Reconstructing Beirut’s Southern Suburbs: Between Militarization and the Perennial

Following more than thirty-four days of continuous assaults on civilian infrastructures in Lebanon orchestrated by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), then framed as a war between Israel and Hezbollah, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, adopted on August 11, 2006, effectively suspended hostilities. Through this intervention, however, I argue that confrontations were extended beyond the conventional realm of armed conflict. Indeed, the Hezbollah-led Wa’ad postwar reconstruction venture in the southern suburb of Beirut was configured so as to merge managerial, architectural and urban planning processes with militarization, pre-emption, and ideology, rendering it entirely contingent on asymmetric military technologies employed by the IDF. In other words, it was designed as an anticipator of an inevitable upcoming war. The postwar reconstruction scheme thus existed at the nexus of tactics of urban warfare and the prophetic raison d’être of Beirut’s southern suburbs. The Wa’ad project, from its conception to its deployment, held ostensibly paradoxical efforts to rebuild what could soon be destroyed.

Between certainty and contingency

A national scale and indiscriminate assault on Lebanese soil was launched by the IDF following Hezbollah’s “Operation Truthful Promise” on the 12th of July in 2006. Leaving behind several casualties from the IDF as well as the abduction of two sergeants, the operation swiftly prompted retaliation. "If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years,'' stated Israel Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, seconding prime minister Ehud Olmert’s so-called declaration of war on Lebanon. Masked behind Israel’s banner of self-defense and protection of sovereignty, this declaration had encompassed both Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. The Lebanese Ministry of Health put the death toll at 1,233, out of whom approximately 400 were combatants, asserting the disproportionate nature of the attacks. Beirut’s southern suburb, or Dahieh, where the Haret Hreik district is located, is considered Hezbollah’s security quadrant – its bureaucratic and political stronghold – and was subject to widespread bombing and devastation throughout the duration of the thirty-four-day war, as most military maneuvers from the Israeli side were aiming to debilitate the Lebanese party and paramilitary formation’s missile and militant capabilities. Several confrontations and exchanges of threats unfolded since the inception of the Shia resistance group in 1985, with two major military campaigns taking place in 1996 and 2006, as well as the liberation of the then-occupied south of Lebanon in 2000. Besides bridging the ideology of the Islamic Revolution in Iran with the Lebanese state and the extension of the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s doctrines, the party had earned a nearly exclusive right over the external defense apparatus of Lebanon. Today, Hezbollah continues to exert state-like sovereignty over multiple Lebanese areas, mainly in the south of Beirut; the Lebanese southern border with the occupied territories; as well as parts of the Lebanese north-eastern border with Syria.

Beyond any recurring public opinions that surfaced following the thirty-four-day Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 2006, a parallel discourse of a rather eschatological nature was championed among Shiite communities. In Shi’ism, eschatology, as the part of theology concerned with the final destiny of humankind, is centered around the messianic figure of Imam Al Mahdi, as the final Imam returning from occultation along the second coming of the Messiah. During confrontations, contemporary shi’ite scholar Shadi Faqih would narrate that “miracles” had occurred, whether through fighters endowed with powers beyond the scope of logic or through consecrated “Ra’ad” missiles, reaching the city of Haifa. Faqih claimed that events such as these prophesied the first cycle of apocalyptic battles that would accompany the manifestation of the Mahdi[1]. These accounts undoubtedly reflected Hezbollah’s convictions, whether through a predominant, a priori discourse among the party’s popular base, or through emerging literature such as Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem’s book, “The Mahdi, the Savior”, published a year after the war. This rhetoric engenders convictions rooted in an imminent sense of victory: If not in this war, then in the coming one. Beside its socio-cultural ramifications and its mobilization, this belief was echoed within militant strategies, entailing assertive actions on the frontlines that defied fundamental notions of contingency and chance in urban warfare. The IDF exploited this very rationale to conduct their aerial and ground attacks.
Eyal Weizman argues that “the city [is] not just the site, but the very medium of warfare - a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.”[2] The IDF had consciously premeditated Hezbollah’s paradox as engineers of their urban environment and foretellers of this war. Both doctrinaly and technically, these calculations had justified asymmetric use of force, particularly targeting architecture and infrastructure.

