Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has taken his strident anti-Israel message to the Jewish state's doorstep by predicting its imminent demise while speaking just across the border in Lebanon.
He told a 15,000-strong crowd in the Lebanese border town of Bint Jbeil - only four kilometers from the Lebanon-Israel frontier - that the Israeli state faced collapse in the face of continued "resistance."
"The whole world knows that the Zionists are going to disappear," he told the crowd, many of whom waved Iranian flags. "The occupying Zionists today have no choice but to accept reality and go back to their countries of origin."
He added: "The world should know the Zionists are mortal.... Today the Lebanese nation is alive and is a role model for the regional nations."
His comments -- in a town that was heavily bombarded during Israel's brief 2006 war with the Iranian-backed Shi’a Islamist group, Hizballah -- came after Israeli, U.S., and some pro-western Lebanese politicians denounced his trip to southern Lebanon as a "provocation."
Speaking to reporters today in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley underscored that view.
"[Ahmadinejad’s] travel to southern Lebanon is solely to rally Hizballah, which continues to serve as Iran's proxy in Lebanon. So his presence there, we think, is a provocation," said Crowley. "It continues to undermine the sovereignty of Lebanon and the security of the region."
Although the Iranian president was on an official state visit that saw him meeting politicians from Lebanon's different religious factions, his arrival was promoted by Hizballah, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist group.
The group credits Iran with funding the re-building of its wrecked strongholds following the 2006 war with Israel.
After visiting Bint Jbeil, Ahmadinejad later visited the border town of Qana, the site of Israeli airstrikes that killed more than 100 civilians who had sought shelter at a United Nations base during a 1996 offensive.
A Stone's Throw
Earlier reports said that Ahmadinejad might also go to Maroon al-Ras, a few hundred meters from the Lebanese-Israeli frontier. There had been speculation that he might throw stones into Israel in an act of symbolism meant to provoke Israeli outrage.
Ahmadinejad's arrival was greeted with suspicion and protests on the Israeli side of the border, with demonstrators pinning banners to a border fence that carried slogans like, "Ahmadinejad, the new Hitler" and "Wake up Assad, Ahmadinejad is on his way to Damascus."
There were unconfirmed reports that the Israeli army had stepped up its patrols of the border region in preparation for the visit.
Iran's state-owned English language news channel, Press TV, reported that Israeli helicopters flew over the stadium in Bint Jbeil as Ahmadinejad spoke.
His visit to the south of the country followed a raucous reception by Hizballah supporters in the Lebanese capital Beirut yesterday at the start of his two-day tour, his first to Lebanon.
Ayub Kara, an Arab-Israeli Druze politician, said today the Iranian president should head back to Tehran.
"Unfortunately this person is a catastrophe for the world and the world must know this. The Israeli government does not want to do anything, but I personally, because I speak Arabic, I know how to tell Ahmadinejad in Arabic: ‘Leave the region. We want peace in the region, we do not want wars in the region,’" he said.
"Ahmadinejad is coming to Lebanon with a domineering attitude, with a message of violence and extremism," said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry. "It is a deeply concerning development that he is transforming Lebanon into a platform for his aggressive plans against Israel and against other countries in the region. I think that all those who want to see peace and stability in this region should be worried and should try to do something in order to rein in the Iranian expansive and aggressive ambitions in this area."
In a speech in Tel Aviv, given at the hall where Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared the creation of the country in 1948, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed Ahmadinejad’s prediction of Israel's demise.
"The best response to the hateful verbal aggression from across the border was given here 62 years ago,” he said.
with agency reports