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

December 1, 2023 2:16 pm

[Source: Reuters]

While trying to fulfil their mandate to keep the peace, U.N. 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 U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) have repeatedly sheltered in bunkers during “intense shelling and rocket launches”, a senior commander said during a Reuters visit to a UNIFIL base in southern Lebanon.

“I’ve got to maintain force protection as a priority while also carrying out the mission,” said Lieutenant Colonel Stephen MacEoin, battalion commander of the Irish and Polish soldiers stationed at Camp Shamrock in the village of Tiri, near Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.

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The conflict in Gaza, some 200 km (124 miles) 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 Oct. 7.

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 told Reuters.

“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 (74 mile) 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 U.N. 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 (409 square mile) area between the Litani River and the Blue Line.

Last December, an Irish soldier 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 U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon since 2015.

Calm had prevailed on the border since Hamas and Israel agreed a temporary truce that began on Nov. 24. 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.