- Associated Press - Thursday, October 14, 2010

BINT JBEIL, Lebanon (AP) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad taunted archenemy Israel Thursday from just across the tense border in southern Lebanon where he rallied tens of thousands of supporters of ally Hezbollah as Israeli attack helicopters buzzed in the skies nearby.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly said Israel should be wiped off the map and denied the Holocaust, vowed that “resistance” forces will liberate Palestinians from Israeli control. The U.S. and Israel called his visit to the border region of southern Lebanon a provocation.

“The world should know that Zionists will perish,” he said at a rally in the border village of Bint Jbeil, which was one of the hardest-hit areas in the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. It has since been rebuilt with the help of heavy investments from Iran.

“Occupied Palestine will be liberated from the filth of occupation by the strength of resistance and through the faith of the resistance,” Mr. Ahmandinejad said to the crowd waving a sea of Lebanese, Iranian and Hezbollah flags.

The Iranian leader arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday to a rapturous welcome organized by the powerful Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah for his first state visit since he became president in 2005. The visit has turned into a show of force by Hezbollah, which shares power in a fragile unity government with a Western-backed coalition.

His welcome by throngs of cheering Shi’ites has underscored the eroding position of pro-Western factions in Lebanon. It suggests that the competition over influence in Lebanon may be tipping toward Iran and its ally Syria, away from the United States and it Arab allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Israel considers Iran’s nuclear program an existential threat, convinced that it is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Tehran denies the allegation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks at the border 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,” Mr. 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.”

Bint Jbeil, about two miles from the border, has a special significance for many in Lebanon.

Days after Israel ended its two-decade occupation of south Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah’s leader gave a victory speech here in which he said Israel is “weaker than a spider’s web” — a phrase that adorns a wall of the stadium along with photographs of weeping Israeli soldiers.

While Mr. Ahmadinejad received a hero’s welcome upon arrival Wednesday from Hezbollah’s Shi’ite supporters, his visit exacerbated fears among many Lebanese — particularly Sunnis and Christians — that Iran and Hezbollah are seeking to impose their will on the country and possibly pull Lebanon into a conflict with Israel.

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 Shi’ites and virtually runs a state-within-a-state in Shi’ite areas of Lebanon.

“You proved that your resistance, your patience, your steadfastness, were stronger than all the tanks and warplanes of the enemy,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said as the crowd roared in Bint Jbeil’s stadium, its perimeter walls lined with giant images of Iranian and Hezbollah leaders.

An AP reporter saw two Israeli attack helicopters hovering above the Israeli border town of Moshav Avivim. But otherwise, Israeli military presence near the town appeared minimal.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev slammed the trip.

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