, “The Politics of Property in Planning: Hezbollah’s Reconstruction of Haret Hreik (Beirut, Lebanon) as Case Study,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38.3 (2014): 922-34.
Scarlett Haddad, “Promesse tenue: 270 immeubles à Haret Hreik entièrement reconstruits à l’initiative de Waad,” Liban, 11 May 2012, accessed 23 June 2013, https://mplbelgique.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/promesse-tenue-270-immeubles-a-haret-hreik-entierement-reconstruits-a-linitiative-de-waad/.
Eric Lob is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University. His research focuses on the politics of development in the Middle East and beyond. He is currently completing a book manuscript entitled “Reconstruction Jihad: Rural Development and Regime Consolidation in Revolutionary Iran (1979–2017).” Based on ethnographic and archival research in Iran and Lebanon, the book examines how the Islamic Republic instrumentalized rural development as a soft-power mechanism to consolidate power at home and project influence abroad. The project is based on Lob’s dissertation at Princeton University that won awards from the Foundation for Iranian Studies and the Association for Iranian Studies. His articles have appeared in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Iranian Studies, Middle East Critique, The Middle East Journal, Third World Quarterly, The National Interest, and The Washington Post, among other publications.
Further articles in the series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War” on TRAFO:
Birgit Schäbler, Introduction: The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods, 28 August 2019.
Kevin Mazur, Not Just Neo-Liberalism: Spontaneous Settlement and Violent Conflict in Homs, Syria, 4 September 2019.
Mazen Haidar, Neighbors at War in 1975-77 Beirut, 11 September 2019.
Piotr Korduba, The Reconstruction of Warsaw: Between Abhorrence and Acceptance, 18 September 2019.
Paul Sigel, “More Beautiful than Ever Before!” Neighborhood-Rebuilding in Divided Germany as Political Propaganda during the Cold War, 25 September 2019.
Allam Al-Kazei, Beyond the Atomic Bombing: The Revival of Hiroshima’s Neighborhoods, 2 October 2019.
Mohammad Hassan Khani, War Emigration and its Impact on Post-War Reconstruction of Neighborhoods: A Case Study of Khorramshahr after the Iran-Iraq War, 17 October 2019.
Namariq Al-Rawi, Baghdad Neighborhoods: Processes of Resilience against the Internally-reflected Conflict of 2006–2008, 24 October 2019.
Kefah Ahmed M. Najjar, Youth Teams and Reconstruction, 7 November 2019.
M. Wesam Al Asali, Majida Malo, and Iyass Shahin, Informality for Reconstruction: A Possible Partnership, 21 November 2019.
Kai Vöckler, Post-Conflict Cities and Neighborhoods, 27 December 2019.
Arshi Javid, Texture of Loss: Tapestry of a Withered Neighborhood from Kashmir, 9 January 2020.
John Hanna, The Space of Literature and Lebanese Wars, 30 January 2020.
Mona Fawaz and Nada Moumtaz, Neighborhoods as Propertied Landscapes: Lessons from Beirut’s Reconstructions, 4 February 2020.
Citation: Eric Lob, The Promise and Politicization of Post-War Reconstruction in Haret Hreik, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.02.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/22080.