Perching on the edge of a chair in a darkened room in Beirut, seven-year-old Hassan el Zein takes aim with his pistol and pumps three bullets into the forehead of Ariel Sharon.
He leaves the Israeli prime minister for dead and moves into the next room, swiftly dispatching Shaul Mofaz, the defence minister of “the Zionist enemy”, with a commando knife. Twenty more points.
“May Allah’s blessings and peace be upon you,” flashes across the screen in Arabic as stirring martial music urges Hassan on. An Israeli special forces soldier is blown up by a hand grenade.
Welcome to Champions computer arcade in Beirut’s southern suburbs, the urban stronghold of Hizbollah, Lebanon’s self-styled “Islamic resistance fighters” and the heroes of young Shi’ite Muslims such as Hassan.
This is the Haret Hreik district, Hizbollah’s heartland. Behind the stacks of fruit and vegetables at the grocer’s is a portrait of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, wielding a Kalashnikov. Along the main road is a mosque with a Hizbollah-run hospital built around it.
Inside Champions, Hizbollah flags hang from the ceiling and there are pictures of Nasrallah and Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, the group’s spiritual inspiration, in the entrance. The game is called “Special Forces” and has been produced by the Hizbollah Internet Bureau. Hassan and his friend Ali Dikmak, also seven, are eagerly awaiting an updated version that will feature more advanced weapons.
Although it is not as technologically advanced as some American products, Ali says it is his favourite because it shows Arabs can be strong. “I don’t like Israelis and I want to shoot them because they’re bombing us and they’re bombing the Palestinians. I want to shoot them in real life as well. In this game the Israelis don’t win – the resistance always wins.”
Hassan Jomass, 21, who is helping out in the arcade, explained the purpose of the game. “It serves a certain goal. It’s not just for fun. It’s a way to teach the youngsters to know their enemy better and be patriotic.”
Hizbollah recognised, he argued, that American games could corrupt the Lebanese youth. “Look,” he said, pointing at a child playing Command and Conquer Generals at another console.
“This is even showing Arabs as terrorists.”
Sure enough, the game’s Global Liberation Army, an Arab guerrilla force, is described as preferring “underhand and sneaky tactics to defeat its enemies” while US forces “utilise high-tech weaponry and skill”.
Hizbollah, which means Party of God, was founded in 1982 by young graduates of Shi’ite seminaries in Iran who were intent on taking Khomeni’s revolution to Lebanon, then in the throes of a bloody civil war.
Believed by intelligence agencies to have been behind the 1980s kidnappings of people such as John McCarthy and Terry Waite, the group was also responsible for the killing of 241 American marines in a 1983 suicide bombing. Since then, Hizbollah has established itself as a social and political, as well as military, force in Lebanon. Its popularity surged when Israeli forces withdrew from the south of the country in 2000.
Although it aspires to an Islamic state, Hizbollah is happy to work with Lebanon’s secular government – which sanctions it as the “resistance” against Israel – and use western inventions such as computer games to help to spread its revolutionary message. But many women in the southern suburbs do not wear the veil and close to Champions there is even a shop that sells sexy lingerie.
A beauty shop called Beckham features a huge faded photograph of the Real Madrid star. Such pragmatism and concentration on social programmes has helped Hizbollah quietly to increase its influence.
With the backing of Iran and Syria, it hopes in time to extend its fight throughout the Islamic world.