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Hezbollah's Disneyland

Hezbollah now has a theme park.

The Tourist Landmark of the Resistance promises a fun-filled day for the entire family celebrating the holy Islamic “resistance” against the perfidious Zionist Entity. The Syrian- and Iranian-backed Party of God built it on top of a mountain overlooking South Lebanon and the Israeli border area, and they bus in school kids from all over the country to look at it.

Anti-American propagandist Noam Chomsky attended the inauguration.

It’s open to visitors from everywhere in the world except Israel, so I had to see it. My friend and occasional traveling companion Sean LaFreniere joined me, and we set out in a rental car from Beirut.

Getting there was a bit tricky. The museum-park was built on an old Hezbollah combat base that sits 3,400 feet above the rolling hills of South Lebanon. The nearby village of Mleeta is nowhere near a main road, nor is it on any maps, not even the huge and otherwise comprehensive map I bought for twelve dollars. But Google Earth knows where it is, and I could see online that it’s just four miles south of the Christian town of Jezzine at the southern tip of the Mount Lebanon range.

So I figured Sean and I could go there via Jezzine, which is on every map and is not at all hard to find. Jezzine isn’t exactly a hot spot for tourists, but Westerners do wind up there once in a while to soak in the mountainous scenery, to admire the Ottoman architecture of the old downtown area, and to escape the heat and humidity down at sea level.

But I knew in advance that driving south from Jezzine might be tricky and potentially…interesting. Hezbollah has been snapping up property there for years and using it for some secretive purpose that still isn’t entirely clear. Whatever they’re doing, it’s almost certainly part of their battlefield preparation for the next round of armed conflict with Israel.

Reporter Nicholas Blanford visited the area south of Jezzine in 2010 and was stopped by a Hezbollah fighter with an AK-47. “What are you doing here?” the gunman said. “This is a military zone. You should not be here.”

Jezzine is not along the low-lying Israeli border where most of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah has taken place. It’s a Christian town thousands of feet up. Immediately to the south of it, though, is one of the highest elevation Shia regions in all of Lebanon. It’s somewhat protected by geography from ground invasions, and because it’s at a high elevation, it’s an excellent and rather obvious place to dig in and launch surface-to-surface missiles.

So I felt a bit of trepidation about driving through there, but it’s the easiest route to Mleeta and Hezbollah’s theme park, and the journalist in me was curious if I’d see anything.

Sean and I had coffee in one of Jezzine’s cafes. An oblivious person would have no idea they were a mere handful of miles from either a closed terrorist military zone or a terrorist Disneyland. Jezzine is a mountain town that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Eastern Europe, but it’s in Lebanon where quasi-Western outposts in the East co-exist very uneasily next to Iran’s state-within-a-state on the Mediterranean.

Only one road leads south out of town, so there was no question which way Sean and I were supposed to go.

Lebanon’s mountains are overwhelmingly Christian and Druze and have been for a thousand years, but almost immediately outside Jezzine we passed Hezbollah billboards and flags. I tensed up a bit and scanned the countryside for signs military activity even though I doubted I’d see much. Hezbollah expertly hides its rocket launchers and bunkers. Its engineers built vast underground tunnels right under the noses of the Israelis by smuggling unearthed rocks out of the ground one or two at a time and by smuggling cement into caves one teaspoon at a time. It took years, but that’s how they did it. So while I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see anything Hezbollah wanted to hide, I couldn’t help looking.

And Hezbollah can’t help being paranoid.

A Lebanese army soldier stopped me and Sean on the road. He was a kid, hardly a day older than twenty, and he seemed affable enough like nearly all soldiers at Lebanese checkpoints, but a man in his fifties in a nearby building barked an order at him, and the kid told us to get out of the car.

We stepped out of the car.

“You need to go inside,” the kid said, “and answer some questions.”

This checkpoint was ostensibly staffed by the Lebanese army, but I later found out Hezbollah took control of it a couple of years ago. It was one of their demands during negotiations after they invaded Beirut in 2008. But I didn’t have to be told that. It was obvious. The man Sean and I were ordered to see was clearly not an officer in the army.

He wore blue jeans and a black leather jacket. He had a beard that looked like mine would if I didn’t trim it or shave for three weeks. (No one in the military wears beards.) If I showed you a picture of him, you’d think he was American or European with his white skin and blue eyes and his casual Western attire. His attitude, though, and his general bearing, reeked of authority and of Hezbollah.

“Where are you going!” he barked as if it was a command instead of a question.

“Nabatieh,” I said, referring a Shia city down off the mountain that is not in the hands of Hezbollah.

“No!” he said and wagged his finger in my face like I was a naughty child about to be punished. “Nabatieh, no!”

The Lebanese army command in Sidon told me and Sean we could go anywhere we liked north of Nabatieh, that only the Israeli border region was closed, but that turned out not to be true.

I’ve been to Nabatieh plenty of times. It is not controlled or administered by Hezbollah. Going there is not a big deal. There’s nothing sensitive in Nabatieh, nor is it dangerous or really even unfriendly. This man in the black leather jacket had no reason to care if Sean and I ended up in Nabatieh. What he didn’t want was for us to drive to Nabatieh from there.

“Turn around and go back!” the man said. “Back to Jezzine!”

“Okay,” I said.

If I defied him, he’d lay hands on me. That came across. He wasn’t carrying a weapon that I could see, but the young man on the road was. And it was obvious that the man in the black leather jacket was the king of that inch. Sean and I were not getting past him.

So we returned to the car.

“Back to Jezzine!” he yelled again, his face flushed with anger at our existence.

I don’t know what he wanted to hide, but whatever it was, it’s roughly two miles south of Jezzine and two miles north of Hezbollah’s Disneyland.

*

Sean and I had to drive all the way back down to Sidon and up to Mleeta from the coast. The distance to Mleeta from Sidon is only twenty miles or so, but the route passes through an intricate web of unmarked and mostly unmapped back roads over rolling terrain. Once in a while I saw a sign pointing us in the right direction, but only one turn in five was marked, so we made a ridiculous number of wrong turns.

We drove through village after village, often turning at random, having no idea if we were going to the right way or not, constantly doubling back and second-guessing ourselves. I asked for directions a couple of times, but no one had the first clue how to get there or how to explain it. Everyone told us something different, which is what happens throughout the country no matter where I’m trying to go. There’s hardly any point in asking, really. Some people, if they don’t know the way, will just guess.

But we finally found the right road up the mountain and climbed through unlabeled and unmapped Shia villages until eventually we reached the top and had a commanding airplane view of South Lebanon. Israel was off to the left through the haze. The azure Mediterranean shimmered like an ocean before us.

And then we were at the Tourist Landmark of the Resistance. Two hours earlier we were but a handful of miles away at the checkpoint.

Hezbollah’s museum-park was practically empty.

It’s not on the list of sites promoted or managed by the Ministry of Tourism. No. This is, I believe, the only tourist attraction in the world built and managed by a terrorist organization.

Admission is thankfully free. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect it’s against the law for me to conduct economic business of any kind with Hezbollah. It’s against the law for diplomats at the American Embassy in Lebanon to even speak to anyone from Hezbollah. Either way, I don’t want to give them my money.

Sean and I picked up our free tickets at the gate and walked in.

I didn’t want to poke around in Hezbollahland with my big and obvious journalist camera, but Sean brought his tiny one and took some pictures. All the photos you see here are his.

“How weird is this?” I said as we approached. “Nothing like this will ever be built by Al-Qaeda.”

A slightly scruffy young man in a baseball cap saw us and approached. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties. Apparently, he was our guide. 

How was this going to go? Would he think we were useful idiots who ran off to Lebanon to cheerlead the resistance? A miniscule percentage of Americans think Hezbollah is awesome, but a lot of them wash up in Lebanon. The place is a magnet for such people. I’ve met some. They have issues.

Or did our guide-to-be suspect Sean and I were as hostile to Hezbollah as they are to us? Would he think we were spies or Israelis who sneaked in on dual passports?

Turns out he was suspicious. He didn’t actually say “ugh” when he figured out who we are, but I could read it all over his face.

“Welcome,” he said stiffly.

I made eye contact with him for only the briefest of moments. “Thank you,” I said, and I said it coldly.

And so we made it clear what we thought of each other.

“Do you…know where you are?” he said, as if we were dolts who just happened upon the place randomly.

Of course I knew where we were. It took a lot of effort and most of the day to get there. But I pretended like I had only a vague knowledge of even which country I was in, let alone which part of it.

“I sort of know where we are,” I lied, “but not really, so why don’t you tell us what this place is.”

He correctly explained that Israel occupied South Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 and that Hezbollah resisted and expelled the occupation. He did not say that Hezbollah is a creature of the Syrian and Iranian governments. Nor did he say it’s a sectarian militia in a state of cold war with the rest of the country and in a state of hot war with the bulk of the people in Syria. He certainly didn’t say Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that operates on six continents. No, in his version, Hezbollah is the Lebanese branch of the French Resistance.

But of course he would put it that way. He was talking to an American.

Sean wandered off while the Hezbollah guy spoke. I know why Sean did it without having to ask. He was giving me an excuse to break away later without being rude or looking suspicious. But I did not want to break away yet. I wanted to hear how Hezbollah explained itself to Americans.

The way the guy told Hezbollah’s story, the period of resistance was all in the past. He did not say the Party of God is still active. He certainly didn’t tell me Hezbollah is guarding something secret just up the road. He didn’t know that Sean and I had tried to approach from that direction, but he had to know it was possible. I thought about asking him what the checkpoint was for, but he was wary enough already and I didn’t drive all the way to Mleeta just to get kicked out or interrogated right at the gate.

“Thanks for the welcome,” I said, “but I need to go find my friend.”

He nodded, relieved. He was no more interested in spending time with me than I wanted to hang out with him. “I’ll be here if you have any questions,” he said coldly.

We didn’t shake hands.

I wandered off in Sean’s direction. The man who would have been our guide didn’t follow.

“They’ve got a theater in that building,” I said and gestured with my thumb when I caught up with Sean. “They’re showing propaganda in there. We should go watch it.”

We went inside. The film was not long. It was all about Hezbollah’s insurgency from the mid-1980s through the year 2000. It ended with a wild boast from the now-dead Hezbollah leader Abbas al-Musawi. He claimed, “Israel has fallen.”

Um, no. Israel has not fallen.

Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in Iraq, as did Moammar Qaddafi’s in Libya. Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt. Bashar al-Assad may yet fall in Syria. But Israel hasn’t gone anywhere.

On the outskirts of Cairo is a monument to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 where, after launching initially successful sneak attacks, Egypt and Syria got their asses kicked by the Israelis.

According to Cairo’s ludicrous narrative, Egypt emerged as the victor.

The monument was built by the North Koreans. An architecturally identical propaganda installation exists in Pyongyang.

I have no idea, really, if such hysterical claims of victory against all evidence and reality are taken seriously by those who make them. It’s no secret that failed leaders conceal the truth from their subjects, but at the same time the human mind is capable of extraordinary self-deception.

Hezbollah’s museum-park, though, is better than Egypt’s. It’s more creative and interesting to look at, the propaganda less obvious.

An extraordinary diverse array of Israeli and Hezbollah ordnance is on display to satisfy every war nerd’s curiosity. Some of it is set up in labeled orderly rows and some if it is used in post-modern set pieces.

Take the pit, for instance, described on a sign as “structural scenic art.” Blown-up Israeli tanks and helmets are “artistically” scattered about in a giant hole in the ground. It’s supposed to symbolize Israel’s defeat when Israeli troops left in 2000.

Beyond the pit are tunnels and bunkers. I couldn’t tell how much of what I was looking at was real and how much was built for the park. After all, the Tourist Monument of the Resistance was erected atop one of Hezbollah’s old military bases. Some of what I was looking at was probably real.

And since I couldn’t always tell where the real ended and the fake began, it was worth a visit and a look regardless of what I think about Hezbollah’s politics. It’s worth seeing. And per Dr. Johnson, it’s worth going to see.

I was able to momentarily divorce myself from the politics and recognize that, aside from the subject matter, it’s the kind of museum-park I’d expect to see in Europe or the United States. The experience could have been—should have been—creepier than it was. The fact that I wasn’t creeped out left me feeling uneasy. Why wasn’t it much more disturbing?

That’s when it hit me.

Hezbollah completely and utterly sanitized itself on top of that mountain.

Nowhere on the grounds is any mention whatsoever of the airplanes Hezbollah hijacked. Hezbollah pioneered suicide-bombings in the Middle East. Such things were unheard of before the Lebanese civil war. That’s a crucial part of Hezbollah’s history, and of the modern Middle East generally, but you wouldn’t know it from their museum. No exhibit chronicled the invasion of Beirut in 2008. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war is ignored. Acts of mass murder carried out in Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Bulgaria are conspicuous blanks.

Visitors are not told about the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Americans in the 1980s. An honest Hezbollah museum would have a wax figure of a journalist chained to a radiator. No history of Hezbollah is complete without noting that the Party of God kidnapped the CIA’s Beirut station chief William Buckley and tortured him to death, but Hezbollah wants everyone to forget about that. Hezbollah destroyed the American and French Embassies in Beirut and leveled the US Marine base near the airport, but they left that stuff out, too.

Don’t get the wrong idea. They did not leave it out because they’re ashamed of it. These people are terrorists, not guilt-ridden liberals. They left it out because they know other people hate them for what they have done, yet they yearn to be popular.

And here’s the interesting thing about that: I’m not the target audience. Neither are you. Hezbollah isn’t sanitizing its history for Western consumption. Hezbollah is sanitizing its history for internal consumption.

Lebanese citizens are the target. Westerners can hardly even find the damn place. It’s not advertised anywhere, not in Beirut and certainly not in travel agency brochures. The Ministry of Tourism, which is of course geared to foreigners, completely ignores it. You have to know it’s there. A low-information visitor from Europe or the United States would have no idea it exists.

Hezbollah is selling itself as a patriotic guerrilla army that fought a war for liberation on behalf of the entire country. It has to because it’s otherwise feared and loathed as a foreign-backed militia that a single sect uses to bully all others.

The Party of God knows perfectly well that’s how it’s perceived. Hezbollah defensively argues against that perception on its very own plaques.

Hezbollah has repeatedly dragged the country into armed conflicts that no one else wants. In 2008 it started an internal war that no one else wanted. And it’s threatening to do it again by bringing home the Syrian war. An exhaustive catalogue of Hezbollah’s behavior would make it look no less monstrous at home as it does abroad.

There’s something else, too. If you were to visit this place without knowing anything about the relentless war against Israel except what Hezbollah told you, you’d think the war was long over. But just a few miles up the unmarked road to the north, the checkpoint manned by a paranoid irregular officer denying access to a military zone is proof that it’s not.

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