Hezbollah museum: war for all the family

MLITA, Lebanon — A young boy ducks under a barricade to have his photo taken next to an Israeli tank. A father puts his baby daughter’s hand on the trigger of a piece of artillery. A Shiite sheikh, in full religious dress, strolls past a map of “Occupied Palestine.” Two women silently sob at the site where former Hezbollah leader Abbas al-Musawi, now dead, was said to have prayed.

It’s opening day at Hezbollah’s war museum in the southern Lebanese town of Mlita.

Museum construction isn’t finished yet — workers are still putting a cafeteria together and the gift shop lies empty — but Hezbollah officials opened it anyway to mark the 10-year anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

“The Israeli forces occupied those hills,” said museum tour guide Abu Ahmed, who said he was under orders not to give his full name. “The hurricane of the resistance attacked the eight Israeli teams and drove them into the abyss.”

In fact, the museum’s centerpiece is an exhibit called “The Abyss.” It’s a cratered area, surrounded by a ramp for visitors, covered with overturned Israeli tanks and leftover Israeli munitions.

Planning for the museum began in 2006. It now sits on a hilltop that served as a main staging ground for Hezbollah operations against Israel.

On opening day recently, the museum was jammed with supporters of the militant group. Many carried green and white Hezbollah flags. Others wore Hezbollah hats. Traffic was clogged a mile down the country road with cars of revelers.

“Today is the liberation day,” said Abu Ahmed, referring to the national holiday marking the anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal, “like the Fourth of July!”

Behind “The Abyss,” visitors are welcome to walk through the forested area where Hezbollah forces based their operations against Israel. Wandering down the path, visitors see a mock up of a Hezbollah field hospital, a tribute to suicide bombers, and an elaborate cave system where fighters lived, prayed, and planned operations.

Another exhibit was designed to show off the extent of Hezbollah’s arsenal, with rocket launchers and anti-tank systems on display.

For Lebanon’s beleaguered south, which has been on the front lines of wars, both civil and international, for generations, this was a rare day of celebration. The set up of the museum fed that sense of festiveness, showing off the might of the militant group that is a pariah in the eyes of many in the West.

“I feel proud because what’s done here is for the sake of the people living here,” said one visitor, Mohammed Jammoul, standing in front of a poster with the images of Israel’s leadership. “Israel is our enemy. We dream of hitting her with every single weapon we have.”

The museum displays paint a picture of Hezbollah as a powerful fighting force, rather than a scrappy militia. In many ways, Hezbollah has matured since the days when it would launch small-scale missions against the Israeli military in the 1990s. Along with its allies, it is now a dominant force in Lebanon’s electoral politics. Hezbollah leaders can be heard often on television bragging about the increased reach of the group’s arsenal.

There is little mention of the great imbalance that still exists between Israeli military capabilities and Hezbollah’s more modest abilities.

Despite a celebratory air, the museum opened with the threat of renewed violence hanging heavily over the event.

Last month, Israeli officials accused Syria of supplying Hezbollah with scud missiles. On the weekend of the opening, Israel carried out a massive military drill just over the border, during which Hezbollah said it was going on high alert. Whether there will be another war this summer has become a favorite topic of speculation among many Lebanese.

Still, though, officials seemed determined to used the event to look backward at the militant group’s past accomplishments.

“We chose this museum to refresh the memory of the other Lebanese of the resistance,” said Sheikh Ali Daher, a Hezbollah spokesman. “To our people, this day signals the day of dignity, the day that all people stood together for their liberty.”

The main indoor exhibition hall was designed to educate visitors about Israel — albeit with a Hezbollah slant.

A photo of Israeli soldiers in tears topped a poster with facts about the Israeli military. Another poster showed satellite images of major Israeli cities. Tour guide Abu Ahmed boasted that the poster illustrated the depth of Hezbollah’s knowledge about its enemy. Several minutes on Google Earth would yield the same set of images.

Outside the main indoor exhibition area, visitors can climb a set of stairs and enjoy a commanding view of the surrounding area.

From that vantage point, Rami Hassan, a museum guide who pointedly noted his willingness to give his full name, gazed off in the direction of Israel.

“I don’t see Israel,” he said, smiling. “I only see Occupied Palestine.”

Editor's note: In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great forged a path from Greece through the modern Middle East to Persia. It was a path of conquest that empires would follow through the ages. Traces of each can be seen today in the culture, monuments, continuing military presence and people along the route, which ended for Alexander in Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. In this project, GlobalPost correspondent Theodore May sets out to see how Alexander’s influence lives on. He will be blogging about his travels at Backpacking to Babylon.