SOJOD, Lebanon — The students clapped and cheered as a Hezbollah fighter perched on a rocket launcher paraded past. Later, they snapped photographs with guerrila fighters, getting a firsthand account of the group’s tactics against Israel on the battlefield.
Excursions like the one more than 400 Lebanese university students took Saturday to a Hezbollah stronghold in south Lebanon are part of the militant group’s push to promote itself through “jihadi tourism” to mark the 10th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The efforts also include a sprawling new war museum touting Hezbollah’s history.
It’s a way for the militant group to showcase its military prowess at a time when Israel and the U.S. say the Iranian-backed group is acquiring more sophisticated weaponry.
“We are bringing students to the area previously occupied by Israel, to show them how the resistance, with its meager capabilities, was able to defeat the strongest army in the world,” said Jihad Hammoud, one of the organizers of the student tours.
Hezbollah guerrillas waged a war of attrition against Israeli forces occupying a strip of Lebanese territory along the Israeli border until May 2000, when, faced with rising casualties, Israel withdrew it troops, ending a 22-year military presence there.
The Israeli withdrawal crowned Hezbollah as a heroic organization viewed by many Lebanese and Arabs as a liberator that won back territory without negotiations or concessions. The group further burnished its reputation after its guerrilla fighters battled the Israelis to a draw during the monthlong 2006 war.
Hezbollah has not fired any rockets on Israel since then, but is widely believed to have replenished its weapons stockpile and says it can now strike deeper into Israel.
It has also consolidated its power in the domestic political arena, joining the Western-backed coalition in a national unity government that ensures it has veto power within the cabinet.
A U.N. deal to end the 2006 war between Israel and the Shiite militants required Hezbollah to disarm, but Lebanon’s politicians have been unable to agree on a national defense strategy that would integrate the group’s weapons into the regular armed forces.
On Saturday, some 450 students — both Christian and Muslim — from the Lebanese American University took part in a visit dubbed “the dignity trip” to Hezbollah strongholds in south Lebanon.
The outing included a visit to the wooded hills of Sojod, an area just north of an enclave that was occupied by Israel for 18 years until it pulled out its troops on May 25, 2000.
At the site, the students were led through the rough, rocky terrain to a spot that Hezbollah officials said was where Hadi Nasrallah, the son of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, was killed while conducting a guerrilla raid on Israeli positions in 1997.
“This is the spot where he was martyred,” explained a Hezbollah tour guide, pointing to a blue prayer mat on a mound of earth hidden amid trees. The students mingled and snapped photographs with Hezbollah fighters, who asked that no pictures of their faces be taken.
The students cheered as an anti-aircraft gunner and a katyusha rocket launcher used to fight Israel were paraded past, while speakers belted out excerpts of Nasrallah speeches.
Hezbollah has recently been trying to reinvent itself as a more conventional political movement in Lebanon, and projects such as the museum and student tours suggest the group is attempting to reach out to more factions within a Lebanese society split over Hezbollah’s divisive role in the country.
“This is an excellent, very well organized trip,” said 19-year-old Rana Mhaydleh, a student of math and science at the university. “I think it’s very important to get a first hand look at Hezbollah because there are a lot of prejudices out there.”
The weekly student tours are part of Hezbollah activities marking the anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal. The anniversary comes amid U.S. and Israeli concerns that Hezbollah has acquired increasingly advanced weapons from backers Syria and Iran.
Hezbollah has neither confirmed nor denied the Israeli claims, but Nasrallah has said his group now has rockets that can strike deeper than ever inside Israel, including Tel Aviv.
The tensions have fueled concerns of another war in the Middle East. Hezbollah has expressed confidence that it would win a future war and says any new conflict with Israel will change the face of the region.
After Sunday’s visit to Sojod, the students were taken to a newly inaugurated Hezbollah war museum in the nearby village of Mlita, replete with war booty captured from Israeli soldiers and their Lebanese militia allies and a memorial for the group’s dead.
“We hope this tourist jihadi center will be a first step toward preserving the history of our heroic resistance,” Nasrallah told supporters via video link at Friday’s inauguration of the Mlita museum.
In a nod to Hezbollah’s rivals, Nasrallah cited Israeli Holocaust museums to stress the importance of preserving history.
“Everywhere you go there is a Holocaust museum, regardless of (the Holocaust’s) authenticity, accuracy or magnitude,” he said.
The sprawling Mlita complex — 60,000 square meters — includes a gallery, caves and a 250-meter-long downhill terrain that features life size replicas of Hezbollah guerrillas simulating fighting with Israel on the battlefield and in underground tunnels.
It is not the first time the group has exhibited war booty at a museum, but the one inaugurated Friday is permanent and by far the largest.
Israel has condemned such museums, saying they promote hatred. Several Lebanese officials, including representatives of the president and prime minister, attended Friday’s inauguration. Noam Chomsky, a prominent American academic and outspoken Jewish critic of Israel, was also there.
Hezbollah and Israel fought an inconclusive monthlong war in 2006 that killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon and about 160 in Israel.
While some believe a new war is inevitable, others say the new balance of power makes it unlikely.
“The cost of an attack … has become so high that warfare no longer makes the same kind of sense it did in decades past,” wrote political analyst Rami Khouri in the Daily Star Saturday.