BINT JBEIL, Lebanon (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking on Thursday close to Israel’s northern border, praised what he called Lebanon’s resistance to the Jewish state and declared that “Zionists are mortal.”
Addressing thousands of cheering Hezbollah supporters in Bint Jbeil, where there was fierce fighting between the militant Iranian-backed group and Israeli soldiers in 2006, Ahmadinejad said the town symbolized Lebanon’s defiance.
“The world should know the Zionists are mortal ... today the Lebanese nation is alive and is a role model for regional nations,” the Iranian president said on the second day of a trip that highlighted the growing power of Tehran’s ally Hezbollah.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Ahmadinejad, who has called for the Jewish state to be wiped from the map, was bringing a message of violence and extremism and was “transforming Lebanon into a platform for his aggressive plans against Israel.”
Bint Jbeil is just 4 km (2.5 miles) from the border and Israel’s Channel 2 Television said echoes of Ahmadinejad’s welcoming ceremony were audible on the Israeli side minutes before he arrived.
The town was heavily bombed in the 34-day conflict four years ago and most houses around the stadium where he spoke had been rebuilt since then.
“I announce that Bint Jbeil is alive and is standing. The world should know that Bint Jbeil is proud and will stand against the enemies till the end,” Ahmadinejad said.
He also visited Qana, where 106 Lebanese civilians were killed in 1996 when Israeli aircraft struck a base run by U.N. peacekeepers in which villagers had sought shelter. “You are victorious and your enemies are defeated,” Ahmadinejad said.
“You will stay and your enemies, who are the enemies of humanity, are on their way to demise and annihilation. You are honored and your Zionist enemies are humiliated and weak.”
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television later aired footage of a meeting that it said took place at the Iranian embassy in Beirut between Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah was seen giving the Iranian president an Israeli rifle as a gift, which Hezbollah said had been captured during the 2006 war.
In a symbolic move, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to respond to Ahmadinejad from the hall in Tel Aviv where Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared the creation of Israel in 1948.
“We heard today the cursing and the language of contempt from the Lebanon border,” Netanyahu said at the Land of Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. “...We will continue to build our country and we will know very well how to defend it.”
The United States said Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon showed he was continuing his “provocative ways.” Washington wants to isolate Iran over its nuclear program and says Iran’s support for Hezbollah undermines Lebanese sovereignty.
Iran says its uranium enrichment work is for peaceful energy generation, but the West fears it could be used to develop atom bombs. The United Nations has imposed several rounds of sanctions on Tehran over its failure to halt enrichment.
The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against Iran if it continues enrichment, and Hezbollah could be drawn into a wider conflict if Iran were attacked.
Making the first official state visit to Lebanon by an Iranian president, Ahmadinejad stressed during talks with political leaders on Wednesday that his trip was aimed at supporting the whole nation, not just Tehran’s Hezbollah allies.
He repeatedly praised all Lebanese politicians including Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim whose pro-Western supporters strongly criticized Ahmadinejad before the visit. Hariri’s unity government, which includes Hezbollah ministers, has been strained by rising political tension.
But the Iranian president’s trip to the Shi’ite-dominated south, and his strident language against Israel, were likely to overshadow the carefully crafted message of national support he delivered in Beirut.
In Bint Jbeil he said Lebanon’s enemies had no option but “surrender to the nations and (to) go back to their first homes ... Palestine will ... be freed.”
Iranian flags and posters lined the main roads leading to Bint Jbeil and at the entrance to the town a giant banner read “welcome” in Farsi and Arabic. Signs on billboards and banners said: “The south welcomes the protector of the resistance.”
Ahmadinejad’s address came 10 years after Nasrallah used the same platform to deliver a victory speech after Israel ended 22 years of occupation of south Lebanon.
Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran and Joseph Nasr in Jerusalem; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Matthew Jones