BEIRUT // The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, went to Bint Jbeil, a symbol of Hizbollah resistance in southern Lebanon, to declare Israel has no choice "but to surrender".
In a fiery speech as his first state visit to Lebanon took him fewer than four kilometres from Israel, Mr Ahmadinejad said: "There is no option for Israel but to surrender to our right to exist and to return to their original homelands.
"Let the entire world know that Zionism will soon disappear," he added.
After an otherwise quiet day of meetings with Lebanese officials and academics in Beirut, Mr Ahmadinejad arrived in Bint Jbeil alongside representatives of the Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, and Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, Hizbollah's top military commander for southern Lebanon, to give a speech dedicated to the military activities of the militant group and the sacrifices of its supporters in southern Lebanon.
Thousands of people summoned by Hizbollah packed a stadium erected for the event. It was adorned with Iranian flags and tributes to the hundreds of Hizbollah fighters who have died since the group's official inception in 1985.
Bint Jbeil is widely considered the heart of Hizbollah's resistance to Israel. It was the scene of brutal battles during the 2006 war that levelled the town of 20,000 residents.
The Iranian government and its associated charities have donated millions of dollars in reconstruction aid and expertise to help rebuild Bint Jbeil and other villages throughout south Lebanon damaged by the war.
Mr Ahmadinejad told the cheering crowd through an Arabic translator: "The Zionists tried to attack this place and thought it would end the resistance of the Lebanese people.
"But where are they now? And where are you, the heroes, today," he shouted as the crowd roared its approval.
By defending the town from the Israeli assault, Hizbollah and its supporters had weakened the Jewish state to the point that it would soon disappear, Mr Ahmadinejad said, echoing a speech by Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah chief, given from the same podium after the end of the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in 2000.
"Be sure that Palestine will be liberated by the resistance and that justice is coming soon," he added.
Israel did not interfere with the event, which was held well within range of its northern defences, but it said the state visit indicated that Lebanon had moved into the same orbit as Hizbollah, which is often considered beyond the control of the government. The Iranian president's visit is a sign that Lebanon had "joined the axis of extremist states", according to an Israeli official.
Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry, told Agence France-Press in Jerusalem yesterday: "It is a provocative and destabilising visit. It appears his intentions are blatantly hostile and he is coming to play with fire."
Mr Ahmadinejad's visit was "like a landlord visiting his domain", he added. Other Israeli officials likened the visit to a commander inspecting his troops.
In both cases, the Israeli officials were referring to the millions of dollars a year Iran supplies to Hizbollah's military and social organisations, which have helped the group to become the most powerful entity in Lebanon and a major regional player.
Later, Mr Ahmadinejad travelled by road to the village of Qana, where Israeli attacks killed more than 150 civilians in 1998 and 2006.
He was expected to leave Lebanon yesterday, according to Al Manar, Hizbollah's television news channel, but it provided few details.
Earlier, Mr Ahmadinejad was the guest of the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, in Beirut for lunch to discuss domestic and regional issues.
Those issues have many in Lebanon fearing a resumption of violence, internally over the investigation into the assassination of Mr Hariri's father in 2005, which many suspect will accuse Hizbollah, and regionally as rhetoric between Hizbollah and Israel has put much of the tense border on high alert for months.
Although the meeting, which also included other Lebanese political figures from both the majority and opposition, was not public, the Iranian national news agency reported Mr Ahmadinejad said the issue of the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon was an "internal issue".
That remark was in stark contrast to his public statements the day before where he described it as a plot to weaken Hizbollah's resistance to Israeli policies in the region.