Lebanon seems to be having a flag sale.
Iranian flags, Hezbollah, UN, Spanish, Palestinian flags. They are all flying provocatively along the border with the northern Israeli community of Metulla.
Meters from the fence that separates the countries, not far from the site of a 1985 terrorist attack, Hezbollah has festooned the roads with signs of its presence. It’s purposely done so Israeli residents can see the flags and the billboards next to them. In Metulla there is a memorial for the 12 Israeli soldiers killed in the March 10, 1985, suicide bombing, while just across the border a huge billboard celebrates the massacre.
I spent Tuesday touring the Lebanese and Syrian borders to see the tense situation in the north of the country. The flags across the border seemed representative of the situation that prevails today. Next to the Hezbollah flags is a small post that has a UN logo. Near it the Amal Shia Lebanese movement has erected a large banner reading “To he of pure hands and a generous soul, thank you Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.”
(Berri is also the leader of Amal.) On the banner is the Iranian flag. Here is a visible presence of Iran just a stone’s throw from Israel. It’s not the only Iranian symbol here.
On a hill overlooking houses being constructed in Metulla is another huge poster with a photo of the Dome of the Rock. The face of Ayatollah Khomeini glowers down over the dome and Hezbollah has written: “We are coming” in Hebrew and Arabic.
They’ve put a giant Palestinian flag next to the poster. The message is clear, and disconcerting.
Here is Iran glowering down on Israel from the north. As we toured the border area with Lt.-Col. (res.) Sarit Zehavi, the head of Alma, an organization that gives briefings on Israel’s security challenges on the northern border, what should be a tense situation seemed quiet. This area has known war for many years. There is a British police fort from the 1930s, when terrorists also struck at Jewish communities. Zehavi stresses that the situation along the Lebanese border has not affected tourism or housing prices, and the new construction is evidence of that.
Living with the Iranian threat is not a new phenomenon, but it is an increasingly complex one because of the Syrian civil war. Tehran is reaching a peak of influence and power in the region. Its tentacles stretch across Syria and Iraq, and Hezbollah is emboldened.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah boasts of bringing thousands of foreign fighters to help him attack Israel. He sees Shi’ites from Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen joining the assault. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei tweeted on Monday that “today the fight against Zionist regime is wajib [obligatory] and necessary for Muslims. Why do some evade this duty?” He also claimed: “Palestine is the No. 1 issue of the Islamic world.” From his 300,000 followers on his English language page, he only got several hundred likes on his statements.
So, is the relative quiet in northern Israel illusory? Are the Iranian flags just meant to intimidate and sow fear, or are they a sign of a much deeper problem to be taken seriously? The feeling one gets as a visitor is that of a kind of mirage. There is Hezbollah, a vicious, dangerous terrorist group with more than 100,000 rockets, a few hundred meters away, but familiarity breeds a bit of contempt. The first time you see the flags it’s surprising. The second time, interesting. The third time, boring.
The flags are just the visible expression of what goes on quietly in villages over the border, and of what Hezbollah’s Iranian masters sitting 1,500 kilometers away are thinking. They’d like to boast of conquering Jerusalem or show some murderous and symbolic attack against Israel. But traversing the border, in the shadow of the flags, is the Israeli army, its Humvees and other vehicles, watching for threats.