On a hilltop overlooking Israel's former occupation zone in south Lebanon, Hezbollah has built what the international press has dubbed the Shiite militia's "Disneyland." Mleeta, Hezbollah's new "Tourist Landmark of the Resistance," is designed to celebrate the party's long war against Israel. As it pulls in the masses, Mleeta also provides another sign that Israeli deterrence in Lebanon is disintegrating.
A former Hezbollah command center, Mleeta is located 27 miles (44 km) southeast of Beirut. Built at a reported cost of $4 million, Mleeta attracted over 130,000 visitors in the first ten days following its opening on May 25 -- the 10th anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon.
Abu Hadi, our Hezbollah guide, who employs the same nom de guerre as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, aimed to give visitors a glimpse into the high-risk life of killing Israeli soldiers. He began our tour in "The Abyss" -- a pit filled with Israeli helmets, boots, cluster bombs, and overturned military vehicles. At the center of the display is an Israeli Merkava-4 tank, with its gun turret tied in a knot. As we ascended a spiral walkway overlooking the display, I caught sight of a tombstone embossed with the Israel Defense Forces symbol, and the word "Abyss" written in big, concrete Hebrew letters.
Abu Hadi told us Mleeta was the inspiration of Imad Mughniyah, a man the United States believes was the mastermind of the 1983 U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks bombings in Beirut. The attack on the U.S. Marine Corps' barracks claimed the lives of 241 servicemen, marking the largest single-day death toll for the Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima. Mughniyah was indicted by a U.S. court for the June 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847 and the murder of passenger and Navy diver Robert Stethem, whose body was tossed out on the tarmac at Beirut Airport. He also played a key role in the kidnappings of Western journalists, diplomats, and academics (amongst others) in Lebanon between 1982 and 1990.
One of the world's most wanted men and reportedly a master of disguise, Hezbollah would barely mention Mughniyah's name until his mysterious February 2008 assassination by car bomb in Damascus. Now, the party brings him up at every turn. "That is Mughniyah's signature," Abu Hadi said, pointing to a sign embossed into a tall, yellow cement monolith placed to look as if it were stopping an Israeli tank. Looking solemn and proud, he paused for a moment of silence and said a small prayer under his breath. Abu Hadi peppered his spiel with mentions of the late resistance leader, proving his influence on Hezbollah.
As we circled the walkway and proceeded down into the abyss, I lagged behind Abu Hadi to take a few photos. Mothers and fathers filled the walkways, pulling their children this way and that. By their dress and accents, many appeared to be from south Lebanon's majority Shia community. However, a significant minority also appeared to be Christian, a testament to the fact that Hezbollah's history of guerrilla warfare against Israel has earned the party support that transcends Lebanon's fractious sectarian divide. Children gathered around the Mughniyah memorial, their hands outstretched to the tank as if they were trying to polish the turret. "See, only resistance will liberate Palestine from the Jews," one mother said to her infant son as she pushed his stroller down the walkway.
"The Path," a series of trenches and warrens reminiscent of World War I battlefields in France or Belgium, was the next stop on our tour. Abu Hadi pushed a crowd of visitors out of the way to show us the prayer nook of Abbas Moussawi, the Hezbollah co-founder and secretary general who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in 1992. Beside his prayer rug and Koran were two AK-47 assault rifles and what appeared to be a World War II-era helmet like those worn by the Marines in 1983. Among Hezbollah's older generation, Moussawi is regarded as the "father of resistance" because of the long hours he spent with fighters on the front lines.
Throughout Mleeta, exhibits aimed to instill visitors with Hezbollah's spartan military ethic. Emerging from the trench, we entered a stone path shaded by oaks, with mannequins dressed in green camouflage fatigues lining both sides of the trail. One exhibit portrayed a fighter cutting barbed wire while his compatriot provided covering fire; another display showed two fighters preparing to fire a 120mm rocket. Every so often a teenage boy would dart out for a snapshot en scene. While the poses were always different, each wore a vacant and fearsome stare like that of country boy on the first day of hunting season.