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Putting Haret Hreik back together again

Since the late 1980s, Hezbollah has established itself as the most powerful party in the Dahiyeh.  With NGOs, think-tanks, and a police force of its own, Hezbollah controls all of the political and planning decisions of the “southern suburbs,” which are home to around 500,000 people, almost one-third of Beirut’s population. Despite its large number of residents, however, the Dahiyeh has always been somewhat isolated from much of Beirut – a problem many would like to see remedied through better urban planning as the district is rebuilt.

During the 2006 summer war, Haret Hreik – the .08 square mile heart of the Dahiyeh – was mostly reduced to rubble.  Some 265 residential, commercial, and office buildings were destroyed or severely damaged, 3,119 housing units and 1,610 commercial units were demolished, and over 20,000 residents lost their homes, according to the Haret Hreik-Reconstruction Unit report, recently published by the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut.

Map: Analysis: Land Use Before Summer 2006

Today, the buildings of Haret Hreik are swathed in huge banners, including one showing a graphic of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah raising his hand over the text, “It’s going to come back more beautiful than it was. That’s a promise from the honest Secretary-General.”

The idea of making the Dahiyeh a better place to live occurred to others as well. In the aftermath of the summer war, the AUB Reconstruction Unit was formed to propose alternative visions for the reconstruction of Haret Hreik. Their report, entitled “The Reconstruction of Haret Hreik: Design Options for Improving the Livability of the Neighborhood” treated Haret Hreik as though it were any other residential neighborhood in the capital – an integral part of Beirut rather than the privileged territory of one party.  But despite the report’s various suggestions for improving the livability of the neighborhood and Hezbollah’s promises of a new, more beautiful Dahiyeh, it seems that security concerns and greater questions of the balance of power between Lebanese factions have prompted the party to sacrifice much of Haret Hreik’s potential in order to preserve its social and political hegemony over southern Beirut.

For the reconstruction project, Hezbollah has created a brand-new foundation – Al-Waad Al-Sadiq.  Al-Waad Al-Sadiq means “the faithful promise,” and was also the name for the Hezbollah kidnapping operation last July which sparked the summer war. Waad, as an organization, is closely linked to the reconstruction arm of Hezbollah’s “Jihad al-Bina,” an NGO that has long assisted residents of the South and the Dahiyeh in rebuilding after Israeli aggressions.  The foundation manages construction and oversees subcontracting jobs in southern suburbs.

Engineer Hassan Said Jeshi, the general director of Waad, told NOW Lebanon that their plan is first and foremost concerned with preserving the social fabric of the area.  “The reconstruction process,” he said, “is therefore trying to keep the neighborhood as it was, without changing the location of the buildings.”  But, he said, the quality of the buildings will be better.  According to the plan, there will be modernized building exteriors, additional underground parking, modernized kitchens, new green spaces and playgrounds.

Directly after the war, Waad provided the residents with two choices: to either (1) rebuild their own apartments or (2) let Hezbollah assume responsibility for the reconstruction. “And the vast majority of the residents decided to deliver the reconstruction responsibility to Waad, knowing that they could trust us with their property,” said Jeshi. Residents and owners, then, granted Hezbollah the power of attorney over their property, which included handing over government compensation payments.  And where compensation payments weren’t enough, Hezbollah, which receives most of its funding from Iran, has pledged to cover the difference.

Nonetheless, there is a sense that Hezbollah may be missing a tremendous opportunity by dismissing the report’s recommendations and plans. The report was the result of a four-day design conference held at AUB in January, attended by prominent architects, urban planners and scholars.  Though they were unsuccessful in attempts to engage local stakeholders in a public debate about the reconstruction of Haret Hreik, they decided to publish the report anyway – hoping their work would provoke the debate regardless.  The report contains three sets of maps showing existing conditions, analyzing neighborhood patterns, and suggesting interventions in reconstruction.  The primary concern of the task team was to brainstorm alternatives for rebuilding the area – paying special attention to improving the public domain, addressing issues of public space, transportation and traffic, and population density. 

According to Mona Fawwaz, the AUB Reconstruction Team’s leader, the target audience of the report was the public realm.  “The state paid compensations to the private sector, while the communal space is discredited in the Waad proposal,” she said. In addition, so many families have signed everything over to Waad that Hezbollah will effectively have complete control over the reconstruction process in the Dahiyeh.  And this, many people fear, means that livability and an increased interconnectivity with Beirut proper might be sacrificed for the sake of Hezbollah’s internal security. 

In the end, the AUB Reconstruction Team’s concerns were simply not the same as Hezbollah’s.  Jeshi told NOW Lebanon that although the AUB Reconstruction Unit’s suggestions were noteworthy, Waad cannot take them into consideration because it takes too much time to implement them. “They [AUB] want to merge properties and create public spaces that would require relocating buildings and people. All this will take time due to bureaucratic and legal processes, and we cannot afford to lose time on that. Many people are waiting to get back to their homes, and this is our first priority.”

The AUB report, however, does seem to understand and appreciate the time constraints of rebuilding, which is why, according to its editors, it focuses on three types of intervention in the public domain: (1) modifying traffic patterns by redirecting through-traffic outside the neighborhood, (2) creating a network of open and green spaces and (3) introducing a variety of parking alternatives. The portion of the report that deals with the private domain suggests alternating the massing of buildings with open areas in order to improve ventilation and lighting, and increase parking and public space in the Dahiyeh.

Map: Intervention: Proposed Traffic Scheme

Although these suggestions would take more time and energy than Waad’s approach, (Marwan Ghandour, one of the report editors and an architect at Bawader Architects, thinks that planning authorities, including Hezbollah, usually do not like to leave things unfinished but would like to have full control over the results, consequently they would like to have a full scheme that includes the public and private sector. “We did not adopt such an approach since we believe that the private domain should only be overseen by the planning authority, with minimal guidelines, while residents should be encouraged to formulate project groups together with developers and architects to reconstruct their buildings,” he added.)

In the end, the residents of Haret Hreik stand to be the primary victims of Hezbollah’s policy.  However, all of Lebanon will suffer as well.  There is a growing awareness that more must be done to integrate the Shia into the rest of Lebanese society.  It is a process which starts with actions like paving roads in the South, rebuilding neighborhoods and towns devastated in last summer’s war, and funding schools.  The Lebanese government must prove that it can function like a state, so that Hezbollah doesn’t have to.  On the other hand, Hezbollah is often accused of deliberately keeping the Shia isolated.  In order to genuinely serve its constituents, the party needs to learn when to step back and let others do their job.