While its fighters battle "Israeli" forces in the hills of southern Lebanon, Hizbullah’s relief workers in the capital are fighting on a different front: in sweltering kitchens, on soccer fields and in makeshift clinics.
Known in the West mostly for suicide bombings and kidnappings, Hizbullah has emerged as the largest relief provider in war-ravaged Lebanon. Its efforts dwarf those of the government and international aid agencies, and they’re cementing its role as Lebanon’s leading social-welfare organization.
The militant group’s vast social services wing is spending $500,000 a day to provide food, shelter, medicine and security in Beirut for 155,000 people displaced by the fighting with "Israel", according to Hizbullah officials, who provided refugee rosters and intricate spreadsheets to document their work.
Workers for other aid organizations warn that those figures could be exaggerated, but they don’t dispute that the group’s coffers are deep and its relief programs effective.
With many Western aid agencies frozen in Beirut because of security restrictions or because their governments bar them from working alongside what’s considered a terrorist organization, Hizbullah appears to many refugees as their sole provider. More than its battlefield success, that image is crucial to Hizbullah’s post-combat staying power as it struggles to keep its promises to thousands of supporters who lost children, homes and jobs in a conflict triggered by the group’s kidnapping of two "Israeli" soldiers.
"This is the second war with ‘Israel’, and it’s the toughest," said Abbas Dibaja, who runs Hizbullah’s central kitchen, which prepares 8,000 hot meals for refugees every day. "We have to make sure what ‘Israel’ says about our supporters turning against us isn’t true."
While most international aid agencies in Lebanon are still assessing the country’s needs, Hizbullah’s long-standing welfare programs have allowed it to respond quickly, especially in its besieged stronghold in the capital’s southern suburbs. In the first days of the conflict, Hizbullah relief officials said, they divided Beirut into 13 sectors, each with a coordinator for schools-turned-camps as well as a monitor to reach out to the thousands of displaced people staying with families.
Those coordinators, in turn, oversee a web of volunteers trained in services such as nutrition, hygiene, first aid, counseling and crime prevention. Together, they tally the number of families, the ages of their children, their villages of origin and any specific medical needs, from insulin to wheelchairs. The result is an assistance program that impresses even international aid workers wary of Hizbullah’s message.
Astrid Van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman for the Lebanon operations of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, sent a team of her relief workers to examine Hizbullah-run centers.
"They were super well organized," Van Genderen Stort said. "The centers were run properly, with enthusiastic volunteers. But there were people going around with little buttons, little flags."