METULLA, ISRAEL: Israelis were on Thursday warily watching their northern border for a rare opportunity to see up close the arch-enemy of the Jewish state, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Iranian President, Mr Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. who is on a two-day trip to Lebanon, was expected to make a controversial tour of the southern border region during the afternoon which has been slammed by the United States and Israel as “provocative”.
The border region, a stronghold of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, is often seen as the frontline in a proxy war between Israel and Iran.
While Israeli leaders slammed the visit as a provocation, for many ordinary people it presents a chance to glimpse the Iranian leader, a man deeply reviled in Israel for his questioning of the Nazi Holocaust and predictions of the Jewish state’s demise.
“It is a provocative and destabilising visit,” the foreign ministry spokesperson, Mr Yigal Palmor said. “It appears his intentions are blatantly hostile and he is coming to play with fire.”
Mr Ahmadinejad’s visit is “like a landlord visiting his domain,” Mr Palmor said, while other officials said the move signified the final transformation of Israel’s northern neighbour into an “Iranian
Thursday’s tour will see the sharp-tongued Iranian leader coming the closest he has ever been to the Jewish state, standing just four kilometres (little more than two miles) from the border as he tours villages destroyed during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
He is set to stop in Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah bastion devastated during the war, and in Qana, targeted in 1996 and again in 2006 by deadly Israeli air strikes.
For many, it was the sheer proximity of the Iranian leader that caught their attention. “Ahmadinejad a kilometre away,” said the front page of the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper, while its rival Maariv ran with: “Ahmadinejad — closer than ever”.
Nevertheless, analysts said it was unlikely Israel would be intimidated by the visit.
“It’s clearly a provocation and it’s not pleasant for Israel,” said Mr Eldad Pardo, an Iran analyst at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “But there is no panic. They also see the opposition inside Lebanon.”
Mr Ahmadinejad’s visit is seen as a boost for Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah, which fought a devastating 34-day war with Israel in 2006.
Mr Ahmadinejad on Thursday called on all religious scholars and leaders to come together in solving challenges facing human societies during a meeting with Lebanese scholars, clerics and religious leaders on the second and last day of his visit to Lebanon.