In addition to the broader civil war that devastated the country from 1975-1990, the south also endured an Israeli occupation from 1978-2000.
The occupation effectively isolated the region’s inhabitants from the rest of the country by imposing strict travel restrictions on movement beyond the 20km strip that was the former occupation zone.
Today, almost four years after liberation, the political, social and economic ramifications of the Israeli pullout are still reverberating throughout the south as people try to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.
But despite the hardships the inhabitants of the region are still experiencing, many southerners say that they pale into insignificance compared to the humiliation that they suffered during 22 years of Israeli occupation.
“In terms of security, of course it doesn’t matter if you’re occupied for 100 years, you cannot really fully live unless you are under the umbrella of your own country and your own government,” said Sammy Abla, one of the mukhtars in the predominantly Christian village of Marjayun.
“At the end of the day, the government in Beirut is our government. It doesn’t matter how much the Israelis might spend on us or try and win us over with services etc, we will never seek to be a part of their country or accept their way of life,” he said.
“We were very happy when the roads to Beirut reopened and we could travel freely after years of humiliation at checkpoints. It was like we were living in a big prison before.”
Thousands of people were killed and many hundreds of homes destroyed during the conflict.
Invasion still dangerous
“It doesn’t matter how much the Israelis might spend on us or try and win us over with services etc, we will never seek to be a part of their country or accept their way of life”
The scourge of land mines remains an explosive legacy of the occupation and de-mining teams are yet to locate, let alone complete, the mammoth task of clearing the thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance littering the region.
Sporadic clashes between Israeli troops and members of the Lebanese resistance also continue. Although Israeli troops withdrew to the United Nations-delineated border known as the “Blue Line”, they remain in the disputed Shibaa Farms area, where much of the fighting occurs.
But for many southerners in the former occupation zone, almost four years after liberation, Beirut is also just as far away as it was during the Israeli occupation and economically, things are much worse.
“We can’t say that during the occupation it was better, because we were an occupied people,” said Muhammad Sarhan, a resident of the border village of Kifar Kila, about 100km from Beirut and literally a stone’s throw from Israel. “But earnings were higher.”
“We are close to the border, and we used to benefit financially from the Israeli soldiers, collaborators and all those who worked with them. The situation was the same throughout the [occupied part of the] south,” said Sarhan, the son of the mukhtar in the Shia village.
An honest wage
However Sarhan added, “Before the liberation, the dollar that we were earning, we were earning in humiliation. But now, although we need the money, at least we’re living with honour,” he said.
“Nowadays our freedom of movement has been restored and we can travel to Beirut freely,” he added, “but economically, we are worse off.”
Former Israeli collaborators still
“The nature of the Israeli occupation was such that they used to spend money in the villages so as to placate the townsfolk and not exacerbate their problems with us,” he said.
“They used to give people money, employ people, permit people to work in Israel. A soldier in the South Lebanon Army (a now-defunct Israeli-supported proxy Lebanese militia) used to earn a lot more than his counterparts in the Lebanese Army, for example.”
“During this period of occupation,” he added, “the government in Beirut was absent from the south. It didn’t try and connect us to the country by creating government jobs in the region or associations or anything like that.
“Many people were forced to rely on services provided by the occupiers and to seek employment with the occupiers.
“So after the occupiers left, how were these people to live? After more than 20 years, we had to look for work and there was none. The wider economic situation in the country was already bad and the [former occupation zone in the] south felt it twice as bad.”
“I can’t say that we felt Beirut’s influence during the occupation,” Sarhan said. “It’s true, Israel used to engage in projects in the town but it did so to try and show the people that it was doing something for us.
“If the Israelis paved a road or two for example, okay, they would pave the road but they would also eat into people’s private property to do so.
“At the same time, if you were on that road and an Israeli vehicle was approaching, you had to keep a distance of about 200 metres from it and park your car on the side of the road until it passed. We paid a price for that road.”
No border agreement
After the unilateral Israeli withdrawal on 24 May 2000 a small contingent of Lebanese forces moved into the region to fill the security vacuum created by the pullout.
“We don’t have ministerial offices in the south to provide us with services”
The Lebanese government has refused to deploy the army along the border Israel because it says it does not want to serve as Israel’s bodyguard in the absence of a peace treaty between the two countries.
The Lebanese security presence, while a token contingent, restored a semblance of state authority in the area.
But other symbols of Beirut’s authority, such as ministerial offices, are still absent from the south, much to the annoyance of many of the region’s inhabitants.
“If a person has official papers that need to be certified, they must be certified in Beirut,” Abla said. “The closest government office to us is in Nabatia (10-15km away) and it’s just a translator’s office.
“We don’t have ministerial offices in the south to provide us with services. So on top of the destitute conditions in which we are living, we also have this problem.”
The Council of the South, an administrative body created by the government in 1970, has sought to fill the void created by the absence of ministerial offices in the region.
The council has full financial and administrative independence but is “under the command of the Cabinet and deals directly with the prime minister,” according to the body’s president, Kabalan Kabalan.
“We consult the Cabinet in everything we do and thus we don’t have much freedom of action,” he added. The body’s funding comes from the Lebanese government and from donations.
The Council has built schools and hospitals, constructed roads, established electricity grids and water projects, and compensated citizens for any damage or loss, both in lives and livelihoods, incurred due to the Israeli occupation.
The council undertook the work “in the absence of most administrations,” Kabalan said. “The Ministry of Energy, for example, in the past few years did not spend 1% of its budget in the South.”