Nighttime patrol where societies clash

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Photo: Arvo Jõesalu / Kaitsevägi

It's nearing ten o'clock at night as the Estonian platoon near At Tiri, Lebanon, loads the guns and gets equipment onto two jeeps. The next five hours we spend in the darkness of the local night, on the mountain slopes where the steep declines mess with one's ears and in the rains the mud swallows whole cars. All this for just one aim: demotivate those who'd wish to disturb the peace. 

The squad leader Junior Warrant Officer Leo Laane (25) shows the guys the map to be travelled, and takes no chances. Every step is discussed, up to who will go talk when anything suspicious is detected.

Tonight’s patrol is to disturb the opening of fire. Mr Laane explains that the area covered tonight id from where, historically, Hezbollah has loved to launch rockets towards Israeli villages. The peacekeeping vehicles, driving with full lights on, are supposed to discourage that. Any baddy caught will be promptly reported to the Lebanese army who confiscates the weapon.  

The welcoming Christians

In the two short months here with ESTPLA-20, Mr Laane knows the area well. He says the 50 square kilometres feature 11 villages of Moslems and two of Christians. «On the Christian territory it is friendly, they even invite us in. The last time one said he was beginning to worry when the day before the peacekeepers did not pass thru,» smiles Mr Laane.

In Southern Lebanon, curiously, entire generations gave grown up under the gaze of peacekeepers – for 40 years running the mission is dragging on.  

The peace, if one may call it that, is still only outward. As Estonians well know, the territory under their responsibility still holds weapons bunkers of Hezbollah. The yellow flags on houses betray the organisation is still largely supported. Also, some Moslem villages have outright warned them to avoid certain places.

And yet, the Finnish-Irish-Estonian area is among the safest at the moment, for UNIFIL. The reasons are probably two. Firstly, Hezbollah is engaged in the neighbouring Syria, fighting to support the dictator Bashar al-Assad. Secondly, the Nordic calmness of our peacekeepers helps keep good relations. The worst that happens is the occasional hail of stones against the bullet proof window of the peacekeeping jeep.

For other battalions towards the East and the West, the situation is otherwise. There, the locals are rather often bombing Israeli villages with rockets or place explosives on the path of the army. The one-time Palestinian liberation idea has not gone anywhere as even in the eyes of this generation, Israel is an occupant on the Golan Heights.

Israel, the weightiest military power of the region, hesitates not to respond. For the most part, rocket attacks are followed by precision cannon fire from the Jews. Of that, they pre-warn the UN peacekeepers so these have time to hide in shelters. The last time the Estonians were in shelters was December 20th last year.

Not always does it end without loss of life. A year ago, a Spanish peacekeeper perished as hit by an Israeli shell landing on a patrol base on the «blue line». The investigation revealed the Jews had miscalculated the target coordinates.  

Officialese says they have fragile peace here. Which will not mean there aren’t any incidents. These are many – a whopping 240 in our area of responsibility, during the past three months.

Most are related to use off private weapons South of River Litan which is banned pursuant to UN resolution. Every time our units see anything of the sort, it is reported and the offenders handed over to Lebanese armed forces.

As for the other battalions, it is mainly the crossing of the «blue line». Mostly, locals wander into Israeli side harvesting crops, sowing, driving across the border.  

Third are exchange of fire across the «blue line». A latest such happened on December 20th as Israeli army responded with mortar fire to a rocket shot from Lebanon. On top of that, a week ago Hezbollah managed to make a self made explosive blow off on the Shebaa farming area on the Israeli side, to which the enemy blasted its guns. To show how easily the situation may shift to war.

For our guys here, the main threat are self-made militants belonging to no organisation. Their steps are difficult to predicts and substantiate. The local Hezbollah is no threat to the peacekeepers. We realise they may be here but officially they are not.

But as we stated above, the yellow flags do abound on houses and every week there are burials. These are young men who perished somewhere, but not in the region. Some sources say the local Hezbollah members go to fight in Syria on the side of al-Assad’s regime. I may confirm the same. The victims are brought home and buried.

Over here, Daesh i.e. ISIS is a common foe to all: the West, Lebanon, local Sunnis and Shias. The local authorities are rather good at discovering their cells, and destroying these. But the problem is far smaller than in the North part of the Country.

The area our responsibility includes totally differing communities like Shias, Christians, a little less of the Sunnis. At times, their relations get complicated and the interests may clash. Traditionally, the region is deemed unstable – not the favourite for investors.

For Estonia, being involved is being on the map, internationally. It is in our interest to continue and we are highly valued and asked to boost our involvement.

Meanwhile, we need to find a balance between other regions and home turf. Perhaps, for a short while we could send the entire Defence Forces abroad but that would not be prudent.

Israel violates treaties too

The worry of local Lebanese mayors that Israel is also provoking conflicts is not totally a bubble. While Postimees was in Lebanon, Israeli fighter planes repeatedly violated the sir border. On December 1st last year, two people were injured in Southern Lebanon as an Israeli intelligence machine exploded next to them. This isn’t always in line with what Israel and the UN have agreed.

Thus the area lives in the knowledge that peacekeepers may be present yet Hezbollah still carries authority. Bu all that, a controversial, almost schizophrenic atmosphere has been created where everything seems to be half finished and hanging.  

Mostly, the locals grow olives, tobacco and cucumbers. Though the threat of bombing is constant and security questionable, not too rarely does one behold villas of glass and white stone, many storied. Such can be purchased at $200,000 – $300,000. Probably, the owner earns his income elsewhere – like in diamond business in Africa, or drugs in Brazil with the largest foreign Lebanese community. Lots of the houses are actually just summer houses. In the winter, 30, 000 people dwell there. In summers, a whopping 100,000.

The patrol pulls to a halt, to survey the situation.  In the moonlight and judging by the howls, we are surrounded by jackals.

As explained by Mr Laane, it is only two third of the patrols that are done in the night. During the daytime, the overall goal is communicating with the locals. The UN even foresees $20 of patrol money to be spent to boost the local economy. The Estonians’ favourite hangout is a cafe where the hostess speaks English and cooks a white bread with spices and cheese – manoush.  

We get back at 3 am in the night. No incidents. No rockets, no counter-fire. 3,000 kilometres to the North, in Central Tallinn, another kind of fight is on. It is cleaning crews against snow. While the townsfolk peacefully slumbers.

Where it all begun

  • In the 1970ies, the militant Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) launched regular attacks from its South Lebanese bases against Israel.
  • In March 1978, as responding to a bloody attack, Israel took Southern Lebanon. Under international pressure, they retreated on condition that UN peacekeepers be installed.  

The trip of journalist was part of visit by Estonian and Finnish defence ministers, costs covered by Estonian defence ministry