TENSIONS between Israel and Iran heightened last night as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad headed for the Israeli border.
This came after the Iranian President declared Israel a “fabricated regime” and Lebanon a “university for jihad”.
Mr Ahmadinejad received a rapturous welcome on his first visit to Israel’s neighbour Lebanon as he toured strongholds of the militant organisation Hezbollah.
“Lebanon is an example and school for unwavering resistance to the world’s tyrants and a university for jihad,” he told a rally.
The visit was condemned by the US and had Israel on military alert on its northern border, where only weeks ago there was a firefight between Israeli and Lebanese troops.
Washington and other Western countries called on the Iranian leader not to tour the border area. Mr Ahmadinejad was planning to visit two towns there that had been bombed by Israel during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described the visit as “provocative”.
“I think it suggests that Hezbollah values its allegiance to Iran over its allegiance to Lebanon,” he said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “We reject any efforts to destabilise or inflame tensions within Lebanon. We would hope that no visitor would do anything or say anything that would give cause to greater tension or instability in that country.”
The most sensitive part of the tour was a planned overnight visit to two Shia villages near the Israeli border, BintJbeil, which Hezbollah calls “the capital of resistance”, and Kfar Kana. Both were bombed by Israel in the 2006 war with Hezbollah and rebuilt with Iranian money.
Early reports had suggested Mr Ahmadinejad was planning to throw rocks across the border but Lebanese media later reported that this was not likely to happen.
Although Mr Ahmadinejad received a rousing reception in Hezbollah areas, elements of Lebanon’s majority pro-Western alliance of Prime Minister Saad Hariri were known to be uneasy with the visit. The group, known as the March 14 Alliance, holds the parliamentary majority. But under an agreement made in Doha in 2008, as long as Hezbollah can deliver support from one-third of the parliament, it has a power to veto legislation.
This means Mr Hariri, aligned with Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia, is trying to govern with the knowledge that Hezbollah can veto any proposed changes.
While Mr Hariri yesterday met Mr Ahmadinejad, he is known to be concerned the visit may set off tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Two years ago, Hezbollah fighters took to the streets to oppose changes proposed, then abandoned, by the government.
Mr Ahmadinejad told a rally yesterday: “The Iranian nation will always stand beside the Lebanese nation and will never abandon them . . . we will surely help the Lebanese nation against animosities, mainly staged by the Zionist regime.
“(Israel) feels it has reached a dead end and may stage new treacherous acts to rescue its existence and to create opportunities for itself. I announce here and now that any new treacherous act will merely shorten this fabricated regime’s disgraceful life.”