A young girl speaks with her mother as they attend a rally of Hezbollah supporters listening to the group's leader, Hassan Nassrallah, speak via video conference. Photo: Marwan Naamani/dpa

Ali was only two years old when his father was killed by an Israeli missile that targeted his car as he passed through the Hujeir Valley in South Lebanon in 1995. As the family’s sole breadwinner, his father’s death could have meant financial catastrophe and left Ali, his mother and his siblings struggling to survive. Instead, Ali and his relatives found relief in a common source of support for Lebanese Shiite Muslims – Hezbollah.

“Until today, my mother still receives financial compensation, and before my older brother traveled to Ghana for work, we depended solely on that for our livelihoods,” Ali, who wished to be identified only by his first name, told Asia Times.

However, in light of the continuously amplifying tensions between the United States and Iran, and the harsh sanctions imposed by Washington on the latter and its proxies under President Donald Trump, the ability of Hezbollah to provide that kind of support may be reduced.

Washington’s direct sanctions on Hezbollah – designed to prevent its participation in Lebanon’s critical banking sector – will have little effect on Hezbollah’s overall operations, sources inside the party tell Asia Times.

They point out that Iran demands that allied Lebanese Shiite political parties restrict their participation in the country’s financial and real estate sectors in order to remain “external” to the pillars of the Lebanese economy. These limitations, the sources say, are imposed to prevent conflicts between Iranian geopolitical military interests and the parties’ national financial interests.

That policy has insulated Hezbollah from direct US sanctions.

Washington’s sanctions on Tehran – and the deteriorating economic conditions in the Islamic republic – are a different problem altogether.

“It is not the sanctions on Hezbollah that may prove troublesome,” an official in the party, who like all others interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity, told Asia Times.

“Rather it is the sanctions on Iran.”

Welfare at stake 

Hezbollah, a Shiite movement birthed during the Lebanese civil war to combat Israel’s occupation of the country’s south, is primarily known for its military exploits. But over the 30 years the group has existed, the powerful movement has developed into more than an armed group with a political wing. It has become a source of security and livelihood for tens of thousands of families, providing jobs, healthcare, free or subsidized education, and even discount cards on a wide variety of consumer products.

In many villages in South Lebanon, municipalities held by Hezbollah have improved infrastructure, built football pitches and swimming pools, and subsidized 24/7 electricity using generators provided by Iran.

This is not to say there is no widespread corruption that Hezbollah overlooks or protects, such as the generator cartels capitalizing on the systematic electric outages in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

But despite such examples, Hezbollah’s welfare activities have only served to elevate the already quasi-mythical reputation acquired by “The Party of God” since its emergence in 1982 and despite its relative fall from grace (among more tangential blocs of support) after its 2013 intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime.

Hezbollah fighters plant Lebanese and Hezbollah flags at Juroud Arsal on the Syria-Lebanon border on July 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Mohamed Azakir
Hezbollah fighters plant Lebanese and Hezbollah flags at Juroud Arsal on the Syria-Lebanon border on July 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Mohamed Azakir

Zeinab, a 26-year-old part-time elementary school teacher, is one of those Lebanese whose family is tied up in the movement’s military activities and largesse. Her brother was killed in 2006, fighting with Hezbollah against Israel in a devastating month-long war that killed some 1,300 Lebanese. But though Zeinab lost a brother, she says – were it not for Hezbollah – she would have lost her father, too.

The 72-year-old “would have died of heart failure” after he suffered a series of strokes back in 2014 had it not been for Hezbollah covering his hospital stay and treatment, she said. “He needed expensive medicine and treatment that we couldn’t afford,” Zeinab explained, “and we don’t have health insurance.”

Like many Lebanese, Zeinab’s job does not provide her with health insurance because she does not have a contract, “nor does it cover my parents.”

Her father used to own a small toy shop in their hometown in southern Lebanon where they’ve lived their entire lives, and he has no pension nor any health insurance of his own now that the shop is closed.

It is a familiar situation across marginalized towns and villages in Lebanon. Reports of people being denied medical care, and even dying at the gates of hospitals are common in the local media.  

It would be a challenge to locate a Shiite family in South Lebanon that does not have at least one relative who is affiliated with Hezbollah or who has died fighting with them, be it against Israel or in Syria. Whether it is a father, son, mother or daughter, working for the party in the military or non-military wings, dead or alive, it is likely that their immediate family will depend on the party for their livelihood.

Poor will suffer

Economist Ghazi Wazni, who is critical of the party, points out that “Hezbollah has been careful for years to declare in its statements that it does not work with the Lebanese banking sector and has no direct or indirect relations with the banking sector.”

The evident disconnect between Hezbollah’s finances and the Lebanese banking sector does not mean that the nation’s economy as a whole will be safe. Although the sanctions will not directly worsen crises in the financial and real estate sectors, national consumption will further plummet. The livelihoods of a substantial section of the working class and the poor will suffer if there are cuts to welfare services and wages provided by the party.

“Hezbollah’s budget is very high,” the official said. “Nevertheless, the party is capable of reducing it to as low as half of what it is without that affecting its military and political activities.”

Some of these numerous sub-budgets facing cuts, the official explained, include “funding allocated for the support of allied media outlets, and other political parties and personnel.” The implications of such cuts may spell crisis for media outlets aligned or affiliated with Hezbollah, in addition to a number of institutions from Shiite seminaries and research centers to medical institutions.

Another Hezbollah official revealed that “over the years, Hezbollah managed to develop a notable financial infrastructure that would keep it fully functional for around four to five years under sanctions on Iran.” Even so, he adds, there will have to be budget cuts to survive the hit.

“Unfortunately, this will inevitably cause difficulties for our community,” he said. 

There have been rumors that salaries of full-time Hezbollah members will be cut by $200 (from a base of $800) due to the sanctions. “It hasn’t happened yet, but people are always talking about it,” a full-time Hezbollah member said. “They have reduced certain non-military budgets, and it is becoming increasingly worrisome to some of us who do not have alternative jobs to depend on.” 

Another Hezbollah member from a southern Lebanese village bordering Israel mused, “Assume we did this only to earn a livelihood.

“What choice would we have other than moving to Beirut where there are no jobs and the rent is higher than the minimum wage? The alternative would be no money for food and no education. What if someone needs a hospital? Who will pay?”

After a moment’s pause, he chuckles. “That’s if we weren’t fighters of conviction.”

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