BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Hezbollah has been making preparations for the collapse of the fractured nation, issuing ration cards for food, importing medicine and preparing fuel storage from its Iranian patron, three sources with knowledge of the plan told Reuters.
The measures, responding to a severe economic crisis, would mark the expansion of services provided by the armed movement to its large Shia support base, with networks already offering charities, construction companies and a pension system.
The measures highlight growing fears of a Lebanese state explosion, in which authorities can no longer import food or fuel to turn on lights. They underlined Hezbollah’s growing role in dealing with emergencies with the services the government is supposed to provide.
The plan clashes with concerns in Lebanon that people have to rely on political factions for food and security, as did many during the militia era in the 1975-1990 civil war.
Responding to a question about Hezbollah’s plans, Leila Hatoum, the prime minister’s interim adviser, said the country was “in no condition to refuse aid” regardless of its politics.
A source from the pro-Hezbollah camp, who declined to be named, said plans for the worst-case scenario had escalated as subsidies ended in the coming months, raising the specter of famine and unrest.
The Lebanese currency has crashed as the country ran out of dollars, with no country rescue in sight. Food prices jumped 400%.
Fights in supermarkets are now commonplace, as are people rummaging through trash. A brawl over food packages this week killed one person and injured two others.
Hezbollah’s plan will help protect its community – not only members but also a large proportion of the Shia population in the district it dominates – from the worst crisis, the sources said. It could also contain jitters among core supporters, analysts said.
Hezbollah, which with its allies has a majority in parliament and the government, did not respond to requests for comment.
“Preparations for the next stage have already begun … This is indeed an economic battle plan,” said one of the sources, a senior official.
The new ration cards, seen by Reuters, help hundreds of people buy basic goods in local currency – mostly cheaper Iranian, Lebanese and Syrian goods at discounts of up to 40%, subsidized by the party, the sources said.
The cards – named after the Shia Imam – can be used in cooperatives, some of which have recently opened, in the southern suburbs of Beirut and parts of southern Lebanon where Hezbollah holds power. The sources did not specify the budget or recipients.
An Iran-funded paramilitary force that critics have called a “state within the state”, Hezbollah has become increasingly entangled in Lebanese state affairs in recent years.
Washington, which considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist group, has stepped up sanctions to choke off its sources of funding, including an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars from Tehran each year.
Iranian funding makes Hezbollah better off than many in the country, including those who oppose its arsenal. Several factions have issued aid baskets for their patronage communities, but the Iran-backed network is still too large by comparison.
“They all do … But Hezbollah’s coverage is much bigger and stronger, with more resources to deal with the crisis,” said Joseph Daher, a researcher who has written a book on Hezbollah’s political economy. “It’s more about limiting havoc to its popular base. This means that dependence on Hezbollah in particular will increase. “
And while Hezbollah provides ration cards, the country, ravaged by decades of corruption and debt, has been talking about the idea of such a card for impoverished Lebanese for nearly a year without acting.
Ministers say the need for parliamentary approval has halted cabinet plans to get cards.
DARKNESS AND HUNGER
Photos on social media of shelves piled with canned goods, reportedly from one of the Hezbollah operatives, were scattered across Lebanon last week.
Fatima Hamoud, in her 50s, said ration cards allow her once a month to buy grain, oil and cleaning products for the eight-member home. “They know we are in bad shape,” he said. “Without them, what would we do in these difficult times.”
A second Shiite source said Hezbollah had filled warehouses and launched cards to expand services outside the party and close gaps in the Lebanese market, where cheap alternatives were more common than before the crisis.
He said the card offers quotas, based on the number of family members, for necessities such as sugar and flour.
The goods are backed by Hezbollah, imported by allied companies or brought at no customs fees through the border with Syria, where Hezbollah forces have had a foothold since joining the war to support Damascus alongside Iran.
The source added that Hezbollah had similar plans to import drugs. Several pharmacists in Beirut’s southern suburbs say they have received training on the new Iranian and Syrian brands that have appeared on the shelves in recent months.
Two sources said the plan included stockpiling fuel from Iran, as Lebanon’s energy ministry warned of a possible complete blackout. The senior official said Hezbollah was clearing storage rooms for fuel in Syria.
“When we get to the stage of darkness and famine, you will find Hezbollah will use its backup options … and that is a tough decision. Then Hezbollah will fill the position of the state, ”said the senior official. “If that’s the case, the party will take precautions to prevent a vacuum.”
Written by Ellen Francis, Editing by William Maclean