Uneasy days for Irish as Israel pondered revenge

 

A green-painted square of plywood, about the size of a copy book and bearing the legend "normal", was hanging from the status alert board at the entrance to the concrete operations bunker in Tibnin yesterday. "Normal" here means that the battalion will observe only occasional exchanges of artillery, rocket, mortar and small-arms fire in and around the 10-km patch of hilly land that is the Irish Battalion's "area of operations".

The green "normal" square is the lowest of four degrees of alert status for the battalion. When the green is in place soldiers go about their normal business of running a peacekeeping battalion, fetching supplies, working at vehicles and equipment, cooking and cleaning.

On Saturday, those soldiers not on sentry or observation duties were even able to watch the Ireland-England rugby match on newly-installed satellite dishes in their messes.

Just a week earlier, things were very different. The soldiers - many of them in their late teens or early 20s and on their first tour of duty in Lebanon - were preparing for an air, sea and land invasion by the Israeli Defence Forces, one of the most powerful military organisations in the world. Most Irish soldiers were in the deep rock-covered bomb shelters and those on the outside were armed and wearing flak jackets and helmets. The alert status board was red, with the words "serious security situation".

The alert had been issued by the UNIFIL (UN Interim Forces in Lebanon) Assistant Chief of Staff, Col Brendan McCann, from his headquarters in a French colonial house about 40 miles away in the coastal village of Naqoura. Col McCann had received a message that Israeli soldiers had been killed inside the strip of land that Israel still occupies inside southern Lebanon. The victims included Brig Gen Erez Gerstein, the head of the Israeli army in south Lebanon, whose role also included liasing with UNIFIL.

Gerstein was the rising star in the Israeli military, having commanded the elite "Golani" Brigade at the age of 36, and he was tipped to follow similarly brilliant soldiers into political life in Israel when he left the army. He had met Col McCann only three days before, when he called to UNIFIL Headquarters to apologise for an incident in which a mortar fired by troops under his command injured two Irish soldiers.

In the manner of these things in this area, following the death of such a prominent Israeli general in a week in which six other Israeli soldiers were also killed by Islamic guerrillas, UNIFIL was expecting retaliation on a massive scale. The Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Benjamen Netanyahu, was warning of an "air, sea and land" assault on Lebanon.

During the afternoon the first of dozens of Israeli Air Force F16 jets were heard passing overhead. They were heading north. In the Irish Battalion area one of the jets fired a laser-guided bomb into a building owned by the Hizbullah party, whose military wing had killed Gerstein. The building was flattened and a local Hizbullah figure killed.

Under the terms of an agreement worked out here in 1996 the antagonists are prevented from attacking civilian targets. Israel would face international censure if it breached this agreement, unless there was a breach by the Islamic guerrillas. That - apparent - breach by the guerrillas took place in the middle of Sunday evening when two long-range rockets passed southwards over the UNIFIL area into northern Israel. Israel now had the excuse it needed to launch an all-out assault.

Col McCann, who had watched the situation deteriorating during the day, took the decision to issue the red alert at 10.15 pm. He said: "There was massive tension. We believe at the moment that a PLO breakaway group fired the long-range Katushyas [the Russian-manufactured rockets fired into Israel] and they were fired from outside the UNIFIL area. We were planning for a major offensive."

Civilians in the areas mostly likely to suffer the brunt of an Israeli incursion began packing their cars and driving north. The tension gathered during the night and into the next morning when television pictures showed Israeli artillery pieces and armoured personnel carriers being driven north on the backs of flat-bed trucks.

The belligerent calls for retaliation continued during Monday but no ground or sea invasion, not even a bombardment, materialised. The number of Israeli jets passing over the UNIFIL area dropped off. Without explanation, the expected Israeli assault just "fizzled out", as Col McCann put it. The tension eased and those civilians that had left began returning. Civilians in northern Israel who spent Sunday night in bomb shelters emerged on Monday and within days were also living their lives as normal.

During the week there were funerals for Brig Gen Gerstein and the three other men who died with him in Israel and in south Lebanon the Hizbullah buried the two of its members killed by the Israeli bombs.

The status board in the Irish Battalion changed from red to yellow and then, by mid-week, to green.

Over the weekend there was a palpable sense of relief as the soldiers enjoyed the rugby and drank beer.

UN commanders had also observed what was, in effect, the first major test of the 1996 political agreements imposing restraints on the parties in conflict.

The Hizbullah fighters had stayed entirely within the agreement when they killed Brig Gen Gerstein, who was travelling in convoy inside the Israeli-occupied area. Likewise the Israeli bombers had struck what appear to be buildings occupied by Islamic guerrillas or their supporters. No villages were levelled in south Lebanon, as happened in 1996 and on occasions before that, and, apart from the two rockets on Sunday evening, there were no further assaults on Israel.

UNIFIL was aware that the Israelis were angry at the restraints placed on them by the terms of what is known here as the April Agreement, but the restraints, which are monitored by a five-member team of Israeli, Syrian, French, Lebanese and American observers, had been observed by both sides.

UNIFIL's press officer, Mr Timor Goksell, wondered if the Israelis had, at last, been cured of the notion that bombarding Lebanon stops armed aggression against its occupying forces.