There is something distinctly surreal about praising an armed toddler.
The weapon is too big, and the child too small, and the enthusiasm of those encouraging the combination slightly unnerving.
In this case, it is a child touring Hizbollah’s new resistance museum who catches the eye of our tour guide. Pausing mid-sentence on our walk through an installation of Israeli weaponry, he stops to admire the two-foot fighter, who clutches a toy assault rifle as he stares at us from the comfort of his father’s arms.
“Mashallah,” Rami says, kissing the small, stoic face as indulgent family members look on.
The toddler is one of the younger visitors on this particular Friday morning, but he is not the only child wandering Mleeta, Hizbollah’s multi-million dollar exhibition on the history of its conflict with Israel in southern Lebanon. Groups of school children have lined up since the early morning to tour the three-month old site. Opened in Mleeta on May 25 to mark the 10th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, it is the first phase of what is said to be a much larger investment project.
“We’re gonna build motels, playgrounds, camping areas, even spas and swimming pools, so that people, especially our southern people who have been deprived of tourism for decades, can come here and spend their vacations,” says Rami.
But a resistance vacation is no ordinary vacation (at least, not like any vacation I know). Visitors are first ushered in to a screening room, where they are shown films about the construction and history of Mleeta. We are in a room full of men who have come as part of a group tour. “I would like to welcome you all to the land of resistance, purity and jihad,” booms their tour guide. “We are proud to welcome you among us. You are the people of the resistance who live on the line of fire with the enemy.”
The lights dim. Violins crescendo as time stamps flash across the screen, marking significant dates of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict. The film ends with a dramatic speech made by Hassan Nasrallah, followed by the sobre pronouncement of Abbas al Mussawi that “Israel has fallen”.
The point is driven home by the next exhibit which, sunk low into the ground outdoors, is appropriately named The Abyss. Rami points to the pit filled with reconstructed Merkava tanks, missile shells and helmets scattered amid barbed wire and rubble as he explains their symbolism. A metallic web covers a tank – “which means that Israel is weaker than a spider web”; Imad Mughniyeh’s signature is carved into a golden wall at one end – symbolising Hizbollah’s “resistance shield”; Hebrew letters are scattered all around the perimeter, spelling out Zahal – “which means the IDF. If they ever invade again, this is gonna be their destiny.”
As Rami doles out more symbolic explanations, an older gentleman catches my eye as he passes by the site. Dressed in a blue Adidas track suit, he jogs along a spiral pathway which represents – Rami has earlier informed me – “the hurricane of resistance that strikes the invaders”. He rounds the hurricane, passes the hall of Israeli weaponry and makes his way up towards Martyr’s Hill. One man’s resistance memorial, it seems, has become another man’s marathon.
To the north, down through a forest pathway lined with camouflage cover and flanked by old missiles, lies the museum’s piece de resistance: a Hizbollah bunker. It is around 200 metres long – a clandestine behemoth that was in use up until the 2006 war. Kitchenware, cots, and the relics of an inhabited space still remain, giving visitors a glimpse of the life lived in a space that took 1,000 fighters three years to carve into the mountainside.
Rami leads us back up to the entrance, little troubled when we ask him what he would say to those who would call Mleeta propaganda. “I believe it’s our right to have our own propaganda,” he says. “The most important thing is that this propaganda is true and sincere. We are showing everything how it happened without any deviation, destruction or exaggeration.”
Hizbollah’s bid to craft a narrative as the sole defender of southern Lebanon is a decades-long tradition. But its newest venture to blend affordable tourism with a lesson in the history of guerrilla warfare is a surreal affair – almost as surreal as praising an armed toddler.Category: Israeli-Palestinian conflict