It sounds like the start of a parlor room joke: “An Englishman, a Norwegian, and an American pull up to a gas station in Southern Lebanon asking for directions to Hezbollah...” But there was no farce involved in this stunt. The rental car idled quietly as the attendant patiently explained our next move. Fifty miles to the southeast, high up in mountains still cratered from the impact of deadly explosions, our destination awaited: the multimillion dollar centerpiece of a radical Islamic movement.
Hezbollah, literally translated as “The Party of God”, was formed in the early 1980's to combat the presence of Israel in southern Lebanon. This Iran-backed group initially employed the use of suicide attacks and has since vowed the destruction of the Israeli state. In more recent times, its tactics have included indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel as well as kidnappings of Israeli soldiers. The United States, and several other nations, define Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
But for disaffected Shiite Muslims in Lebanon, Hezbollah is viewed in a different light. In impoverished areas of the country neglected by the central government, Hezbollah runs schools, hospitals, improves infrastructure, and provides services as far-reaching as garbage collection and childcare. So, it's little wonder that blocs of approving citizens awarded the group 13 seats in Lebanese Parliament in the latest election. After the 2006 war with Israel, in which a disproportionate number of Lebanese were killed, Hezbollah gained even more support for their anti-Israel cause. In order to tell their version of their battle against Israel and, in no small part, to recruit more people to their side, Hezbollah's idea for a “Museum of the Resistance” gathered steam. In May of 2010, this massive exhibit was unveiled to the public.
So it came to be that our curious trio of travelers arrived at the “Mleeta Resistance Tourist Landmark” on a warm September afternoon. The large parking lot was choked with vehicles, hinting at the teeming crowds inside. We paid the minimal entrance fee and walked inside the museum complex to search for an English-speaking guide.
Our guide first ushered us into a theater room to watch a short film about the struggle with Israel. While I couldn't understand the Arabic narration, the picture clearly painted an image of a hostile Israel and a righteous resistance, ending with snippets of fiery sermons by the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. This set the tone for the one-sided nature of the rest of the afternoon.
My first reaction upon entering the focal point of the museum was simply “Wow”. Content aside, the architectural design of the site is stunning. Clearly, a substantial amount of thought and money went into the creation and execution of "Mleeta" (Time Magazine estimates $20 million). The landmark is spread out over a large outdoor area that was was formerly used as a strategic stronghold for Hezbollah forces. The central area is named “The Abyss", and depicts the symbolic destruction of Israel. Israeli tanks and weaponry are strewn about haphazardly inside of a spiraled vortex where observers circle downwards to take a closer look at the piece.
|Helmets of Israeli Soldiers|
We next followed a path through a wooded area displaying weapons used against Israel, signposts explaining tactics used during the fighting, and tributes to “martyrs” killed in battle.
Visitors then enter a narrow cave that once served as a protected base from Israeli aerial bombardment. Living quarters, communication rooms, and weapons are displayed inside.
Exiting the wooded area, the next major point of interest is a building housing yet more weapons, but most provocatively, all sorts of aggressively worded threats against Israel. An entire wall shows the current command structure of the Israeli military. Another displays a map of Israel with military bases and transport hubs highlighted, sternly boasting that these sites are now in range of Hezbollah missiles and will be targeted in any future conflict. Yet another gives detailed information on higher-ups in the Israeli government and military, also displaying a simple ratio that divulges Hezbollah's way of thinking on violent casualties. For every person on their side killed before 2006, they justified the death of one Israeli. But following the disproportionate death tally of Lebanese in the 2006 war, Hezbollah no longer feels inclined to limit themselves to a one for one balance. Of course, much of this is rhetoric, but it does offer a window into the mindset of those waging war.
The final section of the museum is a raised hill that illustrates the rise to heaven of "martyrs" killed in battle. This summit offers views of the surrounding mountainous area, including several former Israeli outposts.
An obvious goal of this museum is to win the hearts and the minds of visitors. In this regard, “Mleeta” has been a smashing success. In the first three months following its opening, the museum attracted over 300,000 people. No doubt many of these tourists were already sympathetic to Hezbollah's aim, but judging by the enthusiasm I witnessed, I'm sure that these visitor's resolve was further emboldened. I was amazed by how many families with young children were leisurely strolling the grounds. Kids gleefully played with exhibited artillery and climbed on missile launchers while their parents snapped photos of them. Memories of a day at “Hezbollah-land” imprinted on these impressionable minds will surely prove a boon for recruitment for years to come.
You may be thinking that this all sounds like a grand experiment in propaganda. I would not argue with that assertion. The overall message of the park is clear: “Hezbollah is strong, Israel is weak. Hezbollah is good, Israel is bad.” I deplore the loss of innocent life caused by the terrorist tactics of suicide bombings and indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilian areas, and the park either cleanly glosses over or wrongly justifies any misconduct of Hezbollah. So, I was presented with a continual test of separating the bias from the facts. But it was enlightening to view the war from the standpoint of a people living in a region besieged by foreign forces. In the end, I walked away with a more multifaceted perspective on the conflict than the one fed by the American media.
Speaking of the media, the Norwegian friend with whom I toured the museum just happens to be a professional journalist. He interviewed me after our visit to gather the opinion of an “American backpacker in Hezbollah-land”. His resulting piece was broadcast on the number one talk radio station in Norway, NRK. So, I can now proudly claim progress on my lifelong goal of accomplishing 15 minutes of fame in Scandinavia. You can read his accompanying online article, "Velkommen til Hizbollah-land", translated into English here.
Many believe that another clash between Israel and Hezbollah is inevitable, and will be much bloodier for both sides than the last conflict. If and when that does occur, the museum will be a natural target for Israel. But judging by the enthusiastic response of the attending public, “Mleeta” will undoubtedly be constructed again with the help of deep Iranian pockets. Hezbollah now has more backing than ever, and any act of Israeli self-defense or aggression has only served to add to “The Party of God's” support. I sincerely hope that peace can be achieved in this volatile region, but after journeying to the heart of Hezbollah, do not believe that day will come to pass anytime soon.