The Ukraine war threatens to divert attention from the dangerously explosive situation on the Lebanese border with Israel, and prompts governments to undervalue the existential role of UN forces preserving the peace between these two countries.
“For the past 16 years there has been peace from the Litani river” to the Lebanese-Israeli frontier due to the presence of the UN peacekeepers in the region, Lieut Col Fiacra Keyes told The Irish Times. Since the last major conflict between Lebanese and Israelis forces took place here in 2006, he said, “a 16-year-old knows only peace”.
The Cork man is well equipped to assess the situation as he served here in 1998 when the area was hot, in 2001 after Israel withdrew, and in 2013 and 2022.
The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), with 10,000 peacekeepers from 46 countries, "is not perfect, but what is the alternative?" he asked.
“Civilians no longer have to go into bunkers. All in all it is calm [while] on occasion there are flare-ups. On April 26th, Palestinians fired two rockets into Israel which responded with fire – hitting nobody.”
Israeli surveillance planes and drones violate Lebanese sovereignty “on a daily basis”, he said. “Rare and not serious incidents” take place between UN patrols and local folk.
More than 350 Irish troops are deployed along with Polish, Hungarian and Maltese contingents – 600 in total – at the sprawling camp at al-Tir near Bint Jbeil, which was the site of a decisive 2006 battle between Hizbullah and Israeli forces. The peacekeepers co-operate with the Lebanese military and civilian authorities in 14 towns and villages. "Mayors submit projects benefitting their communities," Lieut Col Keyes said.
The Irish contingent “supports schools by providing stationery and IT equipment – at a cost to Irish taxpayers”, while Irish teams interact with local communities through football.
Unifil also buys supplies locally, putting hard currency into the economy at a time the Lebanese pound has lost 90 per cent of its value and inflation has reached 239 per cent.
Shot at daily
Unifil’s mission has changed since its initial deployment in 1978. Speaking of his first tour of duty, Lieut Col Keyes, said: “We were shot at every day [by Israeli surrogate forces]. We had to deter actors from shooting.” This ceased in 2000 after Israel withdrew from the region and the focus shifted to development.
"After the 2006 conflict with Israel, Qatar and Iran rebuilt" destroyed towns and villages and the economy.
“The Lebanese army has visibly improved since 2013, and [there is better] co-operation and co-ordination” with Unifil,” he said. Since it has succeeded in “its mission to empower [Lebanese forces] in their own jurisdiction”, Unifil has to adapt to the new situation.
On a green hill near Tibnin, the Irish battalion’s former base, a garden has been dedicated to the 47 Irish troops killed while keeping the peace, their names engraved on a gleaming black granite monument. They are martyrs to peace.