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Peacekeepers may soon face even more war

As Israel leaves Lebanon, U.N. forces such as the Irish battalion expect to become busier _ and more imperiled.

There are frothy Guinness on tap, Irish stew for dinner and Roman Catholic chaplains on call at Camp Shamrock. The Irish battalion here has brought a little bit of Ireland into a Middle Eastern landscape of olive trees, tobacco fields and blinding sunshine, 10 miles from the Israeli border in southern Lebanon.

"Irish Batt" has also left some of Ireland here: the lives of 45 of its soldiers who have died in Lebanon since 1978, when Ireland joined a U.N. peacekeeping force after Israel invaded.

Ireland and the other countries that make up the U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, have had a thankless task for 22 years: waiting for Israel's withdrawal while their peacekeepers died in the cross-fire between Israel and its allied Lebanese militia on the one hand, and the Islamic guerrilla resistance on the other.

But Israel's pending withdrawal does not signal the end of the U.N. mission in southern Lebanon. Paradoxically, the peacekeepers may find themselves in the midst of an uncertain and possibly more violent conflict, with precious little peace to keep.

"We'll be too busy to party," said Maj. Joe McDonagh, a 41-year-old officer of Irish Batt on his third sixth-month tour of southern Lebanon since 1982. "There will be a completely different security situation."

For one, Hezbollah, the guerrilla outfit armed and backed by Iran and Syria, is portraying Israel as a defeated army and pledges to continue cross-border attacks into the northern Galilee even after the withdrawal.

At the same time, as Monday's chaotic pullback showed, the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army is disintegrating. In addition to abandoning several outposts and villages, dozens of its fighters are reported to have defected to Hezbollah. Edgy and battle-weary, the 2,500-man SLA is firing at anything that moves _ including members of Irish Batt.

"They open fire for no reason at all," said McDonagh, whose base at Camp Shamrock sits uncomfortably close to a nearby hill dotted with SLA positions.

For years, UNIFIL and its battalions from Ireland, Fiji, Finland, India, Ghana and Nepal have been deployed just north of the Israel-occupied zone. With light blue flags flying from armored vehicles, the patrols have rumbled through dusty towns and villages, providing medical care, helping orphanages and offering reassurance to a war-weary population.

Those very towns and villages, strongholds of Hezbollah, are sometimes targeted by Israeli and SLA warplanes and artillery. When Hezbollah fires back from positions perilously close to U.N. positions, Irish Batt finds itself caught in the middle, dodging the bullets. Its soldiers are allowed to return fire only under the most dire circumstances; in practice they almost never do.

With Israeli troops leaving, and Lebanon's own unlikely to move in, UNIFIL may become the main authority on the ground in southern Lebanon. It expects to move its troops south to the Israeli border to fill the vacuum. U.N. officials say they will need 7,000 troops to police the area, up from the 4,500 there now.

But the prospect of UNIFIL's acting as a border guard for northern Israel may not fit with everyone's plans.

Lebanon and its de facto ruler, Syria, are loath to guarantee Israel peace on its northern border in the absence of a broad peace deal _ one that includes the return of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria by Israel in the 1967 war.

This month, the Lebanese also surprised U.N. officials by insisting the Israeli withdrawal must include a patch of fertile land known as Shebaa Farms where Israel maintains electronic surveillance equipment. Israel and the United Nations had assumed the land was Syrian territory, captured with the Golan Heights, and had nothing to do with the impending withdrawal.

Now, Hezbollah says it will continue the fight against Israel as long as it retains Shebaa Farms _ no matter what the U.N. says. Syria, still determined to recover its own territory on the Golan Heights, is expected to continue arming Hezbollah and may also encourage militant Palestinian groups to launch cross-border attacks on Israel after it withdraws. If that happens, Israel has promised harsh retaliation against Lebanon and possibly its Syrian patrons as well.

"Both Israel and Syria are capable of igniting" the situation, said Toufic Mishlawi, a Lebanese political analyst.

Facing such uncertainties, U.N. officials worry that it may be impossible to fill the vacuum and ensure peace in southern Lebanon.