, METULLA, Israel, Oct 14 – Israelis were on Thursday warily watching their northern border for a rare opportunity to see up close the arch-enemy of the Jewish state — Iran\’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Iranian president, who is on a two-day trip to Lebanon, was expected to make a controversial tour of the southern border region during the afternoon which has been slammed by the United States and Israel as "provocative."
"Right now we can see the stage they prepared for him, the giant portrait, where he\’s going to make his speech on the mountain," Haim Biton, a resident of the Israeli frontier village of Avivim, told army radio.
The border region, a stronghold of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, is often seen as the frontline in a proxy war between Israel and Iran.
While Israeli leaders slammed the visit as a provocation, for many ordinary people it presents a chance to glimpse the Iranian leader, a man deeply reviled in Israel for his questioning of the Nazi Holocaust and predictions of the Jewish state\’s demise. Related article: Hero\’s welcome in Lebanon for Iranian leader
"It is a provocative and destabilising visit," foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AFP. "It appears his intentions are blatantly hostile and he is coming to play with fire."
Ahmadinejad\’s visit is "like a landlord visiting his domain," Palmor said, while other officials said the move signified the final transformation of Israel\’s northern neighbour into an "Iranian client state."
Thursday\’s tour will see the sharp-tongued Iranian leader coming the closest he has ever been to the Jewish state, standing just four kilometres (little more than two miles) from the border as he tours villages destroyed during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
He is set to stop in Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah bastion devastated during the war, and in Qana, targeted in 1996 and again in 2006 by deadly Israeli air strikes.
For many, it was the sheer proximity of the Iranian leader that caught their attention. "Ahmadinejad a kilometre away," said the front page of the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper, while its rival Maariv ran with: "Ahmadinejad — closer than ever." White House: Ahmadinejad visit exposes Hezbollah values
For some the presence so close by of Israel\’s arch foe was seen as a rare opportunity not to be missed.
"Human history would have been so different if in 1939 a Jewish soldier could have killed Hitler," said Arye Eldad, a parliamentarian from the ultra-nationalist National Union party as the Iranian leader began his tour on Wednesday.
"If Ahmadinejad is in the IDF\’s (Israeli Defence Forces) crosshairs for even one second…he can\’t be allowed to return home alive," he told the Ynet news website.
Senior cabinet minister Silvan Shalom dismissed such talk.
"We don\’t murder heads of states, even if those states are totalitarian states who seek to harm the state of Israel," he told public radio.
Analysts said it was unlikely Israel would be intimidated by the visit.
"It\’s clearly a provocation and it\’s not pleasant for Israel," said Eldad Pardo, an Iran analyst at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "But there is no panic. They also see the opposition inside Lebanon."
Ahmadinejad\’s visit is seen as a boost for Iran\’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah, which fought a devastating 34-day war with Israel in 2006.
During the 2006 war, Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets, many supplied by Iran, into northern Israel in a conflict which killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians, and around 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers.
Iran has been a major donor for the reconstruction of southern Lebanon following the month-long war, and Ahmadinejad is likely to receive a hero\’s welcome when he visits the area.