Irish UN peacekeepers try to stay safe amid Lebanon-Israel border flare-ups

Troops have repeatedly sheltered in bunkers during intense shelling and rocket launches since outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas

While trying to fulfil their mandate to keep the peace, United Nations (UN) soldiers deployed along Lebanon’s border with Israel during the worst hostilities there in nearly 20 years have another urgent concern: keeping their own forces safe.

Since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza seven weeks ago, troops from the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon (Unifil) have repeatedly sheltered in bunkers during “intense shelling and rocket launches”, a senior Irish commander based in sourthern Lebanon said.

“I’ve got to maintain force protection as a priority while also carrying out the mission,” said Lieutenant Colonel Stephen MacEoin, commanding officer of the 123rd Battalion of the Defence Forces. The 123rd Battalion, which comprises 343 Irish troops and nine Maltese soldiers, deployed to Lebanon at the beginning of November, replacing an Irish contingent who had been stationed there since May.

MacEoin commands the Irish and Polish soldiers stationed at Camp Shamrock in the village of Tiri, near Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.


The conflict in Gaza, some 200km away to the south, has seen Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas, trading fire daily along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Israeli attacks have killed about 100 people in Lebanon - 80 of them Hezbollah fighters - since October 7th.

MacEoin said he hoped the truce in Gaza between Hamas and Israel would be extended, as it was civilians “who suffer most” from conflict, be it in Lebanon or Gaza, and the violence in Gaza was linked to the situation in southern Lebanon.

“The concerns of the mission are that, after so many weeks of exchanges of fire, now we have a truce, a moment of calm, but that intensive changes of fire can really trigger a much wider cycle of conflict,” said Unifil spokesperson Andrea Tenenti.

"This is the real warning and danger that everyone is facing not only in the south but in the region.”

He said Unifil communicated with both sides in the flare-ups on the Lebanon-Israel border to try to “de-escalate tensions”.

No peacekeepers have been killed since the escalation of hostilities. But two peacekeepers have been injured in two separate incidents and Unifil compounds and bases have been hit and damaged by mortar shells several times, Tenenti said.

“We’ve had a lot of firing north and south of the Blue Line ... a lot of close incidents,” MacEoin said, referring to a 120-km demarcation drawn by the United Nations that marks the line to which Israeli forces withdrew when they left south Lebanon in 2000.

In the latest incident, a Unifil patrol was hit by Israeli gunfire in the vicinity of Aytaroun of southern Lebanon, although there were no casualties. The UN force called the attack on “deeply troubling”.

Unifil was established by the Security Council in 1978 after Israel invaded Lebanon. Its scope and size were expanded after a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah that killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 158 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

The force is deployed in southern Lebanon with the primary role of helping maintain international peace and security.

The mission says it currently has about 10,000 troops drawn from 47 countries, and about 800 civilian staff, stationed in 45 positions throughout a 1,060 square km area between the Litani River and the Blue Line.

Last December, an Irish soldier, Pte Seán Rooney, serving in Unifil was killed after the Unifil vehicle he was travelling in was fired on as it travelled in southern Lebanon. Seven people were charged by a Lebanese military tribunal in January for his death, the first fatal attack on UN peacekeepers in Lebanon since 2015.

Calm had prevailed on the border since Hamas and Israel agreed a temporary truce that began on November 24th. But on Thursday morning the Israeli military said it intercepted an “aerial target” that crossed from Lebanon. Earlier on Thursday the two sides struck a last-minute agreement to extend the truce. - Reuters