MLEETA, Lebanon, JULY 19, 2010. -- On a hilltop where Hezbollah once launched its attacks on Israeli troops, families now picnic next to an abandoned Merkava tank. A 3-year-old boy beamed as he walked in, carrying a plastic assault rifle that was practically his size.
At Hezbollah's "Museum for Resistance Tourism" on the mountain stronghold of Mleeta, war is celebrated, glamorized, and fashioned into an interactive display. In Hezbollah terminology, war is constantly referred to as 'resistance,' or moqawama in Arabic – a word that has become synonymous in Lebanon with Hezbollah.
The Mleeta experience starts with two promotional films, one about the making of the museum, another on the history of Hezbollah, featuring battle footage and a version of history that casts Israelis as the ultimate bad guys. The message is reaching packed crowds of Lebanese and foreign visitors. Museum officials say they've had over 300,000 visitors since opening in May, many from Egypt and the Persian Gulf.
Our tour guide, a high school biology teacher named Rami, walked us through the exhibits. In one building he pointed to small arms left behind by Israeli forces, now stacked in stylized pyramids. Outside, a sunken terrace titled "The Abyss" holds the debris of Israeli tanks and equipment, arranged around what is meant to be a tombstone, emblazoned with the Hebrew acronym for the IDF.
"Mleeta is where Hezbollah had its base, a kind of base where most of the missions done against the Israeli bases were planned," said Rami. He said the motive behind the million-dollar museum was to "give information...a closer look at the way Hezbollah used to fight the Israeli enemy."
Rami has a ready answer when asked if the museum advances terrorist propaganda.
"I believe it's our right to have our own propaganda. The important thing is that this is the sincere and true propaganda."
Despite its militant edge, the museum is part of an effort to soften Hezbollah's image. It's designed to be the centerpiece of a massive tourist development - dubbed "HezbollahLand" in the global press – capped with an aerial tramway offering scenic rides from Mleeta to an abandoned Israeli base on a nearby hill.
'Tourism Jihad' Locks in Loyalty
"We're going to build motels, playgrounds, camping areas, even spas or swimming pools so that all of the visitors -- especially our people -- can come here and spend their weekends or vacations, no need to worry about heavy financial duties," said Rami.
"Here is another showing of our loyalty to these people by letting them come close to us and get to know a little bit more about our function and about our secrets," he said.
That, analysts say, is where the museum fits into Hezbollah's overarching strategy: fighting Israel in times of war, and in times of peace, investing in ways that seal a bond with its followers. Hezbollah runs hospitals and builds homes, partly under the umbrella of its "Construction Jihad" – hardening its constituents by giving them a social safety net and improving their quality of life.
"Hezbollah needs to retain popular support and needs to expand it all the time. It is very essential to their military and their political program, which are one," says Judith Palmer Harik, author of "Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism."
"Their explanation of why they're doing it is consistent with their other work: as they would say, serving the poor. Now people who can't afford the regular high-class Lebanese resort will have a place where they can relax."
Mleeta ceased to be operational as a military base after Israeli troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. The leftover bunker, a reinforced tunnel buried under nearly 250 feet of rock and soil, is now part of the museum tour. Inside, vistors are shown scenes from a Hezbollah life – canned food, camouflage jackets, radios and an older-model computer. On the walls are portraits of Hezbollah leaders and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, and one poster showing Islam's defeat of Zionism - the Dome of the Rock crushing a Star of David.
The portrait Hezbollah puts on display is a retrospective on methods and military gear from 1985 through 2006. Today, Hezbollah's arsenal is believed to be more sophisticated, with much more firepower. This month, on the fourth anniversary of the war in the summer of 2006, Israel released some of its intelligence on Hezbollah's military assets. The presentation described a stockpile of 40,000 rockets, including long-range missiles capable of targeting Tel Aviv. Israeli officials said many of the missiles are being stored in residential areas, using villagers for human shields.
Hezbollah's Secrets, A Fighting Tactic
As a rule, Hezbollah does not reveal what weapons it has or where they're stored. Earlier this year it neither confirmed nor denied allegations it was receiving scud missiles from Syria. But amid the escalating rhetoric of the past few months, Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah warned of an attack on Tel Aviv Airport, if Israel were to strike the airport in Beirut.
In that climate of traded threats and ready violence, visitors come to Mleeta knowing another war is a possiblity. They leave with a sense of how much Hezbollah and its supporters are willing to sacrifice in the fight. Many of the museum workers, including our tour guide, live in the nearby towns, in homes that might neighbor a set of katyushas rockets.
Rami says that his compatriots often think of a future war, but see the risk to their towns and homes through the prism of martyrdom. Collateral damage doesn't worry them, because they have been reassured by the backing and resources of Hezbollah.
As for the museum itself Rami says, "if it is ever destroyed by the Israelis, we will just build again."