Irish personnel playing vital role in keeping the peace in south Lebanon

 

The Army presence within Unifil has helped calm a simmering Middle East region, writes DAVID MURPHY

LIEUT COL PHIL Brennan, officer commanding the 105th Irish Unifil Battalion, finished his briefing to Irish journalists by remarking that: “We are the eyes and ears of the world in south Lebanon.”

He is in command of over 400 Irish service men and women, who are responsible for keeping the peace in the southeastern part of the Unifil (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) buffer in southern Lebanon, separating it from Israel. It is an area that saw much fighting in the Lebanon-Israeli war of 2006 and unexploded munitions and mines from that conflict still litter the region.

The Irish battalion maintains a very high tempo of operations; patrolling their assigned area and along the so-called Blue Line, in effect the border between Lebanon and Israel, while also maintaining outposts along that line of demarcation. The entire zone of Unifil extends north from the Blue Line to the Litani river.

Within the area currently patrolled by the Irish, there are various potential flashpoints and also Hizbullah strongholds such as the town of Bent Jbail, often referred to as “Hizbullah Central”.

Under the terms of UN Resolution 1701, which was intended to resolve the 2006 Lebanon-Israel conflict, Irish troops are responsible within their area for monitoring the cessation of hostilities, accompanying and supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), extending assistance to humanitarian operations, and helping to maintain their part of the zone between the Blue Line and the Litani river free of any armed elements.

In its mentoring role to the LAF, it is envisaged that this force will evolve to a level that would allow UN troops to be gradually withdrawn, making the Lebanese solely responsible for their own defence and internal security.

While the Lebanon-Israeli war has never officially ended, Lieut Col Brennan points out that the region is now relatively peaceful. When he began his career as a young officer with Unifil, there were frequent outbreaks of shelling and fighting in the Irish area, and large-scale Israeli operations such as “Accountability” (1993) and “Grapes of Wrath” (1996).

Now he points to the once-deserted hills around Camp Shamrock at Tebnine. New houses have sprung up, marking a phase of development and optimism. The Lebanese are investing in their hopes for a new future. No one wants a return to war in south Lebanon.

There are still causes for concern but the focus has shifted further north to Sidon and Tyre. Since November 2011, there has been a series of incidents. On three occasions, UN vehicles have been targeted by groups using improvised explosive devices (or IEDs – in effect, home-made bombs) along the Beirut-Tel Aviv road, resulting in several injuries to French and Italian UN personnel.

In Tyre, bombs have been placed in off-licences and restaurants selling alcohol. Perhaps of greater concern within the Irish area, there were two rocket attacks across the border into Israel in November and December 2011, the latter rocket falling short and impacting in Lebanon. The Israeli response was low-key but the possibility of further attacks and subsequent retaliation remains real. While no one has been caught for these attacks, it is generally accepted they were carried out by Salafists, extreme militant Islamists, based in the Palestinian refugee camp at Ein el-Helwe in Sidon.

AMONG THE LEBANESE population in the Irish zone, the current situation in Syria is also of great concern. The majority of the local population are supporters of Amal or Hizbullah, both of which have traditionally had connections to Syria. If the Assad administration were to collapse, this would result in the removal of their nearest and most powerful Shia ally.

The general consensus, however, is that the Assad administration will survive. This was an opinion repeated both by locals and UN officials. While the Syrian situation seems to be descending into an even darker and more brutal phase of violence and retaliation, most seemed convinced that the Assad administration would be around for some time yet. As more and more Syrian refugees flee to Lebanon, a country that already has a huge population of Palestinian refugees, the impact of this new influx is yet to be clear. Of further concern is the possibility of some form of attack on Iran to which Hizbullah has also been traditionally linked. Despite this, the local population seems reasonably confident.

In 1992, Hizbullah entered the Lebanese parliament and has become an increasingly powerful player in mainstream political life. Despite the announcement last year by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon implicating Hizbullah in the assassination of prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, Hizbullah support in this region has remained strong.

In south Lebanon, the population feels that Hizbullah is well-enough established to weather any fallout from domestic issues and also either the collapse of the Syrian administration or an attack on Iran. In the latter case, it is unlikely that it will be rushed into any precipitate action against Israel. For the time being, therefore, Hizbullah has retained its support base in south Lebanon.