A detailed Rand Corporation report[3] on the missiles and the military tactics that were deployed during this war confirmed that GBU-28 (Guided Bomb Unit) was administered by the Israeli Air Force’s F-151. GBU-28 belongs to a family of weapons known as laser-guided bunker-busting bombs, which have the capacity to penetrate layers of hardened concrete covering bunkers or underground shelters.The use of the GBU-28, a weapon capable of causing indiscriminate and monumental demolition, was a pivotal element of the implemented military doctrine formulated by the IDF Chief of General Staff Gadi Eizenkot, known as the Dahieh doctrine. [4] This doctrine supports the use of disproportionate power, acting as a form of punishment to both the party and its civilian infrastructure. Such inordinately and violent military actions aim at breeding a paralyzing aftermath, whereby reconstruction is rendered both difficult and costly.[5]
Albeit spectacular, the investment in such military technology was only a segment of a wider territorial eradication scheme that the IDF had endorsed. As Rand’s report states, it was crucial for the IDF to destabilize Hezbollah’s symbolic domination and infrastructure – political and otherwise – in the southern suburb. These military strategies were equally deployed to shake Hezbollah’s “collective self-confidence”, particularly their ideological certainty[6].

War logistics and emergencies

These dichotomies between certainty and contingency as well as the excessive military nature of the assaults were synthesized during and within Wa’ad. The infamous Hezbollah-led reconstruction venture had evaluated the aftermath of disproportionate shelling on the suburb not only for relief potential but as calculations and strategization for a war that, to them, had yet to end. On the morning of the ceasefire, Jihad Al Bina’a engineers, a Hezbollah-affiliated NGO, were seen hovering over the debris of Haret Hreik, systematically assessing and quantifying the war-caused colossal spatial erasure. With a sharp knowledge of the types of weaponry used to target several “key” buildings, these engineers were also localizing structures that resisted the attacks[7].
A parallel to the Iranian reconstruction and development organisation Jahad-i Sazandigi, Jihad al Bina’a had been operating and managing small scale development and construction projects since 1988. It was conceived as an extension of Jihad-e-Sazandegi, a corps specialized in war logistics and engineering - operating under conditions of conflict as well as post-conflict[8]. With an exclusive planning rationale that guarantees the consolidation of power and security within their territories, Jihad-i-Sazandegi and its Lebanese wing had essentially merged construction technology with military logistics and ideology. “Together we resist and together we build”, Jihad al-Bina’a slogan, vigorously implied their cohesion with Hezbollah’s resistance banner. It consolidated the party’s pledge to manage and rebuild the destroyed southern suburb as it orchestrated the inauguration of the Wa’ad reconstruction scheme. Predominantly funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran, Wa’ad project, or the “Promise”, was conceived in reference to the initial military operation’s name “Al Wa’ad Al Sadik” (in English, “The Solemn Promise”).

The reconstruction project was delegated to Wa’ad when residents of the suburbs had expressed little to no faith in the local government’s ability to lead this project. Hezbollah managed to seize exclusive reconstruction rights from a government that was portrayed as complicit with Western powers. Although legally mandated to Wa’ad and promoted as participatory, some dwellers’ reservations and actual needs were however bypassed and compromised. Informal congregations with the residents managed by the party’s apparatuses were ways to guarantee that a record-time resettlement would never occur without the party’s supervision[9]. Ideological objectives were prioritized over potentials of inclusiveness and legal constraints. The constructions were initiated without official amendments in formal protocols that legally verified the dwellings’ adequacy with urban and building laws[10]. Besides the ambiguity of the laws themselves, this evasion was grounded in the exceptionality of the project, as well as coinciding with its military ambitions. In its foundation as a project responding to crises, legal frameworks and the state institutions that enforce them became an impediment, particularly as a fast solution had become crucial.

With that said, Wa’ad’s juxtaposition of violence, land reclamation, and legal evasion echoes, to a certain degree, that of the post-war reconstruction project under which neoliberalization was entrenched in Lebanon, namely Solidere.
In line with Wa’ad, the reconstruction of Beirut’s downtown came under various dimensions of privatization as well as the relentless support of state actors with allegiances to the countries that had initially sponsored the postwar transition to peace. Central to those figures, was then prime minister Rafik El Hariri, a business tycoon who’d raked in billions off his contracting endeavors in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s. Hariri’s reconstruction endeavors led to a series of displacements and were structured around a substantial debt policy that paved the way for the state’s subordination to the private sector. Both Wa’ad and Solidere had conceived their urban interventions as tactical extensions of political powers through spatial formation and confrontations beyond the period of hostilities. In the case of Solidere, the notorious elimination of all public mediation by way of monetizing every remaining bit of public property in downtown Beirut had succeeded in estranging the most disenfranchised. It delimited a zone that strictly catered to an ideological elite, bridging it with a future of accelerated financialization. Though the political backbones of Solidere and Wa’ad can be perceived as diametrically opposed, the process of marking zones of influence through the suppression of public voice, deployed by both, remains one.

