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Saturday, December 9, 2023

Hezbollah’s “Jihad Museum”: Against “IS” and Israel at the same time

Hezbollah has opened a propaganda museum in Baalbek, Lebanon. In it she focuses on her fight against Israel – but not only.

People in an exhibition

Lively crowds: visitors can expect a weapons show and war propaganda Photo: Leon Holly

BAALBEK taz | In Baalbek in eastern Lebanon, the ancient Romans once paid homage to their king Jupiter and the wine god Bacchus. Almost two thousand years ago they built a temple complex, ruins of which still remain today. Despite the difficult political and economic crisis in Lebanon is the city, which is almost two hours’ drive northeast of the capital Beirut, and is therefore still a popular destination for travelers.

Almost two thousand years after the Romans, Shiite rule today Hezbollah militia in Baalbek. The main road is lined with posters with the likeness of their leader Hassan Nasrallah. If you leave the city center and drive up a hill on the outskirts of the city, you come to a somewhat different kind of attraction that the “Party of God” recently opened for residents and visitors: Since the beginning of August, you can, a few hundred meters above the city, Visit a so-called jihad museum – an absurd mixture of historical propaganda and weapons show.

A guard with a machine gun patrols in front of the museum building, which is covered in decorative camouflage netting. Standing in front of the house, you can see the beginning of the exhibition behind the stairs: a picture shows the stern face of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian revolutionary leader. After his “Islamic Revolution” in 1979, Lebanon’s Shiites founded Hezbollah, led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The specific reason for its founding was the Israeli army’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, the militia has been fighting against the hated Jewish state and its ally, the USA.

A group of visitors is currently being guided through the museum. They walk through a timeline that marks the dates of the “resistance struggle” against Israel, attractively prepared and provided with pictures and Arabic explanatory texts. A video from the 1980s flickers on a screen showing Hezbollah fighters in battles with the Israeli army. In another staged propaganda clip, highly armed special forces are seen entering Israel through a border fence and capturing a military base there. There are busy crowds this Monday, a few days before the Palestinian Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th.

Steinberg: “The sectarian element is strong”

A map shows that Baalbek is in the east, Beiruth in the west and Mlita in the south of Lebanon

Baalbek is located in the Bekaa Valley, not far from the border with Syria. Hezbollah has one of its strongholds here. Its demographic base, however, is primarily in the south of the country, where it inaugurated a huge complex including a propaganda exhibition in the city of Mlita in 2010 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Israeli army’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

You only notice how the exhibition in Baalbek differs from the museum in Mlita at the end of the tour. While Hezbollah has so far legitimized itself with its hostility towards Israel, it is now placing another focus: on its participation in the Syrian war. Hezbollah intervened in the war starting in 2012 to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad with troops. The dictator had fired on demonstrators the previous year, thereby provoking a civil war. Around half a million people lost their lives as a result.

According to Middle East researcher Guido Steinberg from the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) in Berlin, Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is of great importance for the militia itself. While she had last fought on a large scale against the Israeli army in southern Lebanon in 2000, she was able to gain important combat experience again in Syria in 2012. “There she learned how to handle drones and operated with other units in the formation,” says Steinberg. Hezbollah fought against the insurgents alongside troops loyal to the regime, other Shiite militias and later also the Russian Air Force.

On the timeline in the museum, Hezbollah also highlights important battles – for example the battle for the western Syrian city of al-Kusair, which she played a major role in recapturing from opposition hands in the spring of 2013. According to Steinberg, the ground support of Hezbollah and other Shiite militias was crucial for Assad. It is unclear whether the regime would otherwise have succeeded in retaking large parts of the country.

Military vehicles stand under a pavilion with the Lebanon flag flying in the background

Discarded Hezbollah artillery pieces await visitors outdoors Photo: Leon Holly

Especially at the beginning of the Syrian war, resistance to Assad was still mixed: in addition to more secular groups, there were also Islamists of various stripes. Regardless of the level of religiosity, the uprising against Assad had its base in the Sunni part of the population – an important factor for the Shiite Hezbollah. “The sectarian element is incredibly strong,” says Steinberg. “Hezbollah has always argued that it is defending the holy places in Syria.” One sacred place that the party wanted to protect from attacks is the shrine of Zainab bint Ali in the southern suburbs of Damascus, where, according to Shiite tradition, a granddaughter of the Islamic prophet Mohammed is buried.

Hezbollah therefore boasts of its supposed victory over the Sunni jihadists of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS). She also speaks of a “second liberation”. The first, according to the reading, was the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. A poster outside the museum building shows a Hezbollah fighter saluting the Hezbollah flag with a fascist salute – there is a black IS flag on the ground in front of him.

In reality, however, Hezbollah initially fought in Syria primarily in western Syria, near the Lebanese border, where “IS” was less present. It was only later in the war that fighting with IS jihadists broke out further east. The main work in the fight against the terrorist militia was carried out by Kurdish fighters who received support from the US Air Force.

Hezbollah receives money and weapons primarily from Iran. For the Ayatollahs in Tehran, an intervention on the part of the Assad regime was of strategic importance, as it allowed them to build a land bridge across Iraq to Lebanon. However, seeing Hezbollah only as a willing instrument of Iranian foreign policy is short-sighted, says Middle East researcher Steinberg. For example, it is not clear whether the Iranian Revolutionary Guards gave Hezbollah instructions to intervene in Syria or whether it was a joint decision. “In any case, Hezbollah has become more important in its relationship with the Revolutionary Guards as a result of the war.”

A cable car is planned

Construction workers are still working around the museum in Baalbek. A path leads from the building up a stony hill. Olive-gray artillery pieces stand to the side, and captured Israeli tanks follow further up.

In order to put Israel under pressure from Syria and potentially open up another front, Hezbollah has repeatedly tried in recent years to set up positions on the Syrian part of the Golan Heights, which is largely occupied by Israel. The Israeli military responded with air strikes against Hezbollah bases.

It was only in October that Israel bombed the airports in Damascus and Aleppo, probably to stop Iranian arms deliveries to Lebanon. After the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th, the danger of a war between Hezbollah and Israel is greater than it has been for years. Much depends on whether Hezbollah continues to hold back or whether it will fully enter the war in the coming weeks.

The path through the museum complex ends at a plateau. Yellow Hezbollah flags fly on the railing. The speckled Lebanese national flags seem out of place because the Lebanese state does not have much say in the areas controlled by Hezbollah.

The militia has set up its military equipment on the plateau: military vehicles and rockets line up with boats and tanks. It’s supposed to be a sign of strength. And in fact, analysts say that the Iranian regime has significantly upgraded Hezbollah in recent years. Hezbollah probably now has well over a hundred thousand rockets – weapons with which it would like to wipe Israel off the map.

From the plateau the view sweeps over the fields of the Bekaa Valley. Baalbek begins directly at the bottom of the hill, with the six beige pillars of the Temple of Jupiter clearly visible in the center. Down at the tourist stalls in front of the temple, vendors sell Hezbollah T-shirts in addition to the usual souvenirs. In order to attract even more visitors, the party has further plans: In the future, visitors will be able to board a cable car in front of the temple complex that will take them from the Roman ruins directly up to the Jihad Museum.

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