Thousands of Shiite Lebanese, mainly supporters of the militant Iran-backed Hezbollah but also members of allied factions, squeezed through the narrow streets of Bint Jbeil to reach a sports stadium where President Ahmadinejad was due to speak.
“I have a great feeling of pride that Ahmadinejad is coming to Bint Jbeil today. This is the citadel of resistance against Israel,” says Hussein Ayoub.
The stadium was bedecked in Iranian and Lebanese flags with a giant banner saying “welcome” in Arabic and Farsi. Grim-faced and black-suited Hezbollah security men, part of Hezbollah’s huge security operation for Ahmadinejad’s visit, sternly scanned the enthusiastic crowd.
Israel has criticized Ahmadinejad’s visit, warning that Iran is attempting to drag Lebanon into the “axis of extremist states.” An Al Qaeda-affiliated group also issued threats against the Iranian president on the eve of his trip.
Significance of Bint Jbeil
Bint Jbeil is the largest Shiite town in the southern border district, and for 18 years it was occupied by Israeli troops. Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000 in the face of a ferocious resistance campaign by Hezbollah.
Days after the Israeli withdrawal, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, chose Bint Jbeil as the site for his victory speech, during which he mocked Israel as being weaker than a “spider’s web.”
Six years later, during the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in July 2006, Bint Jbeil was the scene of one of the conflict’s bitterest battles. The Israelis attempted to overrun the town and drive out Hezbollah fighters in an operation it dubbed “Web of Steel,” a reference to Sheikh Nasrallah’s earlier ridicule.
But the Hezbollah fighters proved too tenacious and the Israeli forces eventually gave up, leaving the center of the town destroyed but still in the hands of the Lebanese group.
Rock star reception
The crowd at Ahmadinejad's speech waited more than two hours in the sweltering late afternoon heat before Ahmadinejad stepped onto the stage flanked by leading Hezbollah officials in south Lebanon.
The Iranian president praised the resolve of the southern Lebanese and heaped plaudits on the Islamic Resistance, Hezbollah’s military wing.
“You are a solid mountain,” he said, speaking in Farsi. His words were translated into Arabic for the audience. “We are proud of you and will remain forever by your side.”
“Had it not been for your resistance and heroic steadfastness, it would not have been known if the border between Lebanon and Israel would be liberated now, you have proved that your jihad is stronger than armadas and tanks,” he said.
Lebanese army helicopters and a spotter plane circled above Bint Jbeil as he spoke, amid fervent speculation from the crowd that Israel might send jets into Lebanese airspace to buzz Ahmadinejad.
Thousands of balloons in red, white and green – by happy coincidence the colors of both the Iranian and Lebanese flags – were released in the town center. The cloud of balloons drifted on the gentle evening breeze south toward the Israeli border. Some Israeli activists also released balloons of their own inscribed with anti-Iranian messages into Lebanon. The wind, however, seemed to be in Lebanon’s favor.
Ahmadinejad repeated his belief that Israel cannot endure and will eventually disappear, saying, “The occupying Zionists have no choice but to accept reality and go back to their countries of origin.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brushed aside Ahmadinejad’s comments, saying in a speech in Tel Aviv that, “The best response to the hateful verbal aggression from across the border was given here 62 years ago,” referring to the creation of Israel.
'A holy visit'
In the evening, Ahmadinejad travelled in an armored motorcade to Qana, a small hill village once famous among Lebanese for being the site of the Biblical wedding where Jesus is believed to have turned water into wine. But in the past 14 years, Qana has become a symbol in Lebanon of tragedy and suffering. In April 1996, 107 civilians were killed when Israel shelled a UN base in the center of the village.
Ten years later, 27 members of two extended families, most of them children, died when Israeli jets bombed the house where they were sheltered during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Ahmadinejad chose to visit Qana to pay respects to the dead.
Hussein Ismael, a greengrocer in the village, lost his right arm in the bombardment and today wears a plastic substitute.
“I lost 14 members of my family in the massacre and there is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about what happened,” he says. “We’re very proud President Ahmadinejad is visiting us. We consider it a holy visit.”