A year after liberation, there’s little to celebrate in South Lebanon

Published May 27th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

One year after Israel’s May 24, 2000, withdrawal from South Lebanon, and saber-rattling across the border tended to drown out the very muted celebration taking place to mark the occasion.  


Several reasons could be attributed for the subdued anniversary. In recent weeks, the conflict in the still-disputed strip at Shaba’a Farms, to the north of the area previously occupied by Israel, threatened to spread along the length of the border between Israel and Lebanon. And, from an economic perspective, there did not seem too much to celebrate. 


This was not the mood a year earlier, following the hurried withdrawal of Israeli forces, southward across the border. Then, the euphoria of the moment was equaled by the rhetoric, both on the part of government in Beirut and on the part of other Arab governments, who promised funding and assistance to the economically beleaguered south. But precious few of the promises were translated into hard cash, and, as South Lebanon ceased to be a fixture in the headlines, even the promises faded away. 


South Lebanon’s economy has been held hostage to its geographic location since the early 1970s when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) became the dominant force in the area, using it as a springboard to attack northern Israel. The Israeli army invaded it in 1978, withdrew, and next invaded again in 1982, when it evicted the PLO from the region. It was to stay there for 18 years. 


Following Israel’s invasion in 1982, more than two-thirds of South Lebanon’s 300,000-strong population left the area, leaving 77,000 people in the Israeli occupied zone, which included 114 villages. When Israel withdrew, it was believed that many of the former residents would return, but, to date, it is estimated that not much more than 5,000 people have chosen to do so, and many of them are elderly. 


During the years of the Israeli occupation, the residents of the south were economically dependent upon Israel and its administration in the area. At least 7,000 people were employed by the militia it created, the South Lebanon Army. Still more worked in administrative positions, and others would cross the border each day to work on Israeli farms and in Israeli factories.  


When the Israeli occupation ended, the places of employment that supported the region for 18 years disappeared. And so did about 6,500 Southern Lebanese, who fled into Israel to escape being convicted on charges of collaborating with the enemy. Up to 3,000 returned, where many received relatively lenient sentences in Lebanese jails. But most of those who came back were from Muslim towns. Christian population centers, such as Marjayoun, are a mere shadow of what they were little more than a year ago. 


Today, UNIFIL, the United Nations force which patrols the border with Israel, is the largest employer in South Lebanon. But it is reducing the number of its battalions, and as a result the number of jobs available to locals has been eroded.  


The main economic activity in the south is agriculture, employing more than 60 percent of the population. But it, too, is suffering. Water distribution is a problem, with Israel threatening military retaliation if the Lebanese divert any of the southward flowing waters in order to irrigate their crops. As a result, farmers depend on naturally irrigated crops such as olives and tobacco.  


Another issue is the dumping of inexpensive agricultural produce on the Lebanese market, because of an absence of taxes and regulations and the personnel to enforce them. Syria is the biggest culprit in this area, but low-cost produce is also received from Jordan, and as far a field as Egypt. 


Farmers in the region also have to cope with an even more ominous threat. There still are an estimated 130,000 land mines scattered throughout the liberated zone. According to figures provided by the Lebanese De-mining Office at a UN-sponsored conference in Beirut, during the 22 years that Israelis were present in the area, 1,167 people were killed and 1,546 others injured by landmines. 


The physical damage that the Israelis left in their wake was considerable. According to a recent Dutch study, 2,700 homes were destroyed, 12,047 were seriously damaged and 9,730 were partially damaged. Furthermore the road system is in ruins, the water system is woefully inadequate, as is the public health system. 


According to the United Nations Development Fund, $1.2 billion is needed for the physical rehabilitation of the previously occupied zone and its adjacent areas. But, with Lebanon struggling under a massive debt burden itself and no money of its own to invest in the south, the country is almost entirely dependent upon the international community, and it has not been very forthcoming to date.  


Kuwait is one of the few countries that has worked hard to follow up on what it promised. It currently is rebuilding three villages, pretty much from scratch. Ultimately, the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED) plans to rebuild around 867 houses in seven southern villages, and a $35-million loan was arranged to finance reconstruction of a highway between Al-Hazmia and Sofar. KFAED also plans to become involved in water projects. 


Funding for rehabilitation also has been obtained from the Arab Gulf Fund for Development (AGFUND), chaired by Saudi Prince Talal Ain Abdulaziz. The United Nations Development Fund is assisting in negotiations to obtain funding from Japan and Britain for the socio-economic rehabilitation of South Lebanon.  


A draft law aimed at boosting private investment by offering tax breaks for industry is currently awaiting the approval of the Lebanese parliament, and in January the Litani River project was given the green light after Kuwait agreed to fund most of its $500 million cost. It involves the partial diversion of the Litani River, and will use water from Lake Qaraoun to irrigate up to 17,500 hectares of land from an elevation of 800 meters down to sea level. Canals will be used to carry water from the Litani further south and west. Furthermore, the project should generate considerable employment for a period of about five years. 


It should be noted that, on paper at least, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon did provide measurable economic benefits. According a report in the Assafir newspaper, exports from southern Lebanon totaled 16.050 billion Lebanese pounds in the first quarter of 2001, which constituted a rise of 89 percent compared with the corresponding period of the previous year. But, when you read between the lines, you realize that the increase was attributed to the return of occupied lands in southern Lebanon by Israel, whose output simply was not computed prior to South Lebanon’s liberation. — (MENA Report)

© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)

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