“If you hear an alarm going off, that means you need to run to the nearest bunker,” says Captain Aódhan Mc Guinness as we arrive at Camp Shamrock.

Mc Guinness is the director of tactical operations for the Irish forces operating this United Nations (UN) peace base near the Israel-Lebanon border.

We can hear the drone of Israeli drones above us. They sound like hairdryers or electric shavers and are now a constant presence day and night in towns and villages in southern Lebanon.

As the safety briefing continues, a loud explosion is heard not far away.

“Well, today’s round has begun,” says Captain McGuinness.

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The explosion is yet another example of the escalation of tensions in the area since the beginning of the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

The UN peacekeeping mission, known as UNIFIL, is responsible for monitoring the Blue Line, the unofficial border between Lebanon and Israel.

Over the past forty years, the area has occasionally witnessed clashes between Hezbollahthe Lebanese Shia Muslim group and the Israeli army.

Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Britain and other countries, but in Lebanon it is a mainstream political party, leader of an alliance that nearly won a majority in national parliamentary elections last year.

Caught at the crossroads of attacks

Wearing vests and helmets, we joined a heavily armed group of peacekeepers in a convoy of armored vehicles on a 20-minute drive to another base just 500 meters from the Blue Line.

With Israeli military installations just across the border, outpost commander Lt. Dylan Cadogan says they often have to shelter in bunkers for hours during attacks.

“We have seen houses destroyed and civilians captured in the crossfire who need our help,” Cadogan said.

The United Nations Irish force has been helping civilians whose homes were hit by artillery fire.

From the base of the observation tower, the lieutenant points out a pink house in the distance.

“In that building just 200 meters away there was a mother and a child. Their house was bombed and they had to flee here for shelter. “We gave them medical attention and took them to a safe area.”

UNIFIL forces have recovered the bodies of people killed in the fighting, but cannot say how many of them correspond to Hezbollah militants due to the sensitivity of their mission and the need to remain neutral between the warring sides.

“It is not our job to comment on that. We just observe, monitor and report what we see,” Cadogan explains.

A mission that will last decades

Since Israel launched its offensive in Gaza following the Hamas attacks on October 7, Hezbollah regularly organized drone and missile attacks from southern Lebanon. Some were aimed at military targets, others were launched indiscriminately towards northern Israel.

Israeli forces respond with heavy aerial bombardment and artillery. Because of the argument 60,000 people have been displaced of the border area on the Lebanese side.

Monitoring groups say about 70 incidents have been reported near the Blue Line in the first week since the Hamas attack in October. By mid-November this number had increased to approx 250 attacks per week.

The Irish peacekeeping force was first deployed in 1978 after Israel invaded southern Lebanon in response to border attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Since then, 48 Irish soldiers have been killed, something that concerns the families of the troops.

Captain Tony Smith tries to calm his family’s fears about his dangerous job.

Captain Tony Smith, 27, regularly calms down his relatives in Wexford, southeast Ireland, during his second mission.

“Of course my mother wants me to come home now, which I will do in due course, but she knows why I am here and despite her concerns, she supports what I do.”

Years of living together

Approaching the nearby town TibninePosters of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and fallen fighters of the group can be seen on the road.

It is located 10 km from the Blue Line and has been heavily damaged during previous conflicts.

As in most towns and villages in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has a lot of influence here and monitors the safety of the area.

Bassima and Ali have experienced several wars on the border between Israel and Lebanon.

One of the local residents, Ali Saad57, says he grew up with Unifil’s Irish soldiers.

Ali says in a recognizable Irish accent that one of the peacekeepers helped him with his English when he was young.

That soldier is one of three generations of the same Irish family to have served in the ranks of Unifil.

His father also participated a few decades ago and his son currently lives in Lebanon.

Ali even credits Irish troops with saving his life when they picked him up from school and took him to one of their bunkers during an air raid.

He has since worked as a translator for Unifil and a group of Irish soldiers even attended his wedding to his wife Bassima, who also helps peacekeepers with language services.

Irish Unifil troops attended Ali and Bassima’s wedding. Photo: SAAD FAMILY.

But while Ali appreciates the troops’ presence, he is saddened that the conflict they oversee has continued for so long.

“Honestly, we never thought this mission would last longer than 44 years,” he says.

The fear of escalation

For Bassima, the current fighting has brought back painful memories of past conflicts, such as the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Bassima believes growing up surrounded by conflict has had an impact on her son, who is now 23 years old. He still gets nervous when Unifil helicopters fly over his house.

“We can’t go back to where we were,” he adds.

“We waste our lives from one conflict to another. “I just can’t stand another war.”

Lieutenant Colonel Cathal Keohane fears that the crisis in this region will worsen.

Back at base, Unifil commander Lieutenant Colonel Cathal Keohane is concerned that the level of violence in the area has increased.

We have seen an expansion and more attacks in Lebanonwe have seen the use of a wider range of weapons,” he says, concerned that the situation could worsen.

“Whether it is intentional on one side or whether unintended circumstances precipitate the outbreak of all-out war, that is a serious concern for us.”

He hopes the ceasefire in Gaza will lead to an easing of tensions around the Blue Line, but says it could take some time for displaced people to return to their homes even if border fighting stops. (JO)