On patrol with UN peacekeepers on the Lebanon-Israel border

The National joins Spanish peacekeepers given the task of co-ordinating between Israeli and Lebanese authorities

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“Coming up on your right, you will clearly see Metulla in Israel,” says Cpl Guillermo Estudillo Parejo, a member of the UN's peacekeeping force on Lebanon's southern border, in a tone reminiscent of tour guides.

Through the window of the armoured vehicle, partially obstructed by a soldier's rifle, Israel's northernmost town emerges amid vivid green hills.

But Metulla is now deserted, having been one of the prime targets of cross-border fire by the Lebanese militia Hezbollah over the past seven months in a campaign of attacks that the group says is in support of Palestinians facing an Israeli military assault in Gaza.

It is a spring morning, yet the sun beats down fiercely as the armoured vehicle carrying Spanish members of the UN force, Unifil makes its way through the deceptively calm landscape.

“Look to your right, you see that destroyed building. It wasn't in this state last time we were here,” Cpl Parejo says as the patrol reaches Kafr Kila, a town on the border with Israel.

Each passing day, the potential of a wider war in Lebanon is increasing
Andrea Tenenti, Unifil spokesman

The illusion of a guided tour is short-lived. This is not a tour guide; this is a Unifil patrol in wartime, along the heavily militarised Blue Line that separates Lebanon and Israel.

Kafr Kila has been struck almost every day by the Israeli army since October 8, when Iran-backed Hezbollah initiated a “pressure” front to divert Israel's focus from its Gaza offensive, a day after Hamas' unprecedented attack in southern Israel.

Since then, the daily exchanges of fire have progressively escalated.

The clashes have resulted in the deaths of 399 people in Lebanon, mostly militants but also more than 70 civilians, according to an AFP tally. Israel reports that 14 soldiers and nine civilians have been killed on its side of the border.

The National joined members of the Spanish contingent of the East sector for a day. They are part of about 10,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission tasked with liaising between Israeli and Lebanese authorities to avert a broader conflict.

Peacekeeping in a war zone

Inside their white APC, wearing a military uniform with the distinctive blue helmets of Unifil personnel, the Spanish patrol follows their customary route from the eastern sector checkpoint, where The National met them, to their base in the border town of Ghajar.

Cpl Parejo said they conduct patrols both during the day and at night.

The landscapes roll past, offering a rare glimpse for civilian eyes into the extensive destruction caused by seven months of conflict, such as charred vehicles and houses reduced to rubble. Most towns are deserted, except for the “Christian corridor,” which has been spared from direct fighting.

There were no irregularities to report that morning. Only some flocks of sheep forced the APC to stop in Wazzani, a rural town still populated by a handful of Syrian refugees who continue to work in farming under the threat of shelling.

Back at the base, the UN Position 4-28 in the Ghajar area, which houses 38 members of the Unifil force. Israel lies only a couple of metres away behind a barbed wire fence.

Since 2006, Unifil has been deployed in the south of Lebanon following a truce that stopped Israel's 34-day war with Hezbollah.

“Our mandate has not changed since the conflict started, our role is patrolling, checking the Blue Line, and assisting the Lebanese Army. The difference is that we now need to pay extra attention to the security of our troops,” Col Juan Antonio Garcia Martinez, told The National.

The Unifil co-ordinates with both the Lebanese Army and the Israeli forces to defuse tensions, he said. The peacekeepers are not in contact with Hezbollah.

“We also conduct civilian activities, including meetings with representatives of each village, humanitarian distribution, even providing shelter for families at times,” Capt Hector Alonso, 31, said.

The conversation is interrupted by the sounds of jets and occasional explosions. Suddenly, a large black smoke billows from a hill near Khiam.

“This is another violation of Lebanese airspace that we have to report,” Col Garcia Martinez said. It was later reported that the strike killed three Palestinian fighters.

The active shelling has raised the security level to Level 2. For soldiers, this means they are not allowed to leave the base. Level 3 would require sheltering in the bunker.

“We were told that Lebanon would be a calm mission,” Lt Alexandro García Valle said, discussing with his fellow soldier, Lt Juan Carlo Suarez, waiting for the security notice to be lifted.

They had been preparing for months for the mission, but everything changed after October 7, just a couple of weeks before their deployment to Lebanon. For both soldiers, it is their first time in a conflict zone.

“Now we spend the day and night under the sound of jets and shelling. We've got used to it,” Lt Suarez said.

Averting 'dangerous misunderstanding'

As Gaza ceasefire talks stall between Israel and Hamas, amid Israel's threats to launch a ground invasion of Rafah, where about 1.4 million Palestinians have sought sanctuary, tensions on the Lebanese front have surged.

“Each passing day, the potential of a wider war in Lebanon is increasing,” Andrea Tenenti, Unifil's spokesman told The National back in the headquarters in Beirut.

Over the past seven months, Lebanon has teetered on the brink of a wider conflict as Israel carried out deeper strikes within the country, repeatedly breaching the rules of engagement that tacitly govern clashes between Israel and Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has also intensified its attacks in recent weeks.

Despite mounting tensions, Unifil continues to carry out 400 activities a day, including patrols and monitoring operations, Mr Tenenti said.

Sceptical voices have questioned the real effect of the peacekeeping mandate amid the daily exchanges of fire.

But Mr Tenenti stressed that Unifil is the only organisation able to talk with both parties and to provide information to the international community, in a bid to avert “dangerous misunderstanding”.

He added that the peacekeeping force is ready to play a role for the day after, and “assist” any proposal that could bring about a ceasefire.

Hezbollah has consistently conditioned a ceasefire in Lebanon to a truce in Gaza. Yet, the outlook for peace remains uncertain with Gaza ceasefire negotiations hitting an impasse.

“I wish I could tell you what will happen, but it is even impossible to predict the next hours,” he said.

Updated: May 14, 2024, 8:08 AM