BINT JBEIL/TYRE - At the start of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, Basma Restaurant in southern Lebanon was transformed into a place of refuge for those displaced by fighting, according to its owner Fadi Ali Basma.
“We thought we were safe here, so we opened the restaurant doors to almost 100 people to take refuge while fighting and bombing raged further south,” Basma said.
On 17 July, however, five days after fighting began, Israel carried out two air strikes on the restaurant, which lies between the southern port city of Tyre, 80km south of Beirut, and Bint Jbeil, a further 30km south-east of Tyre. One side of the building was destroyed.
“We reopened the restaurant as soon as the war finished,” Basma said. “But very few people come here. Most of the time, we sit around and wait.”
In Bint Jbeil, one of Lebanon’s oldest towns, the scene is worse. The central market, or souq, suffered severe damage as a result of an intensive Israeli military offensive. Some of the shops, which town residents had been running for generations, were completely destroyed.
“There’s a sign here that shows this shop used to sell furniture,” said photographer Misbah Hammoud while touring the market area. “But you can’t tell by looking at it, it’s so destroyed.”
Other stores, which have suffered less damage, are nevertheless in a sorry state, with rubble and dust strewn both inside and outside of shop fronts. They also remain poor avenues for income, given that the economy of the town has come to a near standstill.
Lack of income
“You would be hard pressed to find anyone here whose income hasn’t been severely indented,” said Hossam Bazze, whose pharmacy was wrecked by bombing.
Some have moved their businesses to marginally less damaged areas. Ahmed Harb, whose motor repair shop was destroyed in the conflict, has temporarily moved to another area in Bint Jbeil. “Things will go back to normal, as we have been promised by Hezbollah that it will pay for reconstruction if no one else does,” he said.
In addition to having an armed wing, Lebanese political party Hezbollah has a social services division.
Since the 34-day conflict ended on 14 August, Hezbollah has been surveying areas of the country that have suffered damage. While it has started to distribute between US $10,000 and $12,000 to owners of each house that has been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, the phase of compensating people whose incomes have been lost has yet to begin.
Qatar has pledged it would foot the bill for reconstruction in Bint Jbeil. Residents are certain that should the promise fall short, Hezbollah will take over.
But the waiting period has been painstaking. One shoe repairs shop owner, who asked not to be named, held up US $0.75 and said, “This is all I have made over the past two weeks.”
According to the government’s ‘early recovery process’ preliminary damage assessment report, both indirect and direct damages to the country’s industrial and business sector have been heavy. Direct damage alone is estimated at US $220 million.
“Early analysis indicates that over 700 industrial enterprises have suffered extensive damage,” the report reads.
In the south, the problem is exacerbated by permanent blackouts, caused by Israel’s bombing of the electricity network in a large number of population centres. “It is estimated that 95 percent of industries have come to a complete standstill or are operating at 20 percent of usual capacity,” the report adds.
The Higher Relief Council (HRC), a government body, estimated on 31 August that the previous official unemployment level of nine percent per year may shoot up to 20 percent in the coming months.
Migration versus belonging
According to Samir Makdisi, professor of economics at the American University in Beirut, a rise in unemployment will lead to a new wave of emigration, unless rapid steps towards economic recovery are taken. “In Lebanon, when you talk about unemployment, you are in fact talking about emigration,” he said.
Before this recent conflict, the majority of Lebanese were already living abroad, owing to a long history of crises driving people out of the country.
In Lebanon’s past it was skilled workers and professionals who were most likely to move. Now, according to Makdisi, the semi-skilled have joined that trend. However, in the south, which is poorer than the rest of the country, people have traditionally been more steadfast.
“Even though I am not making any money, I would rather help speed up the recovery effort by being here,” the shoe repairs shop owner said. “This is my land.”
The currently predominant will to remain in the south needs to be encouraged, Makdisi said. “The semi-skilled, those most likely to be unemployed in the present phase, could also be approached to take part in the recovery effort,” he said.
“The question is whether the Lebanese will take jobs that for so many years have been done by migrant workers, thousands of whom left during the war and haven’t returned,” Makdisi added.
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