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Tourists at new Hezbollah 'village' view bunkers, bombs of Lebanon-Israel conflict

Israelis are divided over whether their withdrawal from Lebanon 10 years ago today improved security or encouraged more attacks. Hezbollah opened a tourist village complete with tunnels and crushed Israeli tanks to commemorate their fight.

By Correspondent, Correspondent / May 25, 2010

Shiite Lebanese women pass a destroyed tank of the Lebanese Israeli militia, during the inauguration of a Hezbollah war museum, in Mlita Village, southern Lebanon.

Hussein Malla/AP

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Mlita, south Lebanon; and Tel Aviv, Israel

A camouflage-wearing fighter from Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah crouches, his rifle raised, ready to provide covering fire for a comrade who holds steel cutters and kneels before coils of barbed wire.

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The scene could be a Hezbollah squad preparing to attack an Israeli outpost, but these fighters in the Lebanese town of Mlita are plastic dummies. The display is one feature in a tourist village set up by the Iran-backed group that officially opened today to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Israel’s troop withdrawal from south Lebanon. (More on the Mlita village below.)

While Lebanese hail the Israeli withdrawal as a victory, many Israelis are still divided over whether the move improved security or was a sign of weakness that encouraged more militant attacks on Israel. Critics say the withdrawal opened the way for the second Palestinian intifada four months later, the month-long war with Hezbollah in 2006, and the recent Gaza war.

“What we ended up doing was empowering, emboldening, and energizing Iranian-backed proxies to intensify their unconditional fight against Israel’s existence,” says Dan Diker, a foreign policy analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Today, as both sides mark 10 years since the withdrawal, Israelis and Lebanese alike are jittery about a fresh war breaking out – one that Hezbollah's leaders say would change not just the dynamic between the two neighbors, but the shape of the Middle East.

Israeli and US officials lately have accused Syria of transferring long-range rockets, including Scuds, to Hezbollah. And in a further sign of tensions, the withdrawal anniversary coincides with a five-day nationwide emergency drill in Israel in preparation for possible rocket attacks.

Why Israel invaded Lebanon in '82

Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982, going as far as Beirut, the capital, in an attempt to drive out Palestinian factions then based in south Lebanon. Although the Palestinians left, Israeli troops began facing a new threat from a local Lebanese resistance, particularly in the Shiite-dominated south. By 1985, Israel had pulled back toward the border, occupying a narrow strip for the next 15 years. During that period, Hezbollah emerged as a potent guerrilla force and exacted an ever growing toll of Israeli casualties.

Gilad Rosenzweig’s three tours of military service inside the occupation zone coincided with the growing debate inside Israel in the late 1990s over whether to withdraw. At first, his commanders explained the purpose of their operations as defending the border. But with time, it became clear that the Israeli soldiers were involved in a game of “cat and mouse,” Mr. Rosenzweig says, with guerrillas who were less interested in cross-border attacks than hitting the soldiers in the zone.

“The IDF [Israel Defense Force] did not understand why they were sitting in Lebanon and simply providing targets to Hezbollah,” says Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut who served with the United Nations peacekeepers in south Lebanon from 1979 to 2003. “Simply, motivation was not there.”

Israeli public opinion turned against the occupation and Ehud Barak, the current defense minister, was elected prime minister in May 1999 largely on his electoral pledge to pull the troops out of Lebanon within a year of taking office. But in May 2000, the occupation zone collapsed prematurely when Lebanese civilians marched across the front line to return to their long-abandoned villages, forcing the last Israeli troops to dash for the border.

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