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Why southern Lebanon still matters

A shepherd tends to his flock of sheep near Wazzani village, south Lebanon, right next to the Israeli border. Southern Lebanon has struggled to develop because of constant occupation and conflict Heba Aly/IRIN

Time has forgotten parts of southern Lebanon, even if war and occupation have not.

Like in other parts of the south, the lack of development in Wazzani, a tiny Bedouin village on the Israeli-Lebanese border, goes back decades.

Historically tied to Jerusalem more than to Beirut, the area suffered isolation after the creation of Israel in 1948. That was followed by an influx of Palestinian militias, 22 years of Israeli occupation, the subsequent dominance of the militant and political resistance group Hezbollah, and the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

“This place died in 1948,” said one UN peacekeeper in the region. “It was never able to recover.”

The result is an area with little government presence - there is just one government-run school which shut down years ago and a health clinic that opens twice a week and doesn’t always have pain relievers.

And there has been little progress since the end of the war: Shepherds graze their sheep just as they did years ago - on land without enough forage. Empty houses are now used to shelter animals - three-quarters of the population left during the Israeli occupation, the mayor of Wazzani said, and never came back.

The south is not alone in its neglect. All of Lebanon’s peripheries are underdeveloped, and in fact, the north and east of the country - now sheltering tens of thousands of Syrian refugees - are even worse off.

But the south’s history of war and instability makes it a special case, argue the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office (RCO) and the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) mandated to monitor the cessation of hostilities between Lebanon and Israel.

“It’s a very fragile part of the country,” said Robert Watkins, UN resident and humanitarian coordinator. “We ignore it at our own risk.”

The past few years have brought an unprecedented period of calm to the south - residents hesitate to call it stability - and the UN leadership here sees this as an opportunity to sustainably engage the area after decades of abandonment by trying to increase government services and economic development.

"There will never be progress in the security of the region without development. You cannot have peace and stability, if you don’t have jobs, economic opportunities, education, basic services"

But as the Syrian refugee crisis in northern and eastern parts of the country has distracted donors, aid workers and the government alike, the pleas in this remote and delicate part of the country are falling - for the most part - on deaf ears.

Construction boom

Following the 2006 war, hundreds of millions of dollars of aid poured into the razed towns of southern Lebanon, prompting a construction boom that provided employment and gave residents a new sense of hope.

But much of the money was misspent - either through corruption or a lack of long-term vision, creating what one UN peacekeeper called many “white elephants” and “parachute projects”.

“The aid didn’t build enough of a foundation… it just gave us a bit of a taste,” civil society activist Ali Dia told IRIN in the southeastern border district of Marja’ayoun. “It’s like they descended a bucket into the well, but cut the rope half-way down.”

Then, around 2009 and 2010, the impact of the global financial crisis set in; the south’s post-conflict recovery was considered more or less complete; crises appeared elsewhere; and the money stopped flowing. UN agencies packed up and left for other parts of the country.

“For the last four years, we have been with a minimum UN agency presence in the south,” said Svjetlana Jovic of UNIFIL’s civil affairs unit, which guides so-called “quick-impact” projects as part of its peace-keeping activities. “There was this trend of thinking: ‘UNIFIL is there. UNIFIL can take care of it… As peacekeepers, we do small projects, but we cannot rebuild government authority or provide services… This gap can be felt now. We cannot do it alone.”

Government presence

In the meantime, more than a decade after the Israeli withdrawal, the government has failed to establish itself here.

In Marja’ayoun, at the far end of a mountain strip that was once the so-called security zone occupied by Israel from 1978-2000, the Social Development Centre of the Ministry of Social Affairs is meant to help the most vulnerable - the poor, the elderly, those with special needs; to provide computer training and run children’s camps; to offer some health services.

But with a staff of seven and a budget that barely covers salaries; the centre’s young, inexperienced manager feels her hands are tied.