Designing and managing the enclaves of resistance

Wa’ad carefully designated a board of eight architects and urban planners who had not only operated closely with Hezbollah and Jihad al Bina’a officials, but were also asked to espouse the party’s ideological briefs. Rahif Fayyad, Wa’ad’s main architectural planner, conveyed that the design principles of the project were based on his concept of “Muqawama al Umrania”[11], which closely translates to “architectural resistance”. Fayyad’s architectural rationale, attended to a site-specific intervention that would generate “pockets of resistance” as he frames it, directly echoing the continuation of militarization. Certain elements of the “promise” prescribed architectural design guidelines, insisting that the inception of the soon-to-be-rebuilt suburb would coincide with the “collective memory” of its residents. Hence, Haret Hreik would be rebuilt so as to look the way it used to before the bombardments; or to ultimately make it “more beautiful than it was". This paradigm outlines clear intentions to upgrade this urban context and its domestic counterparts. However, these concepts of life and living are meshed with adversarial potentials. While growingly gauged in the IDF's military strategists as a primary target, “pockets of resistance” are now radically transformed into spaces of threat.[12]
The reconstruction of the 243 destroyed or partially damaged buildings had been promised by the party’s Secretary General to be executed in the shortest period possible. For French cultural theorist Paul Virilio, such operations override the actual conduct of war, where the construction of an adequate infrastructure within its logistically time-efficient constraints, is an anticipation of war[13]. In line with Mona Fawaz’s observations, this project had cemented the party’s institutional and military powers, whereby the reconstruction that took place within these measures and timeline were presented as an “act of resistance” and a “victory over the enemy”[14]. As claimed by the party’s executive board, she adds, the reconstruction was a “strategy” implemented as a reaction to the IDF’s military decisions.
The extension of confrontations by means of planning, managing, designing and the act of reconstruction itself had foregrounded militarization while simultaneously maximizing risk. It did, however, promote in its inauguration an image of a prosperous future, essentially conflicting with the party’s ephemeral mission.

Architectural imperatives and infrastructural powers

Learning from structures that resisted the attacks, ground floors were reinforced via thicker slabs. Basements that served as car parkings would get altered, under potential threat of becoming bunkers.[15] Planners made sure not to deter residents or potential residents by enforcing visibly fortified architectures. Instead, occupants were granted with the freedom to select frivolous details, such as tiles and wall paints within their units. While it gave the illusion of a ruptured connection between a household's configuration and its urban surroundings, options were restricted by a scheme of supply chain that Wa’ad had carefully designed during the planning phase.[16]
Infrastructural rehabilitation had ameliorated former mobility and circulation. Administered by Wa’ad and the Lebanese government at the peripheries, public bridges and tunnels served as links to the rest of the city, securing Hezbollah’s greater territorial influence. Such infrastructure consolidates the party’s ideological certainties. With a deep faith in the hostilities awaiting on the horizon, much more rigorous security measures could’ve been implemented through architecture rather than direct urban demarcation. But Hezbollah’s thorough understanding of and need for both logistical and human infrastructure would unfold as a strategic, faith-based and death-driven decision. Laleh Khalili frames it as infrastructural power, whereby the public and the private, the civilian and the military become one body, sculpted by and through different power modalities[17]. These details were calculated measures, derived from the party’s official preparedness all along the territory, a carnival of securitization that exemplified Michel Foucault’s constituents of the dispositif[18].

