Postcard from Baalbek: Inside the Hezbollah museum that showcases its power

Iran-backed group's latest museum in Lebanon displays an arsenal of weapons designed to 'intimidate our enemy'

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“There are two goals for the museum,” said Khalil Bazzal, 57, the director of the Museum of Jihad, Hezbollah's latest showpiece. “The first is for our public to see our achievements.

“The second is to intimidate our enemy, to show them that our children are now playing with the weapons they [Israel] once committed massacres with."

Nestled on a hill facing the historic city of Baalbek, the birthplace of the Iran-backed group in north-east Lebanon, a new museum showcases an extensive collection of about 100 weapons.

These are war “spoils", captured by the Iran-backed group during Israel's military occupation of Lebanon, which ended in 2000, and more recently in its campaign in Syria in support of President Bashar Al Assad's regime.

British, US, French and Soviet tanks can be found among the collection.

According to Mr Bazzal, the Shiite group used most of the tanks displayed during the Syria war. Neatly arranged next to each other, the military vehicles, now obsolete, look new.

“They have been repainted for the occasion,” Mr Bazzal said.

The museum also showcases a “made in Lebanon” collection, Mr Bazzal proudly said, which includes the famous “kamikaze” drone. He added that more modern models are now used in southern Lebanon, where the exchange of strikes between Hezbollah and the Israeli army have been intensifying.

Since October 8, Hezbollah has been fighting at the border in support of its Palestinian ally, Hamas, the group Israel has vowed to destroy after its unprecedented attack on southern Israel the previous day resulting in about 1,200 deaths.

Israel's devastating military campaign in Gaza that followed has killed more than 36,200 people in Gaza, pushing the enclave to the brink of famine.

As the war continues, this display of strength in Baalbek sends a different message. “All the weapons are functional but we're no longer using them,” Mr Bazzal said.

“This is because we have much better ones now,” he added with a smile.

Israel and Hezbollah have escalated their attacks in recent weeks. Israel has repeatedly warned of a full-scale war in Lebanon if Hezbollah does not withdraw from the border.

Restoring safety at the frontier has become a pressing issue for Israel. It believes the tens of thousands of people displaced from northern Israel will be unable to return home if Hezbollah, a stronger force than Hamas, maintains its position near the border separating the two countries.

It is not only Israelis who have been displaced by the fighting.

Violence on the Lebanese side of the border has forced about 100,000 residents to flee. At least 440 people have been killed in Lebanon, mostly militants but also 84 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

Israel says 14 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed on its side of the border.

While the majority of the strikes have been limited to the border area, following the so-called rules of engagement, a tacit set of regulations meant to limit escalation, they have at times reached deeper inside Lebanon.

A public space

Mr Bazzal said the museum, which opened in August just before the war started, had been welcoming hundreds of visitors a day. At weekends, thousands show up, with families and children playing on the tanks and climbing on the armoured vehicles.

But visitor numbers have decreased considerably since the onset of the war.

The sun beating down on the perfectly manicured lawn amid the sound of birds gives a deceiving impression of calm: Baalbek, about 75km north of the Israel-Lebanon border, has been hit several times in the past couple of months. Israel targeted the region about 10 days before The National visited the museum.

Hezbollah's older Museum of Resistance, in Mleeta, about 24km from the border, had to close for safety reasons. But the newer museum has kept its doors open.

“We're not afraid”, said Hassan Abbas El Masri, 15, who is visiting for the second time. The museum, where entry is free, is seen as a space for socialising within the group's community.

“It's good to know the history of the party,” he added, as he looked at a timeline of Hezbollah's history, spanning from Israel's invasion of Beirut in 1982 to the removal of the ISIS from Lebanon in 2017.

The teenager and his friends are exploring another section of the museum, which features a timeline celebrating key victories in the party's history with videos showing footage of previous attacks on Israel.

Hezbollah, founded by Shiite cleric Abbas Al Musawi, emerged in the early 1980s during the 15-year Lebanese civil war with the help of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and gained popularity as a resistance movement against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah operates today as both a powerful political party, holding 13 seats in the Lebanese Parliament, and a powerful militant organisation, becoming one the world’s most heavily armed non-state actors.

“The aim of the museum is to shape the narrative,” Mr Bazzal said.

But in polarised Lebanon, Hezbollah, the only militia that did not disarm at the end of the civil war, is a subject of heated controversy. Critics accuse the group of undermining the state with its large arsenal, which is believed to be more powerful than the national army.

With no end in sight to the war in Gaza, some now fear the group will drag Lebanon into a wider conflict, despite a state-level decision to maintain peace in a country where most people oppose the prospects of another war with Israel.

Updated: May 31, 2024, 6:00 PM