Iran’s president taunted arch-enemy Israel from just across the tense border in Lebanon, rallying tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters as Israeli attack helicopters buzzed nearby.
The world should know that the Zionists will perish,” declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, echoing previous verbal attacks in which he has said Israel should be wiped off the map.
“Occupied Palestine will be liberated from the filth of occupation by the strength of resistance and through the faith of the resistance,” the Iranian leader vowed as cheers went up from the crowd, waving a sea of Lebanese, Iranian and Hezbollah flags.
The fiery speech was delivered in the border village of Bint Jbeil, which was nearly destroyed by Israeli bombs in the 2006 war with Hezbollah and rebuilt with the help of Iranian cash.
A stronghold of the Shiite militant group, Mr Ahmadinejad’s visit to the southern Lebanese area was denounced by Washington and Israel as a provocation.
The Iranian president’s first state visit to Lebanon was turned into a show of strength by Hezbollah, Iran’s close ally in Lebanon, which shares power in a fragile unity government with a Western-backed coalition.
By contrast, Lebanon’s pro-Western leaders have been pushed to the background, underscoring their eroding position – and suggesting the competition over influence in Lebanon may be tipping in favour of Iran and its ally Syria, away from the US and its Arab allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Mr Ahmadinejad’s border visit by saying Israel knew how to protect itself.
“We heard today the cursing and invectives from the Lebanese border. The best answer to the deriders was given here 62 years ago – the state and all that we’ve built and created since,” Mr Netanyahu said.
“Look what a nation, what a state and what an army the state of Israel has. We will continue building, we will continue to create our state and we will know well how to defend ourselves.”
While Mr Ahmadinejad received a hero’s welcome from Hezbollah’s Shiite supporters, his visit intensified fears among Sunnis and Christians that Iran and Hezbollah were seeking to impose their will on Lebanon and possibly pull it into a conflict with Israel.
Vanloads of Shiites organised by Hezbollah made their way to Bint Jbeil’s stadium, travelling along roads lined with Iranian flags. Located just two miles from the Israeli border, the village has a special significance for Shiites.
Dubbed “the capital of resistance” during Israel’s two-decade occupation of the south, Hezbollah’s leader gave a victory speech there after Israel withdrew in 2000, calling Israel “weaker than a spider’s web” – a phrase that adorns a stadium wall along with photographs of weeping Israeli soldiers.
During Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, Bint Jbeil was targeted by Israeli troops, who met stiff resistance from dug-in Hezbollah guerrillas. The close-quarter fighting was among the fiercest of the month-long war and much of the town was destroyed or damaged.
Now, with an influx of Iranian money, it looks brand-new, with freshly built roads and apartment buildings.
Addressing the roaring crowd in Bint Jbeil’s stadium, Mr Ahmadinejad said: “You proved that your resistance, your patience, your steadfastness, were stronger than all the tanks and warplanes of the enemy.”
“You are the mighty mountain, and I am proud of you.”.
Nearby, two Israeli attack helicopters could be seen hovering above the Israeli border town of Moshav Avivim.
Iran, whose ties to Hezbollah date back nearly 30 years, gives the militant group millions every year and is believed to supply much of its arsenal. Hezbollah boasts widespread support among Shiites and virtually runs a state-within-a-state in Shiite areas of Lebanon.
Throughout his visit, the Iranian leader has stressed unity among Lebanese, aiming to depict Iran as an ally of the entire nation, not just Hezbollah.
But the Western-backed coalition has warned that Mr Ahmadinejad is seeking to transform Lebanon into “an Iranian base on the Mediterranean”.
Hezbollah said its leader gave Ahmadinejad an Israeli rifle captured during the 2006 war as a gift to round off his two-day visit to Lebanon.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah presented the weapon to Ahmadinejad during a meeting at the Iranian embassy in Beirut.