Rebuilding Southern Lebanon

After the 2000 Israeli pullout, a new beginning

by Amal Bouhabib

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The road leading to the village of Deir Mimas in southern Lebanon is serpentine and steep, hidden by groves of olive trees that spread out for miles. The predominantly Greek Orthodox village relies on olive oil as its main source of income. Throughout Lebanon, Deir Mimas’ product is known as the “Bordeaux” of olive oils – pressed from the fruit of trees dating to biblical times. For many years, however, the rich potential of Deir Mimas’s 100,000 olive trees went nearly untapped, as the town and the district of Marjayoun in which it lies were occupied by Israeli troops. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 after several years of cross-border attacks with Palestinian fighters who had established a base of operations in southern Lebanon. Though Israel would ultimately withdraw from Beirut, it held onto major portions of the south for more than 18 years.Cut off from the rest of Lebanon and the outside world, Deir Mimas’s olive oil production slowed dramatically. Many residents sought work in Israel, which offered more jobs and higher wages.

In May 2000, when Israel withdrew, Deir Mimas was a shell of its former self. Many residents had emigrated and its infrastructure was in disrepair. The town literally stank. Sewage had polluted the drinking water and soil and threatened its olive trees.

“Sewage was leaking from under the houses onto the roads, so that the smell was constant,” said Samer Nakfour, who heads the Deir Mimas Cooperative, which oversees the town’s infrastructure.

The Pontifical Mission, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, was one of the first organizations to assist in the revitalization of southern Lebanon. In Deir Mimas alone, the Pontifical Mission has completed five projects, including a sewage plant that serves 95 percent of the town.“By far, this development has been the most important,” Mr. Nakfour said. “We live on a rocky hill and the leakage would go straight onto the road. Of course, it has reduced pollution of the olive trees as well. So many problems have been solved.”

The Pontifical Mission has also contributed to the revival of the town’s olive oil industry. With funding from the United States Agency for International Development, the mission’s Beirut-based staff has helped build agricultural roads, donated a tractor and built a factory for bottling and labeling the olive oil.

“The people here are supported entirely by the production of olive oil,” Mr. Nakfour said. “Because of these projects we have new oil presses. The trees are easier to get to, and all of our oil is being sold.”The Pontifical Mission has been working in Lebanon since 1949. Its initial mandate, given by Pope Pius XII, was to assist Palestinian refugees. The work expanded in Lebanon to include relief efforts during the civil war (1975-1991) and recovery efforts after the conflict ended.

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