As one local, Hassan Nasser, remarked: “We feel safe because Hizbullah is here.”

Of immediate concern in the coming months will be the Nakba Day commemorations on May 15th, 2012. During the 2011 commemoration, thousands of Palestinian refugees from the camps further north travelled to south Lebanon and gathered at the town of Maroun al-Ras to mark the “day of catastrophe” – the foundation of the state of Israel.

THE LEBANESE ARMED forces failed to keep the protesters back from the Blue Line and, as groups tried to cross the minefields and the technical fence beyond, firing broke out.

At the time, the firing was attributed variously to both LAF and Israeli troops but it has since been confirmed that it was Israeli fire. The incident resulted in the deaths of several protesters while many more were injured.

The site of this clash, now marked with a memorial, falls within the Irish zone. It is certain that some form of commemoration will take place but its scale is not yet known.

The pressing question among Irish officers is whether Hizbullah will see political advantage in a large protest. The Irish hope they will decide to keep it as low-key as possible, as any Israeli retaliation would occur in their area, endangering the local Shia population because of the protests of Sunni Palestinian refugees.

What is certain is that the LAF is expected to field a brigade-size force to keep people back from the Blue Line, while the Irish battalion will be highly visible at possible flashpoints.

Irish soldiers served with Unifil between 1978-2001, before returning again in 2006. During that period, 47 Irish soldiers have lost their lives in Lebanon (out of a total of 293 Unifil fatalities). It is not a sacrifice that the Lebanese forget easily and they are quick to acknowledge that Irish soldiers have had a huge positive impact in the region.

Over tea at the girls’ orphanage at Tebnine, locals such as Ali Saad, a bank manager and co-ordinator for the Red Cross, spoke fondly of the Irish soldiers. The orphanage itself has been supported by Irish troops since its foundation and he was employed as an interpreter by the Irish battalion while still in his teens, employment that allowed him to go to college.

Others talk of the “harvest patrols” of Irish troops that accompanied locals to the fields during the 1980s and 1990s to protect them from fire from the Israeli army and south Lebanon-based Israeli-backed forces.

Irish soldiers have always given part of their time, energy and financial support to humanitarian projects in their zone and that remains true today.

As tensions grow across the region due to the Syrian crisis, fuel prices have soared, while power cuts have become increasingly frequent. Recently, the members of the Irish battalion raised money to help pay for an electricity generator in a local town, thus guaranteeing power every day.

It was perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the local population was well-represented during the St Patrick’s Day parade at Camp Shamrock. Alongside dignitaries, Unifil officials and troops of various nations, many Lebanese mingled in the crowd. Many of them speak English with traces of different Irish regional accents but their message was simple and consistent – the Irish presence has helped ensure that some form of normal life could continue in south Lebanon.

GIVEN THE VARIOUS developing situations across the Middle East, any one of which could impact on the situation in Lebanon, it is perhaps surprising that the Unifil mission is currently under review. The current total of uniformed personnel is 12,138, covering all ranks. It is planned to downsize the force during 2012. France, for example, plans to reduce its force by 400 personnel.

Within Unifil, it is still hoped that the conditions of Resolution 1701 can still be met by “lighter but no less effective force”. This downsizing would also accelerate the assumption of greater responsibility by the LAF.

During the St Patrick’s Day parade in Camp Shamrock, UN medals were distributed to Irish troops and, in his speech, Minister of State at the Department of Defence Paul Kehoe commended them, stating: “What you do here, on a daily basis, in patrolling and carrying out your mandate, not only contributes to peace and security in the region, but is a further recognition of Ireland’s commitment to international peace.”

Chatting afterwards, he discussed the current situation in the Middle East, confirming the Government’s awareness that the Irish battalion is operating in one of the most politically volatile areas in the world.

The current Syrian and Iranian situations could result in an increase in tensions along the Blue Line.

It is a region in which the future actions of various actors, some of which are non-state, could have huge ramifications. Perhaps with a level of Irish understatement, Mr Kehoe concluded “this is a very delicate situation”.


David Murphy teaches the MA course in military history and strategic studies at NUI Maynooth and a war studies programme at the Irish Military College