BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanese turned out by the hundreds Wednesday to sign up for aid from Hezbollah, which is offering rent money, reconstruction money and even money for new furniture in a campaign likely to win new public support.
The leader of the Shiite Muslim group, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, went on television this week shortly after the cease-fire with Israel took hold to promise to help rebuild Lebanon, including providing money for civilians to pay rent and buy furniture.
Nasrallah did not say where the money would come from, but Iran historically has been the militant group's primary source of finance and weapons. The Iranians were widely believed to have opened their treasury for the rebuilding program.
Hezbollah has a long history of using charitable work and social welfare programs financed by Iran to win support from Lebanon's Shiite community.
At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow said he hopes Hezbollah decides to be peaceful and disarms but that if it doesn't, then others will have to step up and disarm the guerrillas.
"What Hezbollah is going to try to say is, OK, well, we've stopped being terrorists now. We're going to be humanitarians," Snow said. "It's important for everybody to be humanitarians. It's also important for Hezbollah to stop acting as a terrorist organization, taking orders not from the Lebanese people but from people in Tehran, and to step up and take a political path."
Tens of thousands of people have returned to their shattered villages in eastern and southern Lebanon as well as to Beirut's southern suburbs to find their homes either damaged or destroyed in the month of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.
Nasrallah said 15,000 housing units were hit during the war.
At one makeshift registration center set up at the Haret Hreik Public High School on Wednesday, hundreds of people went from room to room, telling Hezbollah agents wielding pens and notebooks about damage to their homes from Israeli bombing. The officials promised to help them rebuild.
Salim Kenaan went into one room and looked at signs on the wall. The one on the left read "Damaged" while one on the right read "Destroyed." He gave his name, address and telephone number to the man sitting under the sign on the right.
"We will contact you soon," the Hezbollah member told Kenaan.
"My house was destroyed. After I heard Sheik Nasrallah's speech, I started looking for an apartment," Kenaan said.
In Tyre, Hezbollah's commander in south Lebanon, Nabil Kaouk, said the group's goal is to "bring south Lebanon back to its real life and to rebuild it better than it was before the war."
The cleric stood in front of a demolished building that used to house his office.
He said Hezbollah believes it will take a year for people to rebuild their homes. In the meantime, he said, the organization would pay rent for the homeless. Hezbollah would hand out the aid itself and not funnel it through the government, Kaouk said.
The Hezbollah official in charge of the center in Haret Hreik said he does not have an exact number of how many people have registered for help. The man, who asked that his name not be used for security reasons, said some 190 buildings were destroyed and about 90 heavily damaged in Beirut's southern suburbs.
He said people whose homes were destroyed will get money for one year's rent as well as money for new furniture. Those whose homes were damaged will be paid to do repairs or Hezbollah will send workers to do the job, he said.
Hundreds of workers were in the streets of the southern suburbs Wednesday, clearing away rubble. Some areas were closed by Hezbollah for fear of theft; residents were allowed to enter after getting special passes.
Ahmed al-Mileeji, a 67-year-old Palestinian who has lived in Haret Hreik since 1979, sought compensation for his wrecked apartment near Hezbollah's Al-Manar television station.
"They will give me money to pay rent and to buy furniture. I will also get my flat back after one year," he said.
The Hezbollah official at the high school said all destroyed buildings will be reconstructed as they once were.
"We will use the same maps," he said. "We will give their flats back but they will be new flats."