Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Lebanon: 'a landlord visiting his domain'
Damien McElroy – Telegraph.co.uk October 14, 2010
With the top down, they had hoisted high the tricolour flag of Iran and the primrose banner of Hizbollah. In the back Ahmed Bassam, 25, wore white-rimmed sunglasses and his hair was heavily gelled. He looked like, and freely admitted to being, a child of privilege. Yet here he was to salute Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has turned his country into a diplomatic and economic pariah. Mr Bassam's simple reasoning is that Mr Ahmedinejad not only saved Lebanon from invasion but salvaged its villages from the ruins of war.
Israel has condemned Mr Ahmadinejad's visit as resembling "a landlord visiting his domain" . In the sense that up to $1billion of Iranian funds to Hizbollah over the last four years has paid for the reconstruction of the south this is true. In 2006 Israel was forced to launch the war after its soldiers were kidnapped on the frontier by Hizbollah following years of rocket barrages by the group using an arsenal of weaponry provided by Tehran.
After repelling the invasion - and forcing the end of a long-running Israeli occupation of a safety zone in 2000 - Hizbollah holds southern Lebanon in a powerful grip. Its Islamic ethos is light years away from the Lebanon of Beirut, where people enjoy the Middle East's greatest freedom to speak and dress as they choose, especially women.
In the face of the greater threat that Mr Ahmedinejad's regime faced down, differences over lifestyle and religious values have been set aside. Mr Bassam said he was expressing his gratitude the Lebanese way. "It's a day to celebrate," he said. "He is here because we are still here. Without Iran's help and assistance the occupation would still be here. It's our Lebanese belief we should say thanks openly and happily."
Two miles away from the flag bedecked soccer stadium where Mr Ahmadinejad addressed thousands of bussed in Hizbollah supporters aged from infancy to the third age, the glint of binoculars from Israeli border positions could be seen.
Mark Regev, Israel's government spokesman, said the trip demonstrated Iran's hostile intentions. "Iran's domination of Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah has destroyed any chance for peace, has turned Lebanon into an Iranian satellite and made Lebanon a hub for regional terror and instability," he said.
The lingering scars of occupation provided a powerful reason to rally behind Mr Ahmadinejad's visit despite Israel's anger. One man pointed out that thousands of former residents, members of the Israeli-backed Christian militia South Lebanese Army, fled after the end of occupation. The threat they might return to reclaim lost homes and more is still powerfully present.
"The military have not given up hope," said Faud Lubdounn, a bookkeeper. "They left homes and property behind and have many grudges to avenge. If Israel came back, so would they."
Bint Jbeil is locally described as Lebanon's Stalingrad such was the intensity of Israel's assault on the town in 2006. The transformation in its fortune's since has provided another powerful incentive for displays of loyalty. Hizbollah and Jihad al-Binna, Iran's construction operation in Lebanon, has paid for the rebuilding of houses, office blocks and shattered streets. It has even built a fun park complete with a scale replica of Jerusalem's Golden domed Al Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest site.
Arafat Mohsen, 35, owes his entire lifestyle to Hizbollah. When Israel pulled out in 2000, Mr Mohsen returned from nearby Tyre where his family had fled. In 2006 his home and shop were both badly damaged and Hizbollah has since given him the money to repair the damage. Now his shop selling army surplus and replica football shirts does an active trade in Iranian flags and Hizbollah T-shirts.
"In fact they paid me too much for the work I needed to carry out," he said. "More than that local people are good customers because they have money and jobs thank to Hizbollah. My house, my wife, my son are all thanks to the end of the Israelis here."
Mr Mohsen declared himself satisified with Mr Ahmadinejad's speech.
"He said we are here side-by-side with the Lebanese. We are here to assist you, assist the Lebanese army, assist the Resistance to ensure that you are safe," he said.
Israel, and the Western countries that support Lebanon's moderate secular parties, took a darker view of the visit. Iran it seemed was revelling it's "base on the Medditerrean".
From Bint Jbeil, Mr Ahmadinejad travelled on to Qana, which was targeted by Israeli shelling that killed 105 civilians during the "Grapes of Wrath" offensive. Out of the corner of his eye, Mr Ahmadinejad would have seen the Union Flag on a memorial for 34 Fijian peacekeepers killed in the town between 1978 and 2002.
Chiselled into the stone was the verse from Matthew: "Blessed are the peacemakers."
Last updated 16/10/2010