“The [support] from the Ministry is very, very poor,” Maya Hasban told IRIN. “In five years, the Ministry hasn’t designed a single activity for us. They’re not able. They can’t even pay us our salaries on time.”

Most of her projects are run on donations from aid agencies, and as such are unsustainable.

The Ministry of Social Affairs says services are available: the roughly 1,000sqkm of Lebanon’s two southern governorates are home to 46 health centres and eight government hospitals, for example.

“I think that’s more than enough,” said Adnan Nassreddine, who manages the Social Development Centres at the Ministry in the capital, Beirut. “The state cannot open a health centre in every village.”

But Hasban is not alone in her complaints. Anis Slika, the mayor of the small Druze village of al-Fardis, jokes that he is both clerk and police because he cannot afford to pay either.

Instead, most people in the south access services offered by political parties, like Hezbollah, and at a cost.

“Someone from Hezbollah may come to your door and say, ‘We treated you at our hospital recently. I hope you’ll remember that on Election Day’,” one local explained.

The fear is that the longer the government stays away from the south, the stronger Hezbollah’s dominance becomes. And the longer youth have no jobs here, the greater the chance of radicalization.

A study commissioned last year by the UN to assess human security in the south found high outmigration, regular protests over lack of basic services, and risks of drug use, radicalization and criminal activity due to youth unemployment.

Deterrent to investment

“The south was left out for so many years,” said UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti. “Physical infrastructure has been rebuilt. Now it’s about trying to rebuild the economy.”

Despite the aid and construction boom post-war, longer-term investment in the industrial sector never kicked in. Investors are wary, like most of the residents here, that another war could be just around the corner.

Israel’s presence is always felt and ever more so. In 2012, it built a two-metre high wall along 1.3km in the south, to separate the Lebanese village of Kafr Kila from an Israeli settlement across the border and set up an intrusive video surveillance system that peers into Lebanese villages.

Shepherds are regularly detained when their sheep accidentally cross the often unmarked “blue line” which serves as the Israeli withdrawal line in the absence of an agreed border between Israel and Lebanon.

In 2010, the two countries almost went to war over the cutting of a tree branch (after a fatal border clash, UNIFIL was able to help return calm). There was another cross-border shooting last July. While they have agreed to a cessation of hostilities, there is still no permanent ceasefire - or in the words of one peacekeeper: “The absence of war does not mean peace.”

While the Lebanese Armed Forces are building up their strength and credibility in the area - under the tutelage of UNIFIL - they have yet to win the hearts and minds of the people here.

“Our main protection is Hezbollah,” said Dia, the civil society activist.

An opportunity for change

It is in this context that UNIFIL and the RCO are urging UN development agencies to re-examine their engagement with the south and help build an increased government presence there.

“Yes, there are other emergencies,” Jovic said, “but we cannot forget about the south.”

The more stable and economically developed the south is, the UN argues, the less likely it is to be drawn into another conflict.

“There will never be progress in the security of the region without development,” said Luca Renda, head of UNDP in Lebanon. “You cannot have peace and stability, if you don’t have jobs, economic opportunities, education, basic services.”

Late last month, all heads of UN agencies gathered at UNIFIL’s headquarters in Naqoura for the first time for a meeting aimed at impressing upon them the needs in the region, in a sign of increased cooperation between UNIFIL and UN agencies. They agreed to try to re-focus attention on three priority areas in the south: environmental sustainability, youth unemployment and strengthening local authorities.

[ For some ideas, see IRIN’s piece: Ten ways to develop southern Lebanon ]

But so far, buy-in from donors, the government and UN agencies with humanitarian mandates is limited.

“The south, at this stage, for donors is not a priority as the urgency and impact of the Syria crisis on [poor areas of the north and the Beka’a Valley] need to be given significant attention in order to avoid any possible drawbacks of violence in the country,” said Soha Bsat Boustani, spokesperson of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Lebanon.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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