Lebanese are won over by the Shamrock: Sarah Helm talks to the UN's Irish force near Israel's 'security zone'

Yesterday was a quiet day at 'Shamrock', the headquarters of the United Nations' Irish battalion in South Lebanon.

From his observation point in a small Lebanese village, Captain Mike Gerachty was watching them watching him across the valley. Through his binoculars he could see a figure behind the sandbags turn casually away and light up a cigarette in the sun. Some of the off-duty Irish soldiers, taking advantage of a lull, were sunbathing. And in the fields below, farmers were moving around, assessing the damage to their scorched crops, set alight in a recent flare-up. 'Irish Batt in the service of peace,' says the motto at the entrance to Shamrock. For once, the words were not mocked by the sound of gunfire.

The Irishmen who inhabit this small parched patch of ridgeway are well used to the mockery. They have, after all, been coming here for 15 years. Villagers have picked up their Irish accent and some of their Irish ways and know many by sight and by name. They have been coming here since the UN established its Lebanese peace- keeping force (Unifil) after Israel's first invasion in 1978.

It is mocked by the 'resistance' to the Israeli occupation - nowadays, the Iranian-backed Hizbollah. And their presence is mocked by their own mandate. UN resolution 425 declared that Unifil should be an 'interim' force for the 'purpose of confirming the withdrawal of Israeli forces'.

When the Irish first came here 15 years ago as one of six battalions from around the world, they thought they would be gone in 18 months. 'We were in tents then,' said an Irish officer leaning on the well-worn bar of the officers' mess. Nowadays, Unifil and other old-style UN forces are not in the limelight. 'Peace- keeping' appears to have become a thing of the past: all interest now is in 'peace enforcement' - a role Unifil has never been asked to play, and some of its soldiers may mockingly wonder why. 'We do better than the British in Northern Ireland. The local population would leave without us,' said one young officer from Londonderry. The Irish here point to the houses being built all around as a sign of the confidence they inspire. They give 'humanitarian' assistance and win the villagers' trust, they say. 'We are a stabilising factor,' says Major- General Trond Furuhoude, the overall Unifil commander.

But the Irishmen of Shamrock are frank about the value of their presence. 'We just passed six side tracks since our checkpoint. The Hizbollah could take any one of them,' said a sergeant. Others admit that for many soldiers the purpose here is an 'adventure'. Irish Batt occupies an area 10km square, dominated by two ridgeways separated by a 3km valley. On the north ridge, Irish Batt has its observation posts. The valley below is dotted with Lebanese villages, many strongholds of Hizbollah. And on the ridgeway opposite begins the Israeli-controlled area, what the Israelis call their 'security zone'.

It is a strip of land occupied by Israeli forces and by the South Lebanon Army - a proxy force of Lebanese soldiers recruited and trained by Israel. The job of Irish Batt is to try to prevent flare-ups between the SLA and their Israeli commanders and Hizbollah.

Three weeks ago, the Irish company at their compound in the village of Bra'Shit, a Hizbollah stronghold, could do nothing but sit and listen as Hizbollah fired three rocket-propelled grenades and 50 rounds of light machine-gun fire at the SLA- held compound two kilometres up the hill.

The Israeli-controlled forces retaliated with 32 tank rounds, seven artillery rounds, 41 mortar rounds and 9,387 rounds of heavy and light machine-gun fire. The Irish know this because the job of the operations officers was to count. Twelve rounds were defined as 'firing close' to the UN compound. But Unifil can respond only if the fire is 'life threatening'. And the soldiers acknowledge their response would be pointless. 'The last thing we need in this area is another aggressive force,' said one.

Since this incident the Irish Batt area has remained quiet - despite reports of an Israeli build-up - due as much to the anger of the villagers as to the UN. The whole valley was set alight during the exchange, ruining crops.

The Hizbollah were blamed by villagers for provoking the Israeli retaliation and were forced to pay compensation. The Irish admit that they cannot influence Hizbollah. 'International law allows resistance to illegal occupation so there is a limit to our influence.' As for Unifil's influence on the Israelis, one Irishman commented: 'Either they don't give a shit or they show open hostility.'