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Ahmadinejad Speaks at Israel's Doorsteps

Updated at 12:29 p.m. ET

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to the doorstep of his archenemy Israel Thursday, telling thousands of Hezbollah supporters in a Lebanese border town he was proud of their struggle as Israeli helicopters buzzed the skies along the frontier.

The U.S. and Israel have called Ahmadinejad's visit to the border a provocation that undermines Lebanon's sovereignty.

Iran, whose ties to Hezbollah date back nearly 30 years, funds the militant group to the tune of millions of dollars a year and is believed to supply much of its arsenal. Hezbollah boasts widespread support among Shiites and virtually runs a state-within-a-state in Shiite areas of Lebanon.

"You proved that your resistance, your patience, your steadfastness, were stronger than all the tanks and warplanes of the enemy," Ahmadinejad said at the rally in Bint Jbeil, about two miles (four kilometers) from the border.

"The people of Iran will remain by your side, and all the people in this region," he added.

Israel is watching the Ahmadinejad visit closely, reports CBS Radio News correspondent Robert Berger, but it is keeping a low profile militarily, hoping to avoid a flare-up on the volatile border. Some Israelis were prevented from reaching the border to hold a demonstration.

An AP reporter saw two Israeli attack helicopters hovering above the Israeli border town of Moshav Avivim. But otherwise, Israeli military presence near the town appeared minimal. The military declined comment.

While Israeli officials have toned down their rhetoric publicly, Berger says that in private, they describe the Iranian leader's visit to Lebanon as a provocation. The Ynet website quotes an Israeli government source as saying the visit, "illustrates how Lebanon has turned into an Iranian satellite nation, thus joining the axis of radical countries which oppose the peace process and support terror."

From Israel's point of view, explains Berger, Hezbollah has established a state within a state in South Lebanon, with an arsenal of 40,000 rockets. Hezbollah would likely enter the conflict if Israel were to carry out its threat to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

The Iranian leader arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday to a rapturous welcome organized by Hezbollah for his first state visit to Beirut. But his splashy arrival exacerbated fears among many Lebanese - particularly Sunnis and Christians - that Iran and Hezbollah are seeking to impose their will on the country and possibly pull Lebanon into a conflict with Israel.

Earlier Thursday, schoolchildren handed out leaflets on the best route to Bint Jbeil, which carries special significance in Lebanon. The village was among the hardest-hit areas during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, and oil-rich Iran invested heavily in helping to rebuild it.

Days after Israel ended its two-decade occupation of south Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah's leader gave a victory speech in Bint Jbeil in which he said Israel is "weaker than a spider's web" - a phrase that adorns a wall of the stadium along with photographs of weeping Israeli soldiers.

Bint Jbeil is dubbed "the capital of resistance" because it was a center for Hezbollah guerrilla action against Israel during the Jewish state's 18-year occupation of the south, which ended in 2000.

Ali Daboush, a 35-year-old Shiite who works in Saudi Arabia, said he traveled home to Lebanon just to see the Iranian leader.

"He liberated this land. It was thanks to him," Daboush told The Associated Press. "No Arab leader has done what he has done."

The Iranian leader was also visiting the village of Qana, where an Israeli airstrike in 2006 killed dozens. In 1996, Israeli artillery killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians in Qana.

Ahmadinejad's visit has underscored the eroding position of pro-Western factions in Lebanon. More broadly, it has suggested that the competition over influence in Lebanon may be tipping toward Iran and its ally Syria, away from the United States and it Arab allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Ahmadinejad has sought to depict his country as an ally of all Lebanese, not just Hezbollah. But the strains have been clear.

The coalition of Western-backed parties in the government, known as the March 14 alliance, has warned that Ahmadinejad is seeking to transform Lebanon into "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean."

Mentions of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who heads Lebanon's Western-backed coalition, were roundly booed during Ahmadinejad's speeches.

Washington has come out strongly against the visit. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated American concerns about Iran's nuclear program and its "support of terrorism."

"So when the Iranian president goes to Lebanon, and we know that they are supporting financially and in every other way Hezbollah, which is on the border of Israel and the border of the Palestinian areas, then that is a volatile situation," she said in an interview aired Thursday on ABC.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev slammed the trip.

"Iran's domination of Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah has destroyed any chance for peace, has turned Lebanon into an Iranian satellite and made Lebanon a hub for regional terror and instability," he said.

Residents in Avivim, an Israeli farming village that looks across the border at a makeshift stage and replica of the Dome of the Rock built in honor of Ahmadinejad, showed little interest in his visit.

Children played freely outside, and residents largely went about their daily business. On an Israeli road leading up to the border area, a few onlookers stopped their cars to snap pictures or peer through binoculars at the other side.

"We're not excited about his visit. We don't get alarmed about anything around here. Ahmadinejad is a big coward," said resident Rafi Peretz. "Why does he come only 300 meters from us? Why doesn't he come here?"

Despite the bravado, Israelis were clearly upset by the arrival of Ahmadinejad, a leader who has denied the Holocaust, called for Israel's destruction and who is the key backer of Israel's most bitter enemies.

"This is a strong provocation by the president of Iran that he bothers to come to southern Lebanon it shows how much he is in control here," said Shimon Biton, the head of the local town council.

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