LEBANON, Mleeta: Shimon Peres sits at the top of the chain of command, his name printed in Arabic, bolded and underlined. The names of every infantry and their position in the Israeli army branch out from the president like a military family tree.
“We have mapped out everyone from the leader down to the smallest soldier,” says a tour guide explaining a display at the new Hizbollah tourist complex in the previously occupied hills of south Lebanon. “This is to show we are watching and we know everything,” he adds, boasting that –thanks to Hizbollah intelligence -the details on the chart are accurate to May 20,2010.
The rest of the centre gives off a similar warning. Filled with war booty from the month-long 2006 conflict with Israel, the exhibition room catalogues various Israeli weaknesses and failures.
Inaugurated last week to mark the 10th anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from the south, the new multimillion-dollar complex is the first permanent Hizbollah war museum and has already seen tens of thousands of visitors.
The Lebanese triumph of the 2000 unilateral withdrawal features heavily in the displays. Weaponry and fatigues left by Israeli troops are victoriously splayed across the museum. A single hair can even be seen on the helmet of an Israeli soldier – all that remains after he was killed by Hizbollah mortar. Another exhibit proudly displays trinkets left behind: photos of loved ones, half-finished tubes of toothpaste, and Israeli brand chocolate bar wrappers.
On the adjacent wall are satellite images of Israeli targets in the eventuality of another war: Haifa train station, Ben Gurion International airport, and key electricity stations across the country, replete with their exact aerial co-ordinates.
Once outside, the Hizbollah heritage trail begins with a series of mangled interactive sculptures collectively called “The Abyss.” So-called because it is built inside a crater made by Israeli bombs during the height of the invasion, it parades a tank abandoned by the forces when they withdrew. Upturned and swallowed up by the earth, it is meant to represent the occupiers’ defeat.
The centrepiece is a tombstone carved from volcanic rock with a Star of David at its head, surrounded by metal Hebrew letters spelling out the Jewish State’s future: “This is to warn them that they may have struck here once but it will be their graveyard if they come back,” the tour guide tells his group.
“The Abyss” leads onto “The Frontline” – a real life former Hizbollah hideout in the thick shrubbery of the southern village of Mleeta. Hizbollah militants used to camp out in the hills, watching over Israeli army bases and planning their attacks.
Hizbollah’s leader Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has likened the new tourist centre to Israel’s many Holocaust museums: “Everywhere you go there are memorials [to the Holocaust}, regardless of its authenticity, accuracy or magnitude,” he told supporters via video link at the inauguration ceremony last week.
“We hope this tourist jihad center will be the first step toward preserving the history of our own heroic resistance,” Nasrallah said. Several top government officials attended the event, alongside prominent Jewish American academic and critic of Israel Noam Chomsky.
The anniversary and inauguration of the new centre has come amid US and Israeli accusations that Hizbollah is acquiring advanced weaponry from its backers Syria and Iran, though the group has neither confirmed nor denied the claims.
The latest sabre-rattling has only stoked concerns of another war in the region.Hizbollah officials almost gladly admit that the center – a sprawling 60,000 sq meter site- will likely be flattened in any future war, but say they will rebuild and come back bigger and better. They are already planning two smaller “Resistance tourist centres” and a chain of hotels in the surrounding area, overlooking the tense border with Israel just miles away.