Why US sanctions won’t affect Hezbollah’s popular support

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Article Summary
US sanctions on the Lebanese Hezbollah group appear to have affected the party’s various wings financially, including the construction association known as Jihad al-Binaa, but popular support and projects are still going strong.

It does everything from beekeeping to reforestation to offering advice on optimum storage of avocados — but is also designated as a terrorist organization by the US government.

Jihad al-Binaa has provided Lebanese communities with wide-ranging services in agriculture, training and construction since it was founded in 1988 as the development association of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed political and military group.

“As well as military work, Hezbollah has since the beginning been concerned with political, cultural and healthcare issues,” Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah told a mostly male, middle-aged audience at an event July 26 for Jihad al-Binaa’s 31st anniversary. He spoke via video link shown at a mosque in Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs.

The anniversary — with the slogan “We carry on” — was widely advertised on pro-Hezbollah messaging channels and social media networks. It comes at a time when the “Party of God” — the group's literal translation in Arabic — faces greater-than-ever pressure from US sanctions, and as it wants to remind support bases of its legacy, analysts say. 

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Supporters circulated videos and slideshows singing Jihad al-Binaa’s praises, listing its projects and the number of citizens reached. But a request by Al-Monitor to Hezbollah to visit Jihad al-Binaa projects was refused.

“Environmental training: 258,000 beneficiaries,” boasted a caption of a picture posted on Facebook showing children in yellow tabards picking up rubbish from a beach.

 Another online poster indicated the association’s landmark Al-Abbas drinking water distribution project had delivered 9.1 million barrels.

Jihad al-Binaa officials openly admit Iran’s funding role, which comes as part of the Islamic Republic’s wider provision of cash, weapons and ideology for its Lebanese proxy. Overall, Tehran provides Hezbollah with some $700 million a year, according to a US estimate cited by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Other regional allies have also supported Jihad al-Binaa’s service provision. The Syrian government, backed in the ongoing conflict by Hezbollah fighters, supplies Jihad al-Binaa’s reforestation program in Lebanon.

“Before the war, Syria provided 1 million tree seedlings every year,” Jihad al-Binaa associate director Abbas Atayah told Al-Monitor. “It stopped for three or four years during the conflict. But during the past four years [and] under the guidance of President Bashar al-Assad, they’ve been sending 350,000 seedlings each year.”

Jihad al-Binaa distributes the plants to municipalities and farmers — provided free as “a present from the Syrian people to the Lebanese people,” he added. The association says it works across Lebanon and sectarian divides, although most workshops and services it advertises appear concentrated in the south and in the Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah has widespread support.

Such community projects give roots to wider political alliances — in this case, quite literally.

“Political ties are generally fragile,” David Daoud, a Hezbollah and Lebanon research analyst at the advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, told Al-Monitor. “Social ties, by contrast, are far more durable. Once you build those, they’re hard to break.”

All the same, two Jihad al-Binaa officials interviewed July 26 suggested that the US sanctions — part of a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran and its proxies — have had some effect.

“There is something of an austerity policy — economic and administrative downsizing in our work, but we are still working at the same pace as we were before,” Khaled Yaghi, Jihad al-Binaa’s director for the Bekaa region, which is renowned for its agriculture, told Al-Monitor. “For example, if we paid a certain amount, we can now pay less. But the results are the same. Our administration is better. Thankfully we haven’t been too affected.”

Atayah said that Hezbollah “is not a state” and that the Lebanese government would provide citizens’ general needs.

“We are very keen to keep going and providing people and helping them with all their needs to live in dignity, but within our ability,” said Atayah. “I’m not going to say these economic sanctions aren’t having an effect — they are. But the effect on Hezbollah’s popularity isn’t great: it’s superficial, if at all.”

In March, Nasrallah said Hezbollah was “in need of its popular support and embrace.”

Since 2017, the US Treasury has sanctioned 50 individuals, businesses and organizations linked to the party. In July, it designated two Hezbollah members of parliament for the first time, alongside the group’s chief security negotiator.

Observers say that the tightened purse strings are causing ripples; but without a viable alternative, Hezbollah officials will unlikely be concerned over losing political support.

“People are complaining and not happy, but Hezbollah isn’t worried because people don’t have anywhere else to go,” said Hanin Ghaddar, a senior fellow focusing on Shiite politics at the Washington Institute in the US capital. “There are no viable alternatives to Hezbollah.”

Hezbollah frequently organizes commemoration events such as the one held for Jihad al-Binaa. Although not new, they serve for Nasrallah to comment on Lebanese and regional politics, but also to historicize and narrate the “Party of God’s” various activities for current and potential supporters alike.

“There is clear messaging here,” Ghaddar told Al-Monitor. “It’s a way of showing its communities everything the party has done for them, and why they need to support it.”

Similar events this year have included celebrations of Hezbollah's scouts, the Al-Kishaaf Al-Mahdi, and an anniversary event for its fundraising arm, the Islamic Resistance Support Association, whose gold bullet-shaped donation boxes are scattered around Hezbollah-controlled businesses, parks and visitor attractions in Lebanon.

Jihad al-Binaa won support, especially among Shiite communities, in the early 1990s for helping in reconstruction after the Lebanese civil war, and after the July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.

The 33-day conflict damaged 120,000 houses, 700 schools, and the environmental toll was “severe,” according to a UN report. Around 120,000 people lost their jobs, while 1,100 Lebanese and some 150 Israelis were killed

The US Treasury designated Jihad al-Binaa as a terrorist group in 2007, saying it was used “to raise funds for the terrorist organization [Hezbollah].”

“Jihad al-Bina has used deceptive means to seek funding for projects from international development organizations,” a Treasury document said at the time.

Reminding supporters of Hezbollah’s history is particularly crucial at present, analysts say, given financial hardship under US sanctions pressure.

“Of course, sanctions are going to bite, but Jihad al-Binaa will play a key function in Hezbollah’s limping along before the group adapts to its new situation, as it has in the past. Jihad al-Binaa has long been designated, but is still functioning,” said Daoud. “There’s a symbiosis between Hezbollah and its community. It [the party] has created goodwill through supporting people in tough times, so now people will support them.”

Back in Dahiyeh, Jihad al-Binaa officials denied that there was disgruntlement, saying that tough times will foster community solidarity.

“I think belonging to and enrolling in this path [to Hezbollah] isn’t a material link,” said Atayah. “It’s a doctrine, and money is nothing confronted with this doctrinal link.”

Corralling support is also happening through opposition to practices of US social media companies, including Facebook.

Jihad al-Binaa was one of several Hezbollah entities that saw their Facebook pages shut down in June, prompting the opening of new pages that were promoted via party-affiliated messaging groups. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

“All these things show our appeal and how much trust people have in us, and how much we trust them,” said Atayah.

“It’s noticeable that every time they [social media companies] close a page, people sympathize and interact with us more. These pages will keep on opening and keep on succeeding. If they close the door, we’ll find another one. And if they close that one, we’ll find the window.”

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Lizzie Porter is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon, focusing on Shiite politics and religion, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. On Twitter: @lcmporter

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