Funerals of Lebanese killed in Syria create flashpoints for Irish troops
359 Irish soldiers are serving with Unifil to help Lebanese army maintain security
Irish soldiers who previously served in Lebanon. Irish troops there at present have two weeks of a six-month tour of duty remaining. The Defence Forces are committed to at least three further rotations over the next 18 months.
The funerals of young Lebanese men whose bodies were repatriated after they were killed fighting in Syria were creating extra flashpoints for Irish troops serving with the UN in Lebanon, the most senior Irish officer on the mission said.
Lieut Col Tony McKenna, speaking at press briefing in Lebanon organised by the Defence Forces, said his troops had no responsibility for policing often highly charged funerals.
However, they had to be very careful not to impinge on the grief of local families, especially since the Irish were deployed in an area regarded as a centre of Hizbullah resistance.
“It’s a very emotive occasion, full stop,” he said of the funerals in the Irish area of responsibility in southern Lebanon with the 11,000-strong Unifil multinational force.
“We are not tasked to police these funerals but it’s a chance encounter. You’re driving through a village and the next minute you’re in the middle of a funeral cortege and you’re all suited up and in your armoured personnel carriers. And they’re burying one of their people. It creates a potential flashpoint, that’s the issue.”
“You can have all of these other confusing issues to trigger the belief that Unifil or the international community are somehow to blame for what’s going on elsewhere in the region.”
Assisting armed forces
Some 359 Irish troops are serving in Unifil. They are responsible for assisting the Lebanese armed forces to maintain security in their 140sq km “sector west” area of responsibility.
They also carry out security patrols and man monitoring posts along the “blue line” boundary between southern Lebanon and Israel to ensure there are no incursions. There is 16km of “blue line” in the Irish area.
The Irish troops have two weeks of a six-month tour of duty remaining. The Defence Forces are committed to at least three further rotations over the next 18 months.
The Irish deployed with the 108th Infantry Battalion Unifil are from 1 Brigade, mainly from Cork, Limerick, Galway and Kilkenny.
Lieut Col McKenna said the strength of Hizbullah in the Irish area was underlined by the fact that the town of Bint Jbeil, about 10km from At Tiri where the Irish are based, resisted the Israeli invasion of 2006 and did not fall.
It is a region where Unifil troops would always represent a target for “opportunistic extremists”. However, sustained efforts have been made in Lebanon to ensure no contagion spreads from the Syrian conflict. “Lebanon is very much a confessional state,” he said.
“The Shia community, who are the prominent community in the south of Lebanon, many of their individuals are active in Hizbullah, and Hizbullah as we know are very active in the Syrian conflict. Big efforts are being made everywhere on the ground here in Lebanon to prevent that contagion from spreading.”
The threat to Unifil troops is ranked medium at present. However, there have been ambushes and road-side bomb attacks on Unifil personnel in the past two years.
Lieut Col McKenna said there was a high degree of paranoia in the region and that both Hizbullah and the Israelis were gathering as much information about the other as they could. This often led to rumours about Unifil, including the Irish, passing the information they were gathering on to Israel.
“While you have a calm veneer, it’s still a very active area in terms of intelligence gathering,” he said of the Irish area of responsibility.
During the summer, his troops received reports suggesting the panic-buying of foods and other goods, often a warning that the local population was expecting conflict.
“Tensions did go up. You had a high degree of Israeli air activity, a lot of media [attention]. We picked up that the locals were quite tense.”