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.
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.
It was a historic moment – the first time that Israel had unilaterally withdrawn from occupied Arab territory. For Hezbollah, the Israeli move marked the end of a battle, but not the war.
“My feelings haven’t changed from then until now because I feel that the burden of Israeli aggression is still upon me,” says Abu Hadi, a veteran Hezbollah fighter and a tour guide at the Mlita tourist village. “I don’t really believe that Israeli greed for our land is over and I don’t feel the joy of liberation when I see the land of my brothers is occupied and they are suffering in bloody ways,” he adds, referring to the Palestinians.
In the years after Israeli departed Lebanon, Hezbollah built up its military strength, transforming itself into a highly trained army equipped with modern weapons and communications. That military buildup accelerated after the 2006 war. Today, Hezbollah is thought to possess guided rockets that can hit almost anywhere in Israel. Israel and the United States have protested the arms buildup, but so far not taken action.
The withdrawal was the “best solution” under the circumstances, says Noam Ben-Zvi, a retired Israeli army colonel who was a brigade commander in south Lebanon. “Our mistake," he adds, "was and still is that … we don’t do anything to prevent [Hezbollah] rearming with long-range missiles.”
Mlita village opens to public
The sprawling Hezbollah tourist site at Mlita, which opened to the public Tuesday, covers a mountain top smothered in dense bushes and stubby oak trees. It was a secret front-line base for the guerrillas during the years of Israeli occupation. Hundreds of visitors gaped at the symbolic displays of smashed Israeli tanks. Children scrambled over upturned armored personnel carriers. Pathways wind beneath the canopy of oak trees and camouflage netting revealing displays of weaponry, including top-range Kornet antitank missiles and RPG-29 rockets used by Hezbollah in the 2006 war.
It also features small tableaux of plastic-dummy Hezbollah fighters in uniforms creeping through the undergrowth or carrying ammunition and rockets. On the floor of a rocky alcove rests a prayer mat and an open copy of the Koran beside an old AK-47 rifle. It was the favorite place of prayer for Sheikh Abbas Mussawi, a former Hezbollah leader killed by Israel in 1992, when he used to visit the fighters in Mlita. A recording of Mussawi’s gravelly voice murmuring prayers wafts through the trees.
“Those of us who used to be based here in the 1980s, when Sayyed Abbas was here, begin to weep when they hear his voice in this place,” says Abu Hadi.
Perhaps the highlight of the exhibition is the 200-meter tunnel built over a three-year period starting in 1985. According to a sign at the entrance, it took 1,000 fighters to bore out the tunnel and chambers using picks and pneumatic drills.
The cramped passageway was lined with soldered steel plates and is the prototype of the bunker networks that Hezbollah built in the southern Lebanon border district in the years after 2000 and used to such good effect against invading Israeli troops in the 2006 war.
“As the main center of the resistance from the 1980s, this place talks to the souls of the visitors,” says Sheikh Ali Daher, the head of Hezbollah’s publicity projects department. “The whole project is to tell the story of resistance to the new generation.”