Hassan Nasrallah would like to welcome you to Mleeta, one of Lebanon's more unusual tourist destinations. The unsmiling face of Hezbollah's leader greets visitors in a slickly produced 10-minute video shown in a modern theater, telling them: "I'm honored to be with you in this tourist landmark."
Located in southern Lebanon in an area that was once hotly contested between Hezbollah's forces and the Israeli military, Mleeta, which was opened in 2010, covers some 60,000 square meters of undulating outdoor paths and wooded areas, and another 5,000 square meters in buildings. Part war-trophy museum, featuring captured Israeli equipment, and part military showcase, displaying Hezbollah's own weaponry, Mleeta attracts a mix of curious foreigners, dedicated Hezbollah followers and families looking to admire the scenic views.
Although sanctioned by Lebanon's Ministry of Tourism, getting there still requires going through a series of military checkpoints, and many taxi drivers from Beirut are hesitant to drive to Mleeta, given the country's continuing sectarian issues.
It's odd to think of Hezbollah, a group labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, creating a tourist attraction, but that's exactly what it's done. Set amid a picturesque mountain top, the rough terrain once housed a series of fortified hideouts for some of Hezbollah's most hardcore fighters, including a unit of "martyrdom seekers," essentially a suicide brigade that acts on direct orders from the group's leadership.
Now, the terrain is well groomed and features a fountain, exhibit buildings, and artfully arranged outdoor displays. Carefully planned and elaborately constructed, the museum doesn't identify its funders, but the modern buildings and stylized exhibits clearly required major financial backing. Billed as a "resistance tourist landmark," Mleeta is a carefully constructed showpiece for Hezbollah, which combines a militant philosophy with social services intended to win support among the local population. The museum and accompanying exhibits feature both these tenants, highlighting examples of Hezbollah's war prowess with a repeated theme of civilian protection.
"All wars end in tourism," says author Tom Vanderbilt, but Mleeta proves perhaps a slightly more nuanced axiom about the nature of armed conflict and sightseeing. Mleeta is about encouraging the Lebanese civilian population to continue support for an ongoing conflict, which for Hezbollah won't end until Israel is destroyed.
Subtlety is not the museum's strong point. The sign tells visitors that if "you support, you resist." The donation box is shaped like a rifle round. The exact source of funding for Mleeta, like that of Hezbollah, is unclear.
The centerpiece of the museum is an area called the Abyss, which is described as "structural scenic art" to symbolize what Hezbollah believes it the defeat of Israeli forces. The collection consists of Israeli weaponry captured between 1982 and 2006.
"This is a very odd war," said Mark Malloch Brown, the United Nations Deputy Secretary General, noting that both sides thought they were winning the 2006 war. A large collection of captured Israeli helmets is used to emphasize Hezbollah's version of events, which it claims as a decisive victory. But the group sustained heavy losses and Israel arguably achieved some of its strategic objectives. Israel did, however, lose over 100 soldiers in fighting, and the conflict prompted the government to rethink its military strategy.
The cannon of a Merkava tank twisted like a pretzel. The Merkava is Israel's main battle tank, making it the ultimate prize for Hezbollah's collection of war trophies.
Carnage, Carefully Arranged
Even military detritus is carefully arranged as part of the exhibits. The museum emphasizes its artistic sensibilities, boasting of five years of planning that went into the concept and architectural design of the buildings and exhibits.
Recreation of an insurgent stronghold that was used to launch attacks against Israeli positions. A recurring theme at Mleeta is Hezbollah's martyrdom culture, which glorifies fighters' willingness to give their lives through suicide operations.
Hezbollah fighters built a series of fortifications and bunkers, and then used motorcycles to travel between hideouts, transporting weapons and supplies.
Hezbollah boasts that it took 1,000 men three years to excavate the underground complex, which was used as a command and control center and as a barracks for fighters.
This Hezbollah operations center, hidden deep within a mountainous bunker complex. Over the years, this complex was equipped with electricity and running water.
Fake Rock, Real Bomb
A museum worker was particularly proud of this fiberglass rock, which is designed to hide improvised explosive devices or mines used against the Israeli military. In the 2006 war, Hezbollah's roadside bombs proved particularly effective against the Israeli Merkava tank.
Captured Israeli explosive ordnance disposal gear. The suit is stored in a building filled with captured Israeli equipment.
The museum is supposedly run by a private group, dedicated to "reviving Lebanon's tradition of resistance and martyrdom." But the Beirut government backs the place as well. Official support includes the imprimatur of Lebanon's Ministry of Tourism.
Bird of Prey
The symbol of Mleeta, seen on multiple displays, looks at first like a dove, the international sign of peace. In fact, the bird is a sparrowhawk, a predator that according to Mleeta's website "does not accept defeat or withdrawal." The website also notes that the sparrowhawk's flesh is "bitter and inedible."
The museum features different units of Hezbollah, including its missile unit. Hezbollah's increasing rocket and missile capabilities were some of the defining features of the 2006 war and continues to attract attention. In 2010, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates accused Iran and Syria of equipping Hezbollah with advanced weaponry. "We are at a point now where Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world and this is obviously destabilizing for the whole region," he said.
Little Shop of Terrors
The museum's gift shop features coffee mugs featuring the image of Secretary General of Hezbollah Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, inspirational DVDs and other branded knick-knacks.
From Martyrdom to Marriage
The museum's architecture is Hezbollah's vision of Islamic modernism that combines religious imagery with the simplicity and angular construction reminiscent of Louis I. Kahn. This building is designed for weddings and other celebrations.
Romance and Resistance
Despite its hard-core political message, Mleeta bills itself as a family-oriented outing and is a popular place for couples to visit. The museum also keeps on hand a supply of wheelchairs for the elderly and disabled, and strollers for young children.
All photos: Sharon Weinberger