HIZBOLLAH HAS come a long way from its origins in 1982 as a rag-tag group of guerillas fighting the Israelis. It is now a tightly-organised group with an impressive military structure, a television and radio station, and an extensive programme of social services.
Hizbollah, backed up by this coordinated infrastructure, ran a successful campaign in Lebanon's parliamentary elections held last August and September, winning eight seats in the legislature. The pro-Iranian group now figures as the main element in a 12-seat Islamic fundamentalist bloc.
A major reason for Hizbollah's successful move into the political mainstream is the backing it has procured through an extensive programme of social services for the Shia population, in place of the scant assistance provided by the Lebanese government.
The electorate in the mainly-Shia area of Baalbek in the Beqaa region, which voted overwhelmingly for the Hizbollah list of candidates, remembered the help rendered by the Islamists during the previous winter's snowstorm which engulfed the area. Hizbollah organised teams of relief workers to open roads and distribute food and blankets to cut-off villagers.
Hizbollah's organised effort overshadowed the "too little too late" assistance provided by the Lebanese state. Hussein al Husseini, then parliament Speaker and traditional feudal lord in the Baalbek region, was conspicuous by his inaction and apparent unconcern.
The Beqaa, an agricultural region traditionally neglected by the state authorities in Beirut, is Hizbollah's birthplace and springboard from which the group has spread its influence into other areas of the country.
Hizbollah finances a wide-ranging welfare system in the region which includes: a free taxi service for farm hands to reach remote fields and villages; sponsored supermarkets which sell food at reduced prices and where particularly impoverished families can get free food packages with ration cards; and low-cost or even free medicine and hospitalisation at one of two hospitals in Baalbek built and financed by Hizbollah.
Residents in Hizbollah's other main area of influence, Beirut's teeming southern suburbs, have also enjoyed similar services. When Hizbollah seized control of the suburbs from rival Shia group Amal in 1988 it embarked on an aid programme to improve daily life for the residents of the woefully-deprived area.
Hizbollah provided badly-needed drinking water to the area's residents, organising the daily replenishment of...