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Real danger lurks underneath the veneer of peace

IT'S very calm in south Lebanon at the moment and the local population -- swollen by thousands of students and workers who have come for their annual break -- look to be enjoying their summer.

But underneath the veneer of normality lurks a very real danger. This part of the country is highly volatile and what would be merely a minor incident at home can quickly result in fatalities here.

As the Unifil peacekeeping mission deputy spokesman, Andrea Tenenti said: "There is no orange traffic light, it goes from green to red in a flash."

Last August, the Israeli defence forces decided to fell a small tree, which was interfering with the erection of a fence along the Blue Line that separates Israel from south Lebanon, although it is not the official border.

The Lebanese objected but the Israelis pressed ahead and chopped it down. A firefight erupted and lasted 30 minutes, resulting in four fatalities -- two Lebanese soldiers, one Israeli and a journalist.

Unifil quickly intervened and in a little over 24 hours what passes for normality was restored after the peacekeepers called a meeting of the Tripartite Forum, which brings the two sides together.

It's in this type of flare-up that the negotiating skills of the Irish troops are appreciated by the UN.

As a result of battalions being deployed in south Lebanon for 23 years from 1978 to 2001, the Irish have built up a good rapport with the locals. They have earned a reputation for preventing a crisis by talking through potential problems.

Other battalions among the 35 troop-contributing countries are now adopting the Irish methods and focusing on building up a relationship with the communities.

One Irish officer explained: "Some of our personnel have been out here so many times that they get to know a group of children by giving them sweets on their first tour of duty.

"Five years later, they play football with the same lads and five years further on they find the lads have now joined Hizbollah but they are still friendly with the Irish."

He added: "This can help them end incidents such as stone throwing that can escalate very quickly."

Irish Independent