Victor Argo has visited Mleeta and a Hezbollah theme park to find the soul of South Lebanon. It is best described with one single word: resistance.
Mleeta is easier to find than I imagined. I take the Nabatieh exit on the Saida–Tyr coastal highway and later turn left in Habboush and follow the signs that direct me to the “resistance landmark” in Mleeta. On a hilltop, at more than 1000 meters above sea level, a former Hezbollah military outpost has been turned into a theme park. It presents the conflict that the people of South Lebanon have fought over the years with Israel and the victorious role Hezbollah has played in it.
At the park’s entrance, I am awaited by Dareen and Mhamad, both locals from the Mleeta area. I had been introduced to Dareen through a friend of mine who is a relative of her. Mhamad is Dareen’s cousin; a math teacher who takes pride in his clear thinking and logical arguments.
South Lebanese people are political analysts by definition. They not only talk about politics, they live politics, even geopolitics. Dareen and Mhamad are no exceptions. They have first hand experience of the aftermath of World War II, the Cold War and the times before and after 9/11. It was during these very different historical periods when Israel – in their eyes – was made into a tool for Western powers to control the Middle East and to subdue its people.
And it is on their land, in South Lebanon, where Israel has made its most prominent mark in the Middle East outside of Palestine. The Israeli army made an incursion all the way to Beirut in 1982, occupying the southern part of a country torn and divided by a civil war. By 1984, the popular resistance in South Lebanon started acting under the name of Hezbollah, following the leadership of Sayyed Abbas Mousawi (killed in 1992), Imad Mughniyeh (killed in 2008), and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, alive and very much adored.
By the year 2000, the south of Lebanon was free again, liberated by the force of its own people. To this day, Hezbollah remains heavily armed and they plan to keep it this way for the foreseeable future.
“After the 2006 summer war,” Mhamad says, “Israel knows that it can’t defeat Hezbollah militarily.” Therefore, he explains, the Israelis work directly or indirectly on the political front to have Hezbollah disarmed through a political scheme made in Beirut. “Beirut is full of collaborators with Israel,” Mhamad goes on. “South Lebanon doesn’t figure in these people’s business plans. However in South Lebanon, we don’t intend to fall into this Israeli trap.”
Mleeta is unique. Hezbollah shouldn’t jeopardize its legacy lightly.
The Mleeta site is an amazing mixture of architecture, art and religion. Like a well-planned military operation, nothing looks random. Everything is loaded with symbolism and follows a well-crafted concept. In a vast circular area in the center of the landmark, Israeli military vehicles, bombs and guns, captured from the enemy, are exhibited. Helmets of Israeli soldiers are placed accurately next to these artifacts. The grandiose work of military art is called “the abyss.” It aims to represent the political and military swamp into which Israel supposedly has fallen in its confrontation with Hezbollah.
“Why were the Arab armies defeated by Israel in six days or less, but Hezbollah was not?” I ask Mhamad when we leave the abyss. “It is the motivation,” he says. “Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian soldiers never really believed in the corrupt politicians and the regimes that they were supposed to fight for. With Hezbollah, it is different. Resistance fighters battle for their land and their own people and they are ready to die for it.”
Usually people from South Lebanon speak with one voice when talking about politics. But not when it comes to discussing the Arab Spring and the revolutions that have blown through the Arab world since 2011. While Dareen is congratulating the Egyptian people’s success to topple Mubarak, Mhamad needs yet to see a revolution in Egypt. “The Muslim Brotherhood enjoys a better relationship with the USA than the old Mubarak regime,” he argues.
“And what about the people that had protested on Tahrir square in January and February of 2011?” Dareen insists. Mhamad lets the mathematician speak: “200 000 protesters out of a population of 80 millions don’t make a revolution. Even one million on Beirut Martyr’s Square in 2005 didn’t change Lebanon for the good.”
“Anyway,” Mhamad says and closes the round of discussion with a final statement: “a revolution without Palestine as one of its main topics is not a real revolution.”
