Jihadist tourism in south Lebanon's 'Hezbollahland'

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MAROUN EL-RASS: Ten years after Israel pulled out, south Lebanon is solidly controlled by Hezbollah which is even organizing "jihadist tours" along one of the most tense borders in the Middle East.

About 500 young men and woman, both Christian and Muslim, took part at the weekend in the latest such field trip intended to garner support for the group which is considered one of Israel’s fiercest enemies.

"We want to familiarize young people with the achievements of the resistance and show them how unjust the Israeli occupation was and how glorious the liberation by the Islamic resistance," said Mohammed Taleb, 23, a Hezbollah insurgent who is studying environmental science.

The tour took place just days before May 25, which marks the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon following a 22-year occupation.

It also comes amid Israeli charges that Hezbollah, which fought a devastating war with the Jewish state in 2006, was stockpiling sophisticated weapons in preparation for a new conflict.

Sunday’s field trip included a workshop on how to handle weapons, close contact with Hezbollah fighters who spoke of their exploits in the face of the "enemy" (Israel) and a reenactment of battles at the border village of Maroun El-Rass, where some of the fiercest fighting took place during the 2006 war.

"Every year, we organize a different program," said Taleb, who spoke fluent French and, like the other 30 or so tour guides accompanying the group, sported a vest emblazoned: "Love of the South."

He said the 2008 and 2009 tours included a visit to the infamous prison of Khiam, where Lebanese prisoners where held and interrogated during the Israeli occupation.

Also on the "jihadist tour" is a stop at Beaufort Castle, which was a garrison headquarters and the nerve centre of Israel’s occupation.

Most of those taking part in the latest tour had never set foot in the south and were astonished to see Israel up close. Many young women sported tank tops, tight jeans and even high heels for the outing in the mainly Shia region.

"It is overwhelming to be here," said Rim, 19, a pharmaceutical student. "You feel invincible and you feel ready to sacrifice yourself for your country."

On board the 11 buses transporting the students, the atmosphere was playful, with much singing and joking.

A more sombre mood took over, however, when a documentary was aired on Hezbollah’s military might and its so-called "divine victory" over the Jewish state in the 2006 conflict.

During a question and answer session, Taleb and several other insurgents quizzed students on their knowledge of the resistance movement.

"What is the name of the first Hezbollah martyr? … What airport did Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vow to bomb in the event of another war?" were among the questions.

The highlight of the trip was a visit to what the insurgents said was a key fighting position for Hezbollah near the Iqlim Al-Touffah region.

After a steep climb of nearly four kilometers (2.5 miles), the group was met by two rows of Hezbollah fighters with blackened faces and armed with machine-guns.

In the background blared a speech by Nasrallah boasting that his party had more than 20,000 rockets ready for the next battle with Israel. His voice was accompanied by the sound of heavy machine-gun fire.

"They have won me over," said Lama, 21, a business student. "I learned a lot of interesting things about the south and Hezbollah’s weapons. "It’s cool."

A French student, one of the rare foreigners on the trip, couldn’t get over the show. "This is surreal, it’s like Disneyland," he said, refusing to be identified. "I never expected to see this."

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