Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Oct 26, 2020 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- As Lebanon continues to deal with fallout from the massive August explosion that devastated parts of the capital, Beirut, advocates for Lebanese Christians call for continued U.S. aid and collaboration with local NGOs, while one State Department official says that conversations about additional aid have stalled.
On Oct. 19, the Daily Star, an English-language newspaper in Beirut, reported that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Lebanese President Michel Aoun by phone that the United States would send additional aid to rebuild areas damaged by the port explosion in Beirut earlier this year.
An official State Department read-out of the call between the leaders did not mention such a pledge, and a spokesperson for the State Department did not return a request for comment on whether Pompeo had pledged additional aid to the president, but an official within the State Department said conversations about a second round of aid have stalled within the government.
Lebanese authorities attributed the Aug. 4 blast in the port of the country’s capital and largest city to “highly explosive material stored unsafely.” The explosion left 190 dead, more than 6,500 injured, and three people missing, as well as approximately $15 billion in direct damage.
In the aftermath of the explosion, the United States pledged more than $17 million in initial aid for Lebanon for food assistance and medical supplies. Some advocates called for additional relief funds in response to the disaster, pointing to approximately 300,000 people officials said have been displaced from their homes. Al Jazeera reported 70,000 homes were among the buildings damaged in the explosion.
Advocates for Lebanese Christians told CNA that funds dedicated specifically to reconstruction were vital, because much of the damage occurred in neighborhoods with a Christian majority. If these Christians are unable to return to their homes, it could shift the demographics of the city—and the country—by destabilizing the Christian community there.
They also stressed that working with established partners in NGOs would safeguard funds from Lebanon’s corrupt government.
A State Department spokesperson told CNA that the U.S. government provided more than $750 million to Lebanon last year, and that the United States has provided more than $41.6 million in supplemental foreign assistance and redirected $11.5 million in USAID Mission funding to help Lebanon respond to the COVID-19 crisis. According to data from the Department of State, the United States has provided more than $4 billion total in foreign assistance to Lebanon since 2010.
“American assistance to Lebanon saves lives, strengthens our strategic partners, ensures key services reach the Lebanese people and refugees, and counters Hezbollah's narrative and influence,” the spokesperson said in an email.
The spokesperson added that the U.S. government “directly supported the Lebanese people in the aftermath of the port explosion,” by providing “immediate humanitarian assistance to meet emergency needs,” including emergency food, shelter, and medical assistance.
“We continue to work with our partners in Beirut to identify additional recovery needs,” the spokesperson said.
Despite those remarks, a senior state department official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told CNA that discussions about an additional round of reconstruction aid have stalled, over concerns from some U.S. officials that the funds would end up in the hands of the Lebanese government, which has close ties to Hezbollah. The group, a political party in Lebanon, is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.
“The idea that any aid to Lebanese Christians confers a benefit on Hezbollah is deeply problematic,” the official said. “That’s not the policy of the administration or the [State] Department or Secretary Pompeo.”
“Lebanon’s political leaders need to end their association with Hezbollah. The U.S. won’t achieve this end by withholding aid to blast victims,” the official told CNA.
Toufic Baaklini, president of In Defense of Christians, told CNA it is crucial for American relief funds to go directly to local NGOs and not through the Lebanese government due to its corruption and ties to Hezbollah.
“We want to make sure that people on the ground are receiving the aid and rebuilding their homes,” Baaklini said, adding that he thinks the administration is committed to finding the best way of getting aid “directly to the people.”
Baaklini said he hopes the aid comes through soon because “the winter season is coming.”
Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn told CNA in an interview that following the blast “the need is great.”
“We don’t want to lose the special character of Lebanon,” if Christians are forced by circumstance to leave, Mansour said.
“It’s very clear to every Christian of the Middle East: outside of Lebanon they are minorities,” he added. “They don’t have those freedoms in other parts of the Middle East.”
Mansour said he thinks the administration seems “to understand the importance of helping Lebanon even though Hezbollah is present in the government.”
“They’ve been very careful; nobody wants to fund a government that has close ties to Hezbollah, I don’t blame them,” Mansour said. “But at the same time, they haven’t let the good people of Lebanon feel like they have to swim on their own.”
Marc Malek, the founder of Conquest Capital Group and an advocate for Lebanese Christians, said the matter is of great importance to Lebanese Americans and Christians in the United States.
“We’ve been trying to make a push here as Christians and Lebanese Americans to dedicate some of that money for shelter,” Malek said, arguing that in some cases a small refurbishment can make a home damaged by the blast habitable again.
Robert Nicholson, president and executive director of The Philos Project, told CNA that he would urge a “robust response to the crisis in Lebanon.”
“There’s actually an opportunity in Lebanon to do some of these things we could never have accomplished in other countries,” Nicholson said, pointing to the country’s “historical, cultural, and religious connection to the West.”
Nicholson called for a “creative and strategic” response to the crisis, “using our dollars to help our friends.”
“There is a way for the US government to spend our aid—which we should give—but to do it in a way that actually advances our mission in the country, which is to raise up the good guys and disempower the bad guys,” Nicholson said. “We need to be clever.”