Wednesday 13 December 2017

Army puts ban on booze for mission in Lebanon

Fears of fresh conflict drive Defence Forces to scrap traditional messes


OLD Army hands learned to their horror last week that the Army's new mission in southern Lebanon where the Irish battalion served for 23 years will be "dry".

Throughout its period of continuous service in the heart of south Lebanon, the Irish battalion kept both officers' and "men's" messes where soldiers could relax over a beer -- the local Almaza being a cheap and refreshing favourite.

Even during periods when the Irish were in the centre of intense conflict, including Israel's prolonged bombardments of 1993 and 1996, the soldiers' messes kept the cold beer ready after a dangerous day's work. It was even rumoured towards the end of the Israeli "Grapes of Wrath" bombardment in 1996 that Irish soldiers negotiated safe passage for a convoy to pick up beer in the UN headquarters on the coast, when all other vehicular traffic was at a standstill.

After the Cabinet agreed last Tuesday to send a 440-strong force into south Lebanon, senior military officers made it clear that things had changed since the last mission to the same area in 2001, and not necessarily for the better.

The area the Irish are returning to was one of the hottest parts of the 2006 Israeli invasion, seeing fierce fighting between the Israeli Defence Forces and the Shi-ite Islamic force Hezbollah, with local civilians and UN soldiers trapped in the middle. An estimated 1,300 Lebanese civilians were killed and up to 700 Hezbollah. Four UN soldiers were killed and 12 injured.

After the Irish Battalion departed in 2001 and Israel withdrew from its occupied zone inside southern Lebanon, security for the area was officially handed over to the Lebanese Army.

But instead, Hezbollah moved in and built a massive underground network of command posts and ammunition stores from which it directed rocket fire into northern Israel and attacks on the invading Israeli troops. During the 2006 conflict Hezbollah also deployed new anti-tank landmines, which had been perfected from a type of horizontal mortar manufactured originally by the Provisional IRA. Security sources in the region say that Hezbollah, working with Iranian weapons experts, perfected the landmines for use against Israeli tanks, several of which were destroyed or damaged.

In response, the Israelis carried out intense aerial bombardments of the area to which Irish soldiers are now returning. The HQ will be their former base, then known as Camp Shamrock, on the outskirts of the town of Tibnin with the "area of operations" stretching to the Israeli border about 12 miles away.

Officially the mission purpose will be to "confirm" the 2006 ceasefire and to facilitate the handover of security in the area to the Lebanese Army -- something that was supposed to have happened nine years ago.

The security "risk" in the area is "low". However, senior sources say the mission poses serious operational challenges, as tensions in the Middle East are heightening over the issue of Iran's nuclear programme.

Revelations, reinforced recently by the WikiLeaks disclosure of American diplomatic correspondence, that Iran has received ballistic-missile technology from North Korea via China is putting the entire region on edge. The chief concern is that if Iran's nuclear plants are attacked to pre-empt an attack on Israel, it will again prompt Hezbollah into action against Israel.

With the potential for conflict, the Defence Force's view is that it would be too great a risk to have messes selling beer in their new camps. Older hands take the view that under the old system there was control over drinking and the mess system never interfered with operations or guard duties. They also fear illicit drinking could become a problem as soldiers might source alcohol from the enterprising local traders.

Sunday Independent

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