Ahmadinejad taunts Israel from border with Lebanon

Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad verbally attacked Israel from the Lebanese border town of Bint Jbeil, Thursday. Hezbollah celebrated Ahmadinejad's visit while Israel showed confidence in their strength.

Hussein Malla/AP
Hezbollah Supporters wave Lebanese and Iranian flags as they gather to listen to the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech, during a rally organized by Hezbollah in the southern border town of Bint Jbeil, Lebanon, on Thursday. The U.S. and Israel have called the trip intentionally provocative.

Iran's president taunted archenemy Israel on Thursday from just across the tense border in Lebanon, rallying tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters as Israeli attack helicopters buzzed in the skies nearby.

"The world should know that the Zionists will perish," declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, echoing previous verbal attacks in which he has said Israel should be wiped off the map.

"Occupied Palestine will be liberated from the filth of occupation by the strength of resistance and through the faith of the resistance," the Iranian leader vowed as cheers went up from the crowd, waving a sea of Lebanese, Iranian and Hezbollah flags.

The fiery speech was delivered in the border village of Bint Jbeil, which was nearly destroyed by Israeli bombs in the 2006 war with Hezbollah and rebuilt with the help of Iranian cash. A stronghold of the Shiite militant group, Ahmadinejad's visit to the southern Lebanese area was denounced by Washington and Israel as a provocation.

The Iranian president's first state visit to Lebanon, it was turned into a show of strength by Hezbollah, Iran's close ally in Lebanon, which shares power in a fragile unity government with a Western-backed coalition.

Hezbollah organized a rapturous welcome Wednesday in Beirut's streets, which were bedecked with billboards and signs bearing photos of Ahmadinejad.

By contrast, Lebanon's pro-Western leaders have been pushed to the background, underscoring their eroding position— and suggesting the competition over influence in Lebanon may be tipping in favor of Iran and its ally Syria, away from the United States and its Arab allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Ahmadinejad's border visit by saying Israel knows how to protect itself.

"We heard today the cursing and invectives from the Lebanese border. The best answer to the deriders was given here 62 years ago — the state and all that we've built and created since," Netanyahu said.

"Look what a nation, what a state and what an army the state of Israel has. We will continue building, we will continue to create our state and we will know well how to defend ourselves."

While Ahmadinejad received a hero's welcome from Hezbollah's Shiite supporters, his visit intensified fears among Sunnis and Christians that Iran and Hezbollah are seeking to impose their will on Lebanon and possibly pull it into a conflict with Israel.

Van loads of Shiites organized by Hezbollah made their way Thursday to Bint Jbeil's stadium, traveling along roads lined with Iranian flags. Located just two miles from the Israeli border, the village has a special significance for Shiites.

Dubbed "the capital of resistance" during Israel's two-decade occupation of the south, Hezbollah's leader gave a victory speech here after Israel withdrew in 2000, calling Israel "weaker than a spider's web" — a phrase that adorns a stadium wall along with photographs of weeping Israeli soldiers.

During Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel, Bint Jbeil was targeted by Israeli troops, who met stiff resistance from dug-in Hezbollah guerrillas. The close-quarter fighting was among the fiercest of the monthlong war and much of the town was destroyed or damaged.

Now, with an influx of Iranian money, it looks brand-new, with freshly built roads and apartment buildings.

Addressing the roaring crowd in Bint Jbeil's stadium, Ahmadinejad said: "You proved that your resistance, your patience, your steadfastness, were stronger than all the tanks and warplanes of the enemy."

"You are the mighty mountain, and I am proud of you," he said.

Ali Daboush, a 35-year-old Shiite who works in Saudi Arabia, said he came home to Lebanon just to see the Iranian leader.

"He liberated this land. It was thanks to him," Daboush said. "No Arab leader has done what he has done."

Nearby, two Israeli attack helicopters could be seen hovering above the Israeli border town of Moshav Avivim.

Iran, whose ties to Hezbollah date back nearly 30 years, funds the militant group to the tune of millions of dollars a year and is believed to supply much of its arsenal. Hezbollah boasts widespread support among Shiites and virtually runs a state-within-a-state in Shiite areas of Lebanon.

Ahmadinejad met late Thursday with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and held talks earlier in the day with Lebanon's pro-Western prime minister Saad Hariri.

Throughout his visit, the Iranian leader has stressed unity among Lebanese, aiming to depict Iran as an ally of the entire nation, not just Hezbollah.

But the strains have been clear.

The Western-backed coalition has warned that Ahmadinejad is seeking to transform Lebanon into "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean." And among Shiites, mentions of Hariri were roundly booed during Ahmadinejad'sspeeches.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev slammed the trip.

"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.

Hezbollah has nearly quadrupled its arsenal since the 2006 war to more than 45,000 rockets and missiles, including weapons that are more accurate and more powerful than the past, Israeli ambassador Michael Oren said in Washington.

Washington also came out strongly against the Iranian leader's visit, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterating American concerns about Iran's nuclear program and its "support of terrorism."

"So when the Iranian president goes to Lebanon, and we know that they are supporting financially and in every other way Hezbollah, which is on the border of Israel and the border of the Palestinian areas, then that is a volatile situation," she said in an interview aired Thursday on ABC.

Still, Israeli residents of Avivim, a farming village that looks across the border at a makeshift stage and replica of the Dome of the Rock built in honor of Ahmadinejad, showed little interest.

"We're not excited about his visit. ... Ahmadinejad is a big coward," said resident Rafi Peretz. "Why does he come only 300 meters from us? Why doesn't he come here?"

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