Devoted crowds throng Hezbollah's Lebanon theme park
MLEETA, Lebanon (Reuters) - If you have an urge to inspect mangled Israeli tanks, toy with a rocket launcher or explore a genuine rock-cut guerrilla bunker, Hezbollah's multi-media theme park in south Lebanon is just the place.
The Shi'ite Muslim group, which fought Israel to a stalemate four years ago and has been preparing for the next war ever since, has applied a creative flair to its "resistance tourist landmark" at Mleeta that mirrors its innovative military skills.
Hezbollah is often secretive. Its decision to throw open a strategic hilltop bastion on what was once a front line with an Israeli-occupied "security zone" suggests it does not expect to re-fight past battles when the next confrontation explodes.
For now, it is taking the propaganda war to its enemy, as well as seeking to inspire its own people with the tale of its prowess as Israel's deadliest foe in the past quarter century.
Here, on the resort's oak-sheathed slopes, the nitty-gritty reality of life as a Hezbollah guerrilla is on display, replete with themes of patriotism and martyrdom, plus a dose of bombast.
Despite searing summer heat, more than half a million people have flocked to Mleeta, about 50 km (37 miles) southeast of Beirut, since it opened in May, say Hezbollah guides who conduct tours in English, French, German, Italian as well as Arabic.
"If the Israelis don't attack us, we won't attack them," said one mild-spoken part-time guide, who gave his name as Ali.
"We are not terrorists, we are very peaceful people and we have the right to live like any other nations."
Ali, 40, whose day job is in an Islamic bank in the nearby town of Nabatiyeh, said the sprawling resort had cost $4 million so far. Future plans envisage a five-star hotel, a camp site, swimming pools, sports clubs and eventually a cable car.
The guides generally preach to the converted -- the crowds are mainly Lebanese Shi'ites, with a sprinkling of foreigners.
"You believe in Hezbollah, you believe in your country, you believe you are strong," chirped Sara Nasser, from the southern village of Haris, saying the exhibit had filled her with pride.
Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, emerged as a resistance force after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to drive PLO fighters from its northern border -- and then stayed. The Lebanese guerrillas triumphed when the Israelis quit the south in 2000.
The only faction to stay armed after Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, Hezbollah says it must retain its formidable rocket arsenal to deter Israel, which has unsettled scores from the 2006 war that erupted after guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers.
Israel and the United States, but not the European Union, view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
The Mleeta tour starts in a theater showing a seven-minute video history of Hezbollah, with ear-splitting martial music.
Then comes a museum displaying captured Israeli guns and gear. Wall panels offer a detailed anatomy of Israel's military machine and show satellite pictures -- and map coordinates -- of potential Hezbollah targets in the Jewish state, including its Dimona nuclear reactor in the distant Negev desert.
Outside is a round sunken arena featuring wrecked Israeli tanks and artillery, their gun barrels buried uselessly in concrete walls. A Merkava tank cannon has been artfully knotted.
"This circle is like a tornado," said Abu Abdullah, another guide. "The storm hit the Israeli army and let it down to the abyss, the lowest point of hell, cemetery of the Zionist army."
Large Hebrew letters spell out "The Abyss" and "The Swamp" in stone at the center of the circle, taunts meant to be seen and photographed by Israeli spy planes, drones and satellites.
A trail, passing rockets hidden in the forest and life-sized models of Hezbollah fighters in combat or tending their wounded, leads to the mouth of an elaborate tunnel with a kitchen, prayer hall, operations room and living space for up to 30 men.
The 100 meter (yard) long rocky passage, which emerges near a lookout point high above villages set in rolling hills, took three years to hack out of the limestone, Abu Abdullah said.
"The fighters are the sons of these villages. They don't come by parachute from the sky or up from the earth," he joked, stressing the "chain relation" between Hezbollah and its people.
Children played with an anti-aircraft gun, swiveling it up and down. Their father, Said Issa, a Palestinian from Lebanon's Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, spoke admiringly of Hezbollah.
"When we come here and see the resistance, and our brothers in Gaza and Nablus, we see them on the same path," he said.
In Mleeta, the path ends in "Liberation Square," a garden surrounded by Hezbollah guns and missiles. Stone steps climb up to an esplanade dedicated to the organization's "martyrs."
It seems a safe bet that the Israeli air force will flatten this place early in the next war, just as in 2006 it destroyed a museum in the village of Khiam where Israel's old allies in the South Lebanon Army had once run a prison and torture chamber.
But visitors to Mleeta say the theme park calms their fears.
"We expect a new war for sure, if not now, later," said Khadijeh al-Shaar, a 19-year-old student wearing a black robe and headscarf. "But we are not afraid because the resistance is with us, the Sayyed (Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah) is with us, the people are with us. And certainly Allah is with us."
The last conflict devastated many southern villages and the Shi'ite suburbs of Beirut. It took the lives of more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 158 Israelis, mostly soldiers, in 34 days of fighting that ended on August 14, 2006.
Khaled Jouni, who works in Dubai for a U.S. tobacco firm, said he felt concerned about another conflagration in his native south Lebanon, but, thanks to Hezbollah, not frightened.
"I'm so proud of what has been done to free the land," the sales manager said, adding that it was the guerrillas who had liberated his village, Roumin, from Israeli occupation.
"Definitely, we don't want another war. We come to Lebanon because it's where you can party, go out, enjoy everything."
Jouni, who describes himself as an atheist despite growing up in a pious Shi'ite family, is unperturbed by Hezbollah's religious militancy or its emphasis on martyrdom.
"I respect nothing like I respect the resistance," he said. "Even communists have martyrs. Che Guevara, heard of him?"
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)