- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2006

While there is much to be said for the concept of U.S. assistance to rebuild war-torn Lebanon, U.S. efforts to do so are bumping up against an unpleasant reality: It is extremely difficult to ensure that U.S. and international assistance is not used to strengthen Hezbollah.

President Bush has proposed a $230 million aid package for Lebanon. On Thursday, Randall Tobias, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, speaking at a Lebanon donors’ conference in Stockholm, outlined a number of specific projects that Washington planned to fund, including bridge reconstruction, school repairs and hiring local workers to fix damaged homes.

Unfortunately, the administration has failed to address the danger that U.S. assistance to Lebanon is likely to be diverted for Hezbollah’s benefit. Last month, Mr. Tobias, appearing on Fox News Channel, was grilled by anchor Shepard Smith over reports that Red Cross and other assistance to southern Lebanon goes to Hezbollah. While Mr. Tobias never rebutted the charge, he did say that that AID would work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to distribute U.S. aid. The problem is that in Hezbollah-dominated regions of the country — including southern Lebanon, Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon — it is virtually impossible to find NGOs that are not beholden to Hezbollah.

According to Walid Phares of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Hezbollah has long controlled money sent to NGOs and Lebanese government agencies, particularly in southern Lebanon. After Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon last spring, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora had a golden opportunity to assert control over the government’s development agency operating in the south. But Mr. Siniora hesitated and cut a deal that enabled Hezbollah to remain in control. Inexplicably, Washington agreed to this arrangement.

Hezbollah, Mr. Phares adds, has also been able to coerce Beirut into exempting many of the Shi’ite group’s supporters from paying taxes, and over the past 15 years has succeeded in diverting “millions” of dollars of international assistance to its supporters (a conservative figure). While Hezbollah and its allies benefit from this arrangement, the big losers are Lebanese Christians and Muslims who want to remain independent of the terrorist group.

Groups like UNICEF and Mercy Corps are having trouble trying to help civilians with aiding or going through Hezbollah, according to an Aug. 23 dispatch from southern Lebanon that appeared in the New York Times.

Before any more U.S. aid goes to rebuild Lebanon, Congress and the administration need to agree to conditions that will ensure U.S. assistance to Lebanon does not inadvertently get diverted by Hezbollah.