A territory beyond materiality

Contrary to prevailing public sentiment, which speculated the reconstruction of a network of underground labyrinths under the newly built Haret Hreik, this time there was no tangible evidence that would verify such large-scale operations. Furthermore, these assumptions had been on the forefront of Israeli authorities’ rhetoric since the ceasefire, and used both on Beirut and Gaza[19]. Primarily alluding to Hamas and Hezbollah’s use of civilian shields, it is a preemptive method that the IDF would deploy to justify indiscriminate aerial bombardment on civilians. The menace alarmingly unfolded in a context where Wa’ad’s promoted image was to rebuild Dahieh as a liveable environment, an enhanced version of its past. Its present, however, is occulted by a future of destruction. Hezbollah’s undeniable quest for the final war is paired with a rigorous perception of Israel’s unsparing military campaigns, a doctrine, as Stephen Graham asserts, refined by both Israel and the United States, systematically ‘demodernizing’ urbanization through strikes on infrastructure with weapons conceived for this particular mission[20]. Yet Hezbollah had endorsed an urban planning scheme that visibly circumscribed its domain of influence, targeting a group that would solely benefit from its infrastructure and services, which were to be detached from the rest of city[21]. In IDF’s calculations, this enclave, with its civilian equipment, buildings, services and popular base, constitutes a support system for Hezbollah’s military power. Whether based on the IDF’s myth of self-defense or Hezbollah’s reconstruction venture, militarization functions as an operation annexing urban sites, cultural representations, public spaces, and political economies[22].

With a preconception and design both attracting and anticipating peril, Wa’ad’s urban demarcation had been forging its way towards a zone existing outside the law. In addition to a planning that overrode domestic legal frameworks, its international status had been anomalously unfolding through continuous United States-led lobbying and efforts to position Hezbollah at the externality of international jurisdiction. This marginalization had accelerated an Israeli security rhetoric and accentuated its vigilance, magnifying a split between Hezbollah and the Lebanese authorities on one hand, and blurring the lines between them on the other. The latter paradigm had been instrumental for the IDF to communicate terror among the rest of the population. The party’s encompassing power, as implied by the IDF, is now spread, both on an institutional and spatial level, in ways that surpass its borders of influence. Instead, it is producing fractaled, deterritorialized zones of sovereignty, or what is referred to as the state of exception. Problematically forged by German Nazi and jurist Carl Schmitt, the state of exception is a condition wherein a sovereign suspends the law to counter external forces that threaten its continuation[23]. As it emerged from this extra-juridical paradigm, Hezbollah's de facto exercise of power had enabled the party’s transborder campaigning, subsequently leading to the extension and relocation of more recent battlegrounds into the very formation of space, by managing accesses to areas of influence[24], controlling chokepoints of infrastructures[25], and implementing para-state martial laws[26]. Periodic interruptions of domestic and international laws essentially rendered Hezbollah's power unchallenged.
Far from conflating it with decentralization, the legal, ideological and demographic delimitations cemented by this project had essentially planted the southern suburb at the core of a targeted network. Central to this map is an autopoietic social infrastructure that activated these Wa’ad enclaves, weaponized by the IDF’s canonic belief in excessive strikes beyond the rules of necessity[27]. In the gaze of a jet fighter, the land is diagramitized as an obstruction of visibility, i.e. an area to be flattened. Collaboratively between the pilot and the jet’s mapping algorithms, excessive use of aerial violence becomes an assault on speculative porosities, subterranean unknowns, and infrastructural assemblages that are called on to be dismantled. Haret Hreik’s fleeting spatial condition imposes a biopolitical paradigm mutating from [un]ordinary camp-like exceptionalism[28].
With a singular futurity awaiting in the horizon, Hezbollah’s hailed quest will perpetually be annexed by continuous spatial rearrangements in response to the enemy’s strikes. Through such contrasting conditions, concrete is stripped from its cohesive and sheltering function, a structure undergoing a gradual loss of its solidity as hour zero nears. Beirut’s southern suburb, as a static conglomeration, is insidiously mutating into a transient geography, whereby its foreseen fate asserts its potential erasure.

