As stunned Lebanese returned Tuesday over broken roads to shattered apartments in the south, it increasingly seemed that the beneficiary of the destruction was most likely to be Hizbullah.
A major reason - in addition to its hard-won reputation as the only Arab force that fought "Israel" to a standstill - is that it is already dominating the efforts to rebuild with a torrent of money.
In his victory speech on Monday night, Hizbullah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, offered money for "decent and suitable furniture" and a year’s rent on a house to any Lebanese who lost his home in the month-long war.
"Completing the victory," he said, "can come with reconstruction."
On Tuesday, "Israel" began to pull many of its reserve troops out of southern Lebanon, and its military chief of staff said all of the soldiers could be back across the border within 10 days. Lebanese soldiers are expected to begin moving in a couple of days, supported by the first of 15,000 foreign troops. [Page A8.]
While the "Israelis" began their withdrawal, hundreds of Hizbullah members spread over dozens of villages across southern Lebanon began cleaning, organizing and surveying damage. Men on bulldozers were busy cutting lanes through giant piles of rubble. Roads blocked with the remnants of buildings are now, just a day after a cease-fire began, fully passable.
In Sreifa, a Hizbullah official said the group would offer an initial $10,000 to residents to help pay for the year of rent, to buy new furniture and to help feed families.
In Taibe, a town of fighting so heavy that large chunks were missing from walls and buildings where they had been sprayed with bullets, the Audi family stood with two Hizbullah volunteers, looking woefully at their windowless, bullet- and shrapnel-torn house.
In Bint Jbail, Hizbullah ambulances - large, new cars with flashing lights on the top - ferried bodies of fighters to graves out of mountains of rubble.
Hizbullah’s reputation as an efficient grass-roots social service network - as opposed to the Lebanese government, regarded by many here as sleek men in suits doing well - was in evidence everywhere. Young men with walkie-talkies and clipboards were in the battered neighborhoods on the southern edge of Bint Jbail, taking notes on the extent of the damage.
"Hizbullah’s strength," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at the Lebanese American University here, who has written extensively about the organization, in large part derives from "the gross vacuum left by the state."
Hizbullah was not, she said, a state within a state, but rather "a state within a nonstate, actually."
Sayyed Nasrallah said in his speech that "the brothers in the towns and villages will turn to those whose homes are badly damaged and help rebuild them.
"Today is the day to keep up our promises," he said. "All our brothers will be in your service starting tomorrow."
Some southern towns were so damaged that on Tuesday residents had not yet begun to return. A fighter for the Amal movement, another resistance group, said he had been told that Hizbullah members would begin to catalog damages in his town, Kafr Kila, on the "Israeli" border.
Hizbullah men also traveled door to door checking on residents and asking them what help they needed.
Although Hizbullah is a Shiite organization, Sayyed Nasrallah’s message resounded even with a Sunni Muslim, Ghaleb Jazi, 40, who works at the oil storage plant at Jiyeh, 15 miles south of Beirut. It was bombed by the "Israelis" and spewed pollution northward into the Mediterranean.
"The government may do some work on bridges and roads, but when it comes to rebuilding houses, Hizbullah will have a big role to play," he said. "Nasrallah said yesterday he would rebuild, and he will come through."
Sayyed Nasrallah’s speech was interpreted by some as a kind of watershed in Lebanese politics, establishing his group on an equal footing with the official government.
"It was a coup d’état," said Jad al-Akjaoui, a political analyst aligned with the democratic reform bloc. He was among the organizers of the anti-Syrian demonstrations after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri two years ago that led to international pressure to rid Lebanon of 15 years of Syrian control.
Rami G. Khouri, a columnist for The Daily Star in Beirut, wrote that Sayyed Nasrallah "seemed to take on the veneer of a national leader rather than the head of one group in Lebanon’s rich mosaic of political parties."
"In tone and content, his remarks seemed more like those of a president or a prime minister should be making while addressing the nation after a terrible month of destruction and human suffering," Mr. Khouri wrote. "His prominence is one of the important political repercussions of this war."
Defense Minister Elias Murr said Tuesday that the government would not seek to disarm Hizbullah.
"The army is not going to the south to strip the Hizbullah of its weapons and do the work that "Israel" did not," he said, showing just how difficult reining in the militia will most likely be in the coming weeks and months. He added that "the resistance," meaning Hizbullah, had been cooperating with the government and there was no need to confront it.
Sayyed Nasrallah sounded much like a governor responding to a disaster when he said, "So far, the initial count available to us on completely demolished houses exceeds 15,000 residential units.
"We cannot of course wait for the government and its heavy vehicles and machinery because they could be a while," he said. He also cautioned, "No one should raise prices due to a surge in demand."
Support for Hizbullah was likely to become stronger, Professor Saad-Ghorayeb said, because of the weakness of the central government.
"Hizbullah has two pillars of support," she said, "the resistance and the social services. What this war has illustrated is that it is best at both.
Referring to Shiek Nasrallah, she said: "He tells the people, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to protect you. And we’re going to reconstruct. This has happened before. We will deliver.’"
Hassan M. Fattah contributed reporting from Sreifa, Lebanon, for this article, Sabrina Tavernise from Taibe and Robert F. Worth from Jiyeh.