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Hezbollah relief centres well run: UN: $500,000 U.S. spent daily on food, shelter

Ottawa Citizen

August 8, 2006

While its fighters battle Israeli forces in the hills of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah'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, Hezbollah 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 U.S. a day to provide food, shelter, medicine and security in Beirut for 155,000 people displaced by the fighting with Israel, said Hezbollah 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, Hezbollah appears to many refugees as their sole provider. Even more than its battlefield success, that image is crucial to Hezbollah'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 Hezbollah's central kitchen, which prepares 8,000 hot meals for evacuees every day. "We have to make sure what Israel says about our supporters turning against us isn't true. We have to stand behind our people and make sure they don't suffer even a single day."

While most international aid agencies in Lebanon are still assessing the country's needs, Hezbollah'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, Hezbollah relief officials said, they divided Beirut into 13 sectors, each with a co-ordinator for schools-turned-camps as well as a monitor to reach out to the thousands of displaced people staying with families.

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 Hezbollah-run centres. They found a highly sophisticated emergency response -- and attention to politics.

"They were super well organized," Ms. Van Genderen Stort said. "The centres were run properly, with enthusiastic volunteers. But there were people going around with little buttons, little flags."

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