Over the Israeli gun position, the storks were riding the thermals to gain altitude, big scrawny birds bestowing a weird tranquillity upon another of the world's forgotten wars. Take Captain Nick Connors' gentle laneway amid an orchard of olives, the heat shimmering over the long grass: a covering of leaves and branches on the tarmac provides a bland and sinister warning - in Lebanon you don't walk down roads that look like that.
Which is why Capt Connors of the Irish Army's 73rd United National infantry battalion halted his patrol just south of the village of Eit es-Zut. 'The Hizbollah fire their mortars from among the olive trees just down there,' he said. 'And make their get- away on motorcycles.' The pro-Iranian Party of God not only goes to war on Lambrettas; most of their guerrillas are now equipped with Motorola two-way radios and a lot more ammunition, including wire- guided Russian Sagger anti-tank missiles.
The rockets, fired from around the village of Haddatha and, further north, from the banks of the Litani river, are beginning to figure prominently in the 7.30am briefings of the UN battalions in southern Lebanