AVIVIM, Israel – As Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke to a crowd of cheering Hezbollah supporters Thursday in a Lebanese village near Israel, a group of reporters gathered on this side of the border were calm, but alert.
From our long camera lens, we could see the Hezbollah forces looking straight at us with their binoculars. It was a peaceful scene, but the air felt like it could explode at any moment.
The press corps had gathered at the hillside village of Avivim, bordering the Lebanese town of Maroun Er Ras, Thursday to see how Ahmadinejad’s visit – which the U.S. and Israel called intentionally provocative – would play out.
Ahmadinejad was speaking at a stadium in Bint Jbei, Lebanon, just a couple of miles from the Israeli border. The location of the speech was significant because the village was among the hardest-hit areas during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, and oil-rich Iran invested heavily to help rebuild it.
The stadium, which we could not see from the border, was packed with thousands of cheering Hezbollah supporters waving Lebanese, Iranian and Hezbollah flags, according to the Associated Press.
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
Lebanese supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wave Lebanese and Iranian flags during a mass rally he attended Thursday in the southern Lebanese village of Qana.
Residents of southern Lebanon have reason to cheer Ahmadinejad – Iran has contributed an estimated $1 billion in aid to southern Lebanon since the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, according to officials close to Hezbollah.
From our perch, we could see a large physical example of Iran’s financial contribution to southern Lebanon. A copy of one of Islam’s holiest sites – the al-Aqsa mosque, considered to be Islam’s third holiest site that sits on the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem and is often a flashpoint of violent conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians – had been built, with Iranian funding, on the Lebanese border with Israel.
Amid the media throng, some Israelis holding blue and white balloons symbolizing the Israeli flag had gathered. Ayoub Kara, a member of the Israeli Knesset, held a makeshift press conference and said, "We’re not afraid, we need peace.”
Then they released the balloons with the hope the wind would carry them across the border in a sign of peace. But the weather didn’t cooperate and an amused, but disappointed press corps only had pictures of the balloons flying back into Israel.
Two ultra-religious Jews held up posters on the border for Hezbollah fighters to see. The posters read “Ahmadinejad, we’re not an occupying force, we are occupied ourselves.”
Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon is seen by many here as an attempt to further Iran’s control over Lebanon and to signal to Israel that any attempt to hit Iran's nuclear plants would result in the unleashing of hundreds of missiles by the Iranian backed Hezbollah fighters who control southern Lebanon.
Israeli jets and choppers flew above the border around the time Ahmadinejad arrived at the stadium. A longtime local resident told me that military jets and chopper rarely fly overhead. He took it as an indication that the Israelis wanted the president to know they were up there watching him.