[1] Shadi Faqih, Al wa’ad al-sadiq and Al-Imam al-Mahdi wa-al intisar (Beirut: Dar al-Ilm, 2006).
[2] Eyal Weizman,'Lethal Theory: LOG Magazine, April 2005, 53
[3] Lambeth, Benjamin S. 2011. Air operations in Israel's war against Hezbollah: learning from
Lebanon and getting it right in Gaza. Santa Monica CA: RAND Corporation.
[4] "The Dahya Strategy: Israel finally realizes that Arabs should be accountable for their leaders’ acts" The Dahya strategy, according to IDF Northern Command Chief Gadi Eisenkot. Interview in Yedioth Ahronoth. 10.06.08.
[5] Siboni, Gabi (2 October 2008). "Disproportionate Force: Israel's Concept of Response in Light of the Second Lebanon War".
[6] Lambeth. 2011.
[7] Testimonies from site engineers, trainees and architects on the site in 2008.
[8] Lob, Eric. 2018. "Construction Jihad: state-building and development in Iran and Lebanon’s Shiʿi Territories". Third World Quarterly. 39 (11): 2103-2125.
[9] Fawaz, M. 2009. "Hezbollah as urban planner? Questions to and from planning theory". PLANNING THEORY -LONDON-. 8 (4): 323-334.
[10] Fawaz. 2009.
[11] Hourani, Najib B. 2015. "Post-conflict reconstruction and citizenship agendas: lessons from Beirut". Citizenship Studies. 19 (2): 184-199.
[12] Weizman. 2017.
[13] Virilio, Paul. 2010. War and cinema: the logistics of perception. London: Verso.
[14] Fawaz, Mona. 2014. "The Politics of Property in Planning: Hezbollah's Reconstruction of Haret Hreik (Beirut, Lebanon) as Case Study Hezbollah's reconstruction of Haret Hreik in Beirut". International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 38 (3): 922-934.
[15] Testimonies from trainee architects on site with Jihad al Binaa during the assessment of the consultative council’s remains in Haret Hreik.
[16] In order for them to prevent price fluctuation and ensure the right budgeting all throughout the project, wa’ad had contracted specific suppliers, with the exclusive rights to supply the site and their subcontractors with materials.
[17] Khalili L. 2017. "The infrastructural power of the military: The geoeconomic role of the US Army Corps of Engineers in the Arabian Peninsula". European Journal of International Relations.
[18] “[first] professionalization of the soldier, setting up a military career; second, a permanent armed structure that can serve as the framework for exceptional wartime recruitment; third, an infrastructure of back-up facilities of strongholds and transport; and finally, fourth, a form of knowledge, a tactical reflection on types of manoeuvre, schemas of defence and attack, in short, an entire specific and autonomous reflection on military matters and possible wars.” Foucault, Michel. 2014. Security, territory, population lectures at the College de France, 1977-78. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
[20] Graham, Stephen. 2011. Cities under siege: the new military urbanism. London: Verso.
[21] Ghandour and Fawaz. 2010.
[22] Stephen Graham, “When Life Itself is War: On the Urbanisation of Military and Security Doctrine,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 36 no. 1 (2012): 137.
[23] Agamben, Giorgio, and Daniel Heller-Roazen. 1998. Homo sacer sovereign power and bare life. Stanford (Calif.): Stanford University Press.
[24] Following Hezbollah's intervention in Syria in 2013 to assist the regime’s troops, several retaliatory assaults by the Islamic State had occured in the southern Suburb. This led to provisional security measures that consisted of blocking all the entrances to the Suburb through checkpoints by the Lebanese Military and Hezbolla’s militants.
[25] Hezbollah's weapon supply is known to be primarily shipped from Iran by land - passing through transits and border points, essentially used as an international trade route connecting Beirut port with the gulf countries.
[26] On the 7th of may, a para-state martial law was imposed by Hezbollah and his allies, as a result of internal political tensions when the lebanese government had attempted to expose Hezbollah’s private communication network.
[27] Kazan, Helene. 2019. “(De)Constructing Risk: The Weaponized and Commodified Home”, PhD thesis, unpublished and on file with author.
[28] See Agamben on Bare life and the camp.

Mhamad Safa is a Beirut-London based architect, sound artist and researcher. He was a fellow at Ashkal Alwan HWP program in 2018. A graduate from the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths University in 2019. Currently, he is a PhD candidate in International Law at the University of Westminster. Safa’s work revolves around the critique of contemporary spatiality and its sonic make-ups within contexts of armed conflict and political violence, where he underscores traditional practices and their juncture with technoscience and logistics. Beside composing music for films and sound installations, he was part of multiple publications and music compilations. Safa had shown individual and collaborative artwork and performances at Goethe Institute in Beirut, Arab Center for Architecture, Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, the Institute for Contemporary Art in London, the Centre for Research Architecture in London, the Sharjah Architecture Triennial among others.