We walk down a bushy trail past places where Hezbollah fighters fought and ordinary people had become martyrs. We enter a bunker system and arrive at hidden rooms that served as sleeping quarters, field kitchens or communication centers. Leaving the cave, we step onto a platform with a magnificent outlook over South Lebanon, from the hills of Mleeta to the Mediterranean Sea.
Dareen is moved. “I bring my children to the resistance landmark every now and then, to teach them the history of our land and how we were able to make it our own. Watching Israeli soldiers occupying our land and Israeli planes bombing our villages has made me what I am: a devoted member of the resistance, no matter what they say about Hezbollah in London, Paris or Washington.”
We continue the trail and arrive at Sujud Bunker, a barricade from where Israel’s Sujud outpost less than one kilometer away was monitored and fired at.
“What about Israel?” I ask Mhamad. “What is Israel?” he replies. “Why not having the Jewish state in Argentina, in Uganda – as it was once planned – or in Eastern Europe? Why here in Palestine, where Israel is like an alien element which is vehemently rejected by its surrounding body?”
Between 1945 and 1954, the liberal Lebanese thinker and journalist Michel Chiha warned how the creation of Israel would overwhelm liberal impulses in the Arab world. “There is no other country,” Chiha also wrote, “that recruits its population this way, by giving strangers wherever they come from, and only because they are Jewish, the right to be citizens.”
Everything is for sale it seems, except Hezbollah.
In 2013, Mhamad gives more details to these early warnings: “Jews from Ethiopia – newcomers! – are more legitimate citizens of Israel and inhabitants of Palestine than Palestinians? Please!”
“And why was the Lebanese resistance able to kick Israel out while the Palestinians were not?” I go on asking. Mhamad tries to say it diplomatically: “these days, Hamas fights in Syria alongside the rebels, against the best friend they ever had. That’s why.”
Indeed, Syria seems to be a sore point for Hezbollah. How much should the Party of God engage itself in Syria? Dareen and Mhamad can’t quite agree on this. Countering my argument that I made in a previous article for Your Middle East – that Israel had a love for Assad – Mhamad tells me that Israel wants Assad to go. Why? “Because he always made sure that weapons would flow to the resistance to hold Israel at bay. His successors might not. And that’s the main reason – to keep the weapons flowing – why Hezbollah fights in Syria in support of Assad.”
“Don’t you have second thoughts about supporting Assad when looking at his human rights record?” I challenge Mhamad by saying.
“After I have seen a rebel commander cutting the heart out of a dead Syrian army soldiers and taking a bite? No!”
We stroll back to the main square of the resistance landmark, past various types of weapons that are displayed along the way. The most intriguing piece is the Kornet-E anti-tank guided missile system. Hezbollah used this weapon to stop and destroy Israeli tanks in the 2006 war. Even the Russian manufacturers were surprised that their product would work so lethally on the Merkavas.
“How does Hezbollah acquire all these arms,” I ask, “only through Assad?” Mhamad offers a last piece of insight: “Go to Hamra street in Beirut,” he says, “and hang around with a black briefcase. You will find your supplier soon. But be sure that your briefcase is stuffed with nice green bills.”
Everything is for sale it seems, except Hezbollah. Or rather: except the resistance? The word “Hezbollah” is rarely mentioned in Mleeta. However, there are plenty of references to “resistance.” Hezbollah may be the party, the army, the organization. But resistance is the entire people of South Lebanon. And this is what makes Hezbollah strong.
Some contemptuously dub Mleeta “the Hezbollah Disneyland.” However, Mleeta is much less and much more than this. Less, because this is not a place of exuberant fantasies. Mleeta is the reality. More, because Mleeta is not a fun thing, but a serious reflection, with the occasional heroic exaggeration, on the experiences made by the people of South Lebanon. Everything is possible when you believe and fight for it. Elsewhere, they call this the American dream.
P.S. It’s raining when I drive back to Beirut, and the traffic is slow. I have time to contemplate the situation Hezbollah finds itself in 2013. To protect its core business, the defense of South Lebanon and its undisputed role as the principal defender of this territory, Hezbollah today feels the need to engage in foreign warfare. But as in the corporate world, foreign adventures bring along unpredictable risks.
Mleeta is unique. Hezbollah shouldn’t jeopardize its legacy lightly.