With food and fuel, Hezbollah braces for the worst in Lebanon collapse
By Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese Hezbollah has been preparing for a total collapse of the ruptured state, issuing ration cards for groceries, importing medicines and preparing fuel storage for its patron saint Iran, three sources familiar with the plans told Reuters.
The measures, in response to a severe economic crisis, would mean expanding the services provided by the armed movement to their large Shiite support base with a network that already has charities, a construction company and a pension system.
The moves underscore growing fears of an implosion in the Lebanese state where authorities can no longer import food or fuel to keep the lights on. They underscore Hezbollah's growing role in dealing with the emergency with services that the government would otherwise provide.
The plan is fraught with concern in Lebanon that people will have to rely on political factions for food and security, as many did during the militia days of the civil war from 1975 to 1990.
When asked about Hezbollah's plans, Leila Hatoum, advisor to the prime minister, replied that the country was "unable to refuse aid" regardless of politics.
Pro-Hezbollah sources, who refused to be named, said the plan for a potential worst-case scenario has picked up pace as subsidies run out in the coming months and the specter of starvation and cause unrest.
The Lebanese currency has collapsed as the country runs out of dollars and no government bailout is in sight. Food prices have increased by 400%.
Fights in supermarkets are now the order of the day, as is people rummaging around in the trash. A grocery parcel brawl this week killed one person and injured two others.
Hezbollah's plan would help protect its communities - not just members, but mostly Shiite residents of the districts it dominates - from the worst of the crisis, the sources said. According to analysts, there could also be unrest among key supporters.
Hezbollah, which with its allies has a majority in parliament and in government, did not respond to a request for comment.
"Preparations for the next phase have begun ... It is indeed an economic battle plan," said one of the sources, a senior official.
The new grocery card Reuters saw is already helping hundreds of people buy basic goods in the local currency - mostly cheaper Iranian, Lebanese and Syrian items with discounts of up to 40% subsidized by the party.
The card - named after a Shiite imam - can be used in partly newly opened cooperatives in the southern suburbs of Beirut and in parts of southern Lebanon where Hezbollah rules. The sources did not mention either the budget or the recipients.
Hezbollah is an Iran-funded paramilitary force that critics once called a "state within a state". She has become more and more entangled in Lebanese state affairs in recent years.
Washington, viewing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, has tightened sanctions to curb its funding sources, including what it estimates at hundreds of millions of dollars from Tehran every year.
With Iranian funding, Hezbollah is doing better than many others in the country's mosaic of parties, including those who oppose its arsenal. Some factions have been handing out aid baskets to their patronage communities, but the Iran-backed network remains oversized by comparison.
"They all do ... But the scope of Hezbollah is much larger and more powerful, with more resources to deal with the crisis," said Joseph Beim, a researcher who wrote a book on Hezbollah's political economy. "This is more about limiting the disaster for their popular base. This means that the dependence on Hezbollah will especially increase."
And while Hezbollah is issuing ration cards, the state, undermined by decades of transplants and debt, took up the idea of such a card for poor Lebanese people for almost a year without acting.
Ministers said the need for parliamentary approval stalled the cabinet's plan for cards.
DARKNESS AND HUNGER
Photos on social media of shelves of canned food reportedly from one of Hezbollah's cooperatives spread across Lebanon last week.
Fatima Hamoud, in her 50s, said the grocery menu allows her to buy grain, oil and cleaning products once a month for a household of eight. "They know we are in bad shape," she said. "What would we have done without her in these difficult times?"
A second Shiite source said Hezbollah had filled warehouses and introduced the cards to expand services outside the party and fill gaps in the Lebanese market, where cheap alternatives are more common than before the crisis.
He said the card offers a quota based on family size for needs like sugar and flour.
The goods are supported by Hezbollah, imported by allied companies, or shipped without customs duties across the border with Syria, where Hezbollah forces have been gaining a foothold since their war to support Damascus alongside Iran.
The source added that Hezbollah had similar drug import plans. Some pharmacists in Beirut's southern suburbs said they had received training on new Iranian and Syrian brands that have hit shelves in recent months.
Two of the sources said the plan included stockpiling fuel from Iran as the Lebanese Ministry of Energy warns of a possible catastrophic failure. The senior official said Hezbollah had cleared fuel storage space in neighboring Syria.
"When we get to a stage of darkness and hunger, you will find that Hezbollah has exercised its option to assist ... and that is a grave decision. Then Hezbollah will stand up for the state," the senior official said. "If it comes down to it, the party would have taken its precautions to prevent a void."
(Letter from Ellen Francis, Editing by William Maclean)
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