Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hezbollah promotes itself through 'jihadi tourism'

SOJOD, Lebanon — The students clapped and cheered as a Hezbollah fighter perched on a rocket launcher paraded past. Later, they snapped photographs with guerrila fighters, getting a firsthand account of the group's tactics against Israel on the battlefield.

Excursions like the one more than 400 Lebanese university students took Saturday to a Hezbollah stronghold in south Lebanon are part of the militant group's push to promote itself through "jihadi tourism" to mark the 10th anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The efforts also include a sprawling new war museum touting Hezbollah's history.

It's a way for the militant group to showcase its military prowess at a time when Israel and the U.S. say the Iranian-backed group is acquiring more sophisticated weaponry.

"We are bringing students to the area previously occupied by Israel, to show them how the resistance, with its meager capabilities, was able to defeat the strongest army in the world," said Jihad Hammoud, one of the organizers of the student tours.

Hezbollah guerrillas waged a war of attrition against Israeli forces occupying a strip of Lebanese territory along the Israeli border until May 2000, when, faced with rising casualties, Israel withdrew it troops, ending a 22-year military presence there.

The Israeli withdrawal crowned Hezbollah as a heroic organization viewed by many Lebanese and Arabs as a liberator that won back territory without negotiations or concessions. The group further burnished its reputation after its guerrilla fighters battled the Israelis to a draw during the monthlong 2006 war.

"Everywhere you go there is a Holocaust museum, regardless of (the Holocaust's) authenticity, accuracy or magnitude," he said.

The sprawling Mlita complex — 60,000 square meters — includes a gallery, caves and a 250-meter-long downhill terrain that features life size replicas of Hezbollah guerrillas simulating fighting with Israel on the battlefield and in underground tunnels.

It is not the first time the group has exhibited war booty at a museum, but the one inaugurated Friday is permanent and by far the largest.

Israel has condemned such museums, saying they promote hatred. Several Lebanese officials, including representatives of the president and prime minister, attended Friday's inauguration. Noam Chomsky, a prominent American academic and outspoken Jewish critic of Israel, was also there.

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