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Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters attend a religious procession in August. Alamy Stock Photo
South of the Litani

South Lebanon: Proxy conflicts and economic collapse make Irish patrol area 'powder keg'

Our reporter, Niall O’Connor, who recently visited south Lebanon takes a look at life below the Litani River.

LAST UPDATE | 21 Dec 2022

AN HOUR SOUTH Of Beirut the Coastal Highway has a slip road, just south of the Litani River, at a location near the Borej el Hawa food stop.

Irish troops stop here, on a motorway flyover, to change the flags on their vehicles from the Irish tricolour to the UN pennant before heading into the mountains towards their base near At Tiri.

There are fruit stalls and a convenience store where young men on scooters hang around. Further up that road is another restaurant called Café Bo Abboud. It’s the classic roadside services but it is also the point where Irish troops in the United Nations’ UNIFIL mission enter South Lebanon.

The road south from Beirut passes ancient archeological remains from the Phoenicians and the Romans and the bright deep azure blue of the Mediterranean. 

If you were not paying attention along the way it would feel like the drive from an airport on the east coast of Spain – the arid heat bleached topography is very similar to Valencia and Alicante. 

But there are also the signs of this country’s humanitarian crisis, with bombed buildings and the refugee camps where hundreds of thousands of people, from Syria and Palestine, live. 

Latest figures from the UN estimate that there are 479,000 refugees in the country spread across multiple locations. 

Security sources said that a lot of the control in the camps has been ceded by government troops – the Lebanese Armed Forces – to groups such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas. 

From the off-ramp at the services and fruit stalls it is around 50 minutes along winding mountain roads, through busy towns and villages towards the Irish Base, Camp Shamrock, near At Tiri. 

The base – also known as Camp 245 – is a short few minutes to the south from the Israeli border, which is lined with barbed wire and machine gun posts. 

The Journal visited the area on a trip accompanying the Taoiseach in May and June. While travelling in a convoy, our journey began to take on a tense atmosphere as we travelled through an area with a heavy Hezbollah presence. 

The yellow flags of Hezbollah appear on every flag pole and on the entrance and exit of each group of houses there are stylised giant posters of young men in battle field dress – they are the “martyrs” who died in the countless struggles in this area. 

While Beirut is chaotic in its energy, the towns in South Lebanon are tense and sinister. The vast majority of the mostly Shia or Shiite Muslim or Greek Christian population go about their day as normal but there are plenty of young men of military age in small groups looking intently on. 

This is the atmosphere across the south in the heartland of the groups that are chief suspects for the attack that killed Private Seán Rooney last week – Hezbollah, and their allies Amal.

Such are the complexities of national Lebanese politics, regardless of which region of the country, that it is very difficult to separate or define the various parties.   

The system of Government sees a parliament whereby all sects and tribes that must have a guaranteed presence there. With 18 religious sects including Sunni and Christian in a political system devoted to give positions in parliament to a mix of religion and politics it makes it difficult to make progress. 

a-poster-depicting-lebanons-hezbollah-leader-sayyed-hassan-nasrallah-is-seen-in-marwahin-southern-lebanon-october-11-2022-reutersaziz-taher A poster depicting Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is seen in Marwahin, southern Lebanon - in front of a UN post. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo


Recent elections saw the rise of independents as people disillusioned by the political system sought change, with a move away from the Hezbollah leaders of old.

What it has given the country, since the end of the Civil War in the late 1990s, is a quagmire of political inertia and occasional bursts of violence including political assassinations and bloody street protests.

The country has not had an official census since the 1930s. Such are the tensions associated with identifying the specifics of the demographics that a fresh civil war could erupt should one group be defined as more numerous than the other.  

At present a caretaker Government is in place following the recent elections where there is a real struggle to find a leader to fill the Presidential role. 

The Journal found on its visit in May and June that while the political stasis is ongoing the economy has collapsed with black marketeers running an underworld currency enterprise that visitors use to change US dollars for giant wads of inflation-swollen local currency.

Food is in short supply with the UN providing supports through their world food programme. Fuel costs are exorbitant and many State officials go unpaid for months at a time. 

During our reporting we found a collapse in the medical system with prescription drugs either not available or exorbitantly expensive. 

All the while there has been a massive outbreak of cholera – a disease present in stagnant untreated water because the electrical grids are non functioning for most of the day to operate treatment plants or to run pumps. 

Beyond the chaos of political life in Beirut there are places in the country, like the Beqaa Valley or South Lebanon where power is held locally by the mostly Shia Hezbollah (HZB) and other disparate groups. That is different from the national elected parliament given that HZB lost power and seats in the election.

It is about tribal and religious allegiances here but also tradition and for many in the south their lives are directly linked to HZB – made even more complicated and loyal by a system of clientelism whereby access to services is through the militant group.

Such is the near total collapse in society that policing is almost non-existent and the Lebanese Armed Forces are struggling to meet demand as soldiers walk off the job because they have not been paid in months.   

Chaos creates a vacuum and to fill that void sources have said that Hezbollah, despite their losses in the election, have begun to insert their presence into everyday life again. 

The south has always been a base for them – to all intents and purposes South Lebanon sees itself as the rebel heartland, a place that resisted Israel more than elsewhere. 

The problem for UNIFIL troops is that this means there are constant activities by the group and other fractious offshoots as they operate in a country where there is little to no control by the Government.

Camp Shamrock

The Irish base has a very warm relationship with the local people. A group of locals running shops outside of Camp Shamrock have made a fortune from Irish soldiers.

The little shops run by local traders, known as Mingy Men, have vendors speaking English with a Dublin lilt. Shop names have ranged from the Ilac Centre to Dunnes Stores.  

In Tibnine there is a small community around the monument to the Irish soldiers killed while on Peacekeeping duty – a 48th name has now been added to that monument. 

The local community leader, Mukhtar Abdo Haddad, has regular meetings with Irish officers at the local church and cultural centre which were built with Irish donations. 

Sources who spoke to this website said tensions are high at the moment. On our visit to the region in May we witnessed the tight security and careful diplomatic work of Irish military officers.  

Security sources have said there has been a ramping up of hostilities by Hezbollah in recent times towards UNIFIL. 

51699857911_290e27998d_o An Irish soldier on duty in South Lebanon. Irish Defence Forces Irish Defence Forces

This, sources said, is more to do with a broader grab for power than anything the UN is doing but the base level attitude is that the UN are seen as problematic outsiders at best by HZB.

Multiple sources, both diplomatic, humanitarian and military, are keen to stress that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah are only a symptom of the broader issue of the region, and particularly the south. The real problem is a proxy war between Israel, Iran and Syria with Lebanon caught in the middle. 

But that is nothing new, a source told The Journal. Lebanon and the broader Middle East has always been the site, for millennia, of power grabs and campaigns by invading forces. But since the Israeli war of 2006 that tension is at a peak and people in South Lebanon see the Israelis as the ultimate threat. 

Sources have said that there was a largescale bloodletting from the region as young Hezbollah fighters travelled the short few kilometres to Syria to fight in that conflict – they are returning, security sources said, with a new more feverous idea on the way forward.

The ambush that killed Pte Rooney, multiple sources said, was set up by a small team in a matter of minutes having been tipped off by moped riders who followed the UN liveried cars. 

But beyond reckless small offshoots, the power of HZB, multiple sources have said, is vast and they are heavily armed with Iranian weaponry that could cause a substantial risk for Irish and other forces should they escalate their frustrations about the situation in their controlled sectors.

In 2000 the UN established the 120-km Blue Line, or the line of withdrawal, of Israeli forces from Lebanon.

After agreement from both sides, since 2007, UNIFIL has installed 272 visual markers or “blue barrels” to prevent inadvertent crossings and maintain stability in the area. 

But this is the latest in a variety of conflicts in the area and since UNIFIL was established in 1978 there have been 324 peacekeepers killed.

There are a total of 10,500 troops from countries as diverse as France and Malaysia, Ghana and Spain, stationed there with the latest figures from UNIFIL stating that Ireland’s strength is 338 troops.

Some of the recent reports around the activities of Irish troops in the area have raised the tempers of military people familiar with operations in the UNIFIL area.  

Screenshot 2022-12-20 17.22.48 A UNIFIL issued map showing the area of operations. Irish troops are based in the bottom right of the map. UNIFIL UNIFIL

A senior military source was keen to stress that Irish troops do not work within the concept of approved and unapproved routes. 

“Commanders will make tactical decisions on the ground on what routes to use, but UNIFIL has complete freedom of movement throughout Lebanon,” the source said. 

They have also reacted with anger to suggestions that Irish troops have been confused for Israeli forces. 

“That is complete disinformation from non-State actors.

“We have been in the area of operations for 44 years, every UN vehicle is white, it has a blue flag and it has big black letters UN on the front, back and sides.

“There are 10,000 UNIFIL troops in the mission area the size of Munster and no local should or would mistake us for Israeli soldiers, in white vehicles and blue berets,” the senior Irish military source said.  

The military source said that relationships are good with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) but that the Irish regularly operate independently of the LAF – both during the day and at night. 

The difficulties for Irish forces in the area is obvious, 48 have been killed, but they view themselves, according to a source, “not as armed humanitarians” – they’re there to soldier. 

Before Pte Rooney was murdered the previous attack saw a bomb attack on Spanish peacekeepers in 2006 who lost six of their soldiers. There has been countless incidents since and it is a regular occurrence for little skirmishes. 

Powder Keg

Colin Lee, who is working as a humanitarian, has lived in Lebanon for many years having married a Lebanese woman from the Christian tradition. 

Such is the difficulty now in the country that he and his family have decided to move to Ireland only returning occasionally for family events and for Christmas. 

Lee believes that the recent unrest can also be linked to a number of politically motivated killings.

Lokman Slim, a political campaigner and robust critic of HZB, was murdered in 2021 just a short distance from where the Irish were attacked last week. 

Lee also mentions the murders of photographer Joe Bejjani and banker Antoine Bagner in the last two years.

But it is the impact on the ordinary citizenship that is driving Lebanon to rock bottom – Lee, in his humanitarian work, has found that people are now leaving in large numbers.

“It’s an awful shame because a lot of people have obviously left because the poverty levels are shocking. People are so desperate that they are choosing to go on small boats to Cyprus.

“It is under-reported at the moment and the only time people will start speaking about it is when there is a disaster – Lebanon is becoming the new Libya from a migrant crisis perspective,” he added. 

Lee believes the political and social instability in the country is to blame for all of Lebanon’s ills.

“There’s no president, it’s a caretaker government. I think even if there was a president and there was a full government, I don’t think it would make that much of a difference.

“The elections had some change but in general, it’s the same same sort of nonsense,” he said. 

Since arriving in Beirut in 2007 he said he has seen a steady decline and key to that is HZB.

“Hezbollah have allowed the political elite to rob the place blind so that they can get their political gain, and they are never called to account for it,” he added.

Lee said that like the southern suburbs of Beirut where there is a Shia majority, South Lebanon is HZB controlled and that while the area is small it has a huge impact on the country as a whole.

“It’s a very tense area but it’s small enough – there’s only this one main coastal road that will take you down there. So the geography kind of dictates a lot of it, but it is squashed in,” he said. 

For Lee that squashed in nature of South Lebanon has meant that people focus on earning a living from “certain sources” and with that comes allegiances.

This coupled with a failure by central Government to assist and fund the outer reaches has meant that there is now a growth in instability.

beirut-lebanon-09th-aug-2022-supporters-of-hezbollah-the-lebanese-pro-iranian-shia-islamist-political-group-parade-during-a-mass-rally-at-beiruts-southern-suburb-to-mark-ashura-a-day-on-which Supporters of Hezbollah, the Lebanese pro-Iranian Shia Islamist political group, parade during a mass rally at Beirut's southern suburb. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Lee believes that there will be a temporary boost to the economy at Christmas as emigrants, who could afford to leave, will return to their families with much needed currency. 

But it will return to the status quo of disaster after that and the impunity for the groups such as HZB will continue to bring Lebanon to an inevitable demise.

“I believe now that it’s just grinding down. This is the way a lot of things have been happening.

“We know there was no progress in any of the investigations into the targeted killings, because that’s the line that the Lebanese Government and authority needs to take or feel that they need to take to keep the balance in what is a powder keg.”

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