Hezbollah theme park woos fighters for next war with Israel

(TIMES UK) Israeli tanks lie smashed and upturned on a remote mountaintop in south Lebanon, while Hezbollah fighters, wearing camouflaged uniforms and carrying rifles, crouch near by in the dense undergrowth.

The scene could be the latest battle between the militant Shia group and Israeli troops, but while the tanks are real, the fighters are plastic dummies and the display is part of a newly opened tourist project to mark the tenth anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon.

That historic event — the first time Israel unilaterally abandoned occupied Arab land — comes at a time of heightened tension in the region amid fears that another war is brewing between Hezbollah and the Jewish state.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, vowed in a speech on Tuesday night that in the next war, his organisation could attack Israel-bound shipping in the Mediterranean.

Addressing Israel, he said: “If you launch a new war on Lebanon, if you blockade our coastline, all military, civilian or commercial ships heading through the Mediterranean to occupied Palestine will be targeted by the Islamic resistance.”

During the July 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah hit and disabled an Israeli navy boat with a missile.

One of Israel’s near-guaranteed targets if another war does break out is the sprawling Mlita tourist site devoted to Hezbollah’s military struggle against Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. Hezbollah officials cheerfully admit that the site will be flattened in the next war, but say that they will rebuild it.

The project, which opened to the public on Tuesday, covers a mountaintop smothered in dense bushes and stubby oak trees. It was a secret frontline base for the guerrillas during the Israeli occupation. On the other side of a gaping valley, Israeli outposts once stood, often the target of Hezbollah fighters based in Mlita. The bulldozed earth ramparts of the hilltop Israeli positions have since disappeared, washed away by the rains of ten winters.

Hundreds of visitors were gawping at the symbolic displays of smashed Israeli tanks, artillery cannon and piles of old army helmets. Children scrambled over upturned armoured personnel carriers watched by neatly dressed and polite Hezbollah attendants wearing black baseball caps.

“The Israelis used to drop cluster bombs that looked like toys for our children to play with,” said Abu Hadi, a veteran fighter and tour guide at Mlita, referring to a longstanding allegation in Lebanon. “Now we tell the Israelis that we have their tanks for our children to play with.”

Pathways wind beneath the canopy of oak trees and camouflage netting revealing displays of weaponry, including Russian Kornet anti-tank missiles and RPG29 rockets used by Hezbollah in the 2006 war. It also features small tableaux of plastic dummy Hezbollah fighters in uniforms creeping through the undergrowth or carrying ammunition and rockets.

On the floor of a rocky alcove rests a prayer mat and an open copy of the Koran beside an old AK47 rifle. It was the favourite place of prayer for Sheikh Abbas Mussawi, a Hezbollah leader killed by Israel in 1992. A recording of Mussawi’s gravelly voice murmuring prayers wafts through the trees.

“Those of us who used to be based here in the 1980s when Sayyed Abbas was here begin to weep when they hear his voice in this place,” Abu Hadi, who served in Mlita in the 1980s, said.

Perhaps the highlight of the exhibition is the 600ft (180m) tunnel built over three years from 1985. According to a sign at the entrance, it took 1,000 fighters to bore out the tunnel and adjoining chambers using picks and pneumatic drills.

The cramped passageway was lined with soldered steel plates and is the prototype of the bunker networks that Hezbollah built in the southern Lebanon border district in the years after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. These were used to good effect against invading Israeli troops in the 2006 war. A glassed-in “operations room” deep inside the bunker has military maps pinned to a wall and an old computer. Recordings of fighters communicating by radio are played over loudspeakers.

The Mlita project is undeniably slick and impressive — the organisers even hired a marketing consultant to design a logo and “corporate identity” for it. Hezbollah plans to open two new tourist centres devoted to the “resistance” elsewhere in south Lebanon. The goal is not limited to celebrating past battlefield exploits, but also to encourage young Lebanese Shia to embrace the continuing struggle against Israel.

“As the main centre of the resistance from the 1980s, this place talks to the souls of the visitors,” Sheikh Ali Daher, the head of Hezbollah’s publicity department, said. “The whole project is to tell the story of resistance to the new generation.”

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