Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told thousands of supporters Thursday at a rally along the Lebanon border that Israel would disappear, while they would thrive.
Speaking in the border town of Bint Jbeil to a crowd brandishing Iranian flags and cheering, Ahmadinejad praised Hezbollah and its southern stronghold as "the foremost shield of Lebanon."
Bint Jbeil was the location of fierce fighting between the Israel Defense Forces and the Iranian-backed Shi'ite group Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War of 2006, and the location of a victory speech by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah after Israel ended two decades of occupation of south Lebanon.
"You are the heroes that guard Lebanon's sovereignty," he told them. "You have proven that there no force in the world can beat you. The resistance of the Lebanese nation, drawn from faith in God, can stand up to any Israeli force – planes, tanks and ships."
The U.S. and Israel have called Ahmadinejad's visit to Bint Jbeil, located just a couple miles of the Israeli border, an intentionally provocative move. Oil-rich Iran has invested heavily in helping to rebuild the town.
"The Zionists planned to destroy this village, but it stood strong against the occupiers," Ahmadinejad said. "The world should know the Zionists are mortal ... today the Lebanese nation is alive and is a role model for the regional nations," Ahmadinejad said.
Ahmadinejad in southern Lebanon
"The whole world should know that the Zionists will eventually disappear and Bint Jbeil will remain alive," he said.
Ahmadinejad told Lebanon's government on Wednesday that Iran would support it in confronting what he called Israeli hostility. Most Shi'ites are grateful for Iran's backing of Hezbollah and for the support Tehran has given to reconstruction since 2006.
Ahmadinejad will reportedly head by helicopter from Bint Jbeil to Kfar Kana, a town that absorbed one of the most deadly attacks of the war, before returning to Beirut for the close of his three-day visit.
Iranian flags and posters lined the main roads in south Lebanon on Thursday. At the entrance of Bint Jbeil a giant banner read "welcome" in Farsi and Arabic.
Signs on billboards and banners said: "The south welcomes the protector of the resistance".
Buses transported hundreds of Lebanese from Beirut, the Bekaa valley and other villages in the south to stadium in Bint Jbeil where the ceremony was expected to be held.
"I am here to show my support for this fighter who gave unlimited support for the resistance until we reached liberation," said 65-year-old Hussein Ayash, who came from the village of Khiyam, 30 km away.
Ahmadinejad concluded his visit to southern Lebanon by visiting the graves of Lebanese who died in Israeli shelling in 1996 and 2006 in the village of Qana.
Some 105 Lebanese civilians died there in 1996 in Israeli shelling during a military operation dubbed "Grapes of Wrath." The civilians were killed and more than 100 injured when Israeli artillery shelled a UN compound where the civilians had taken shelter.
During the July 2006 war, Israeli jets bombed another building in Qana, killing around 24 civilians, most of them children.
"I came to Qana holding Iran's greetings to Lebanon," Ahmadinejad said.
The Iranian leader arrived to a rally, near the graves in Qana, where he vowed to continue his country's support to Lebanon and its resistance against Israel.
Ahamdinejad, surrounded by bodguards, thanked the Lebanese armed forces for seeking "to foster safety and stability for the Lebanese people."
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 militants undermines Lebanese sovereignty.
Ahmadinejad's trip has also alarmed pro-Western politicians in Lebanon's fractious unity government, who have accused him of treating Lebanon like "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean." But in a message apparently aimed at addressing those protests and easing months of political tension, Ahmadinejad stressed Iranian backing for all Lebanese.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the Iranian president's visit showed how far Hezbollah had become dependent on Tehran and Lebanon had "become a tool in the hands of other entities."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Ahmadinejad had brought a message of "violence and extremism".
"It is a deeply concerning development that he is transforming Lebanon into a platform for his aggressive plans against Israel and against other countries in the region," Palmor said.
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