Irish peacekeepers in Lebanon amid Gaza war: ‘Looking to serve their country... and to do something meaningful’

Lt Col Stephen MacEoin, commander of IrishPolBatt battalion of Irish, Polish, Hungarian and Maltese soldiers, on serving with Unifil force

Since the outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Irish peacekeepers have been experiencing strikes within 500 metres of their positions in south Lebanon, where 270 troops will remain deployed during the Christmas holidays.

The exchanges between Israeli forces and Hizbullah, the Iran-backed Shia militia in control of south Lebanon which is allied with Hamas, have so far stopped short of “all-out war”, says Lt Col Stephen MacEoin, commander of IrishPolBatt, the battalion of Irish, Polish, Hungarian and Maltese soldiers currently serving with the UN force in Lebanon known as Unifil.

Israeli strikes deeper into Lebanese territory have, however, heightened fears of a full-scale war in south Lebanon, where more than a hundred Hizbullah militants and a dozen Lebanese civilians have been killed, and almost 60,000 displaced from their homes.

UN peacekeepers are not, in general, directly targeted by Hizbullah and Israeli forces, but miscalculations and faulty rockets remain a risk for Irish troops in the volatile border region. Unifil’s headquarters in Naqoura was struck in October injuring one peacekeeper, while a UN patrol in Aytaroun was hit by Israeli gunfire in November without any casualties. Earlier this month, the Israel Defence Forces issued a rare apology after its forces killed one soldier from the Lebanese army – with which Unifil regularly conducts patrols – while targeting Hizbullah militants in Adaysseh.


UNP 6-52, a UN outpost operated by Irish and Maltese peacekeepers under the command of Lt Essie O’Connell, lies in a hotspot for shelling near the Hizbullah stronghold of Maroun al-Ras and just a few hundred metres from the Blue Line that separates Lebanon and Israel. While UNP 6-52 has so far avoided any direct strikes, a nearby UN outpost manned by Polish peacekeepers has been struck by shrapnel.

Since the war began, there have been regular strikes on a hill facing UNP 6-52 that was used as a lookout by Hizbullah. Several other areas planted with trees by Green Without Borders, a Hizbullah-affiliated NGO which has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United States, have been hit by Israeli forces since the war began, including with white phosphorous that has burned through trees that Israel believes are used to camouflage staging points for Hizbullah militants.

Lt Col MacEoin has observed white phosphorus being used in south Lebanon, but says the highly flammable substance has so far not been used near Irish peacekeepers. A building on a Ghanaian peacekeeper base was, however, destroyed by the substance, which explodes over a wide area and burns at a particularly high temperature. A white phosphorous strike near Polish troops from IrishPolBatt required them to use respirators due to the fumes, which can cause respiratory damage.

White phosphorous can also stick to skin, causing potentially fatal burns. Its use is governed by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which prohibits the use of airdropped incendiaries within “concentrations of civilians”. While Lebanon has signed up to the protocol, Israel has not. Amnesty International has criticised Israeli forces’ use of white phosphorous and said that a strike on a Lebanese town which injured nine civilians should be investigated as a war crime.

“We rolled out additional medical advice regarding the treatment for white phosphorus burn because it gets very nasty,” says Lt Col MacEoin, who adds that IrishPolBat has enhanced its force-protection measures, with additional barriers around its positions and improvements to bunkers. Since the war began, the UN has introduced three security levels which dictate when normal activities can take place, when soldiers must remain in their bases, and when they must move to their bunkers. Irish troops are continuing to perform about 80 per cent of their normal patrols in armoured vehicles but foot patrols have ceased, says Lt Col MacEoin.

The lack of foot patrols has reduced opportunities for engagement between locals and Irish peacekeepers, who have instead delivered medical training and supplies to local ambulances, with funding from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.

While Unifil’s mandate does not specifically provide for the protection of civilians, Irish peacekeepers have delivered first aid to some civilians caught up in Israeli air strikes and provided security to the Lebanese Red Cross while it collects the wounded and recovers the bodies of those killed in strikes.

Israel has said Hizbullah must be pushed north of the Litani River and away from Israeli villages and towns near the Blue Line, either by diplomatic or military means. Lt Col MacEoin notes that Israel occupied southern Lebanon up to the Litani River for almost 20 years before withdrawing in 2000, and questions how Israel would effectively maintain that type of security buffer again today.

“There is broad popular support among the Shia population [in south Lebanon] for Hizbullah,” says the battalion commander. “Some people would argue that there has been a security dividend from having Hizbullah there because the IDF have to think long and hard about coming in again.”

The Shia militant organisation also provides social services to communities and has offered compensation for homes damaged by Israeli strikes. “Hizbullah essentially is not just supplanting but overtaking the state in south Lebanon,” says Lt Col MacEoin.

Daily strikes along the Blue Line mean Irish troops “have to be on the ball” when they go on patrol. “For all this talk about the snowflake generation, we have people here that have come to the fore,” says Lt Col MacEoin. “There are still men and women who join the armed forces to serve their country, but also for that sense of adventure and to do something meaningful in different parts of the world.”

On Christmas Eve, the Irish chaplain for IrishPolBatt will deliver midnight Mass, while on Christmas Day, officers will serve soldiers at Camp Shamrock’s canteen with turkey, ham, and Christmas pudding prepared in advance by troops in Kilkenny and carefully transported to southern Lebanon.

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