- 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.

“Iran’s domination of Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah has destroyed any chance for peace, has turned Lebanon into an Iranian satellite and made Lebanon a hub for regional terror and instability,” he said.

Earlier Thursday, schoolchildren handed out leaflets on the best route to Bint Jbeil. The village is dubbed “the capital of resistance” because it was a center for Hezbollah guerrilla action against Israel during its occupation of the south.

Ali Daboush, a 35-year-old Shi’ite who works in Saudi Arabia, said he traveled home to Lebanon just to see the Iranian leader.

“He liberated this land. It was thanks to him,” Mr. Daboush told the Associated Press. “No Arab leader has done what he has done.”

The Iranian leader also visited the village of Qana, where an Israeli air strike in 2006 killed dozens. In 1996, Israeli artillery killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians in Qana.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has sought to depict his country as an ally of all Lebanese, not just Hezbollah.

But the strains have been clear, highlighting the eroding position of pro-Western factions in Lebanon.

The coalition of Western-backed parties in the government has warned that Mr. Ahmadinejad is seeking to transform Lebanon into “an Iranian base on the Mediterranean.”

Mentions of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who heads Lebanon’s Western-backed coalition, were roundly booed during Ahmadinejad’s speeches.

The strains are significant because Lebanon is enduring its worst political crisis in years.

A U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is expected to indict members of Hezbollah as soon as this month, which many fear could lead to violence between the Shi’ite force and Hariri’s mainly Sunni allies. The slain leader is the father of the current prime minister.

Many fear the crisis could bring down the government.

Washington has come out strongly against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated American concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and its “support of terrorism.”

“So when the Iranian president goes to Lebanon, and we know that they are supporting financially and in every other way Hezbollah, which is on the border of Israel and the border of the Palestinian areas, then that is a volatile situation,” she said in an interview aired Thursday on ABC.

Residents in Avivim, an Israeli farming village that looks across the border at a makeshift stage and replica of the Dome of the Rock built in honor of Ahmadinejad, showed little interest in his visit.

“We’re not excited about his visit. We don’t get alarmed about anything around here. Ahmadinejad is a big coward,” said resident Rafi Peretz. “Why does he come only 300 meters (yards) from us? Why doesn’t he come here?”

Mroue reported from Qana. AP Writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut and Daniel Estrin in Moshav Avivim, Israel, also contributed to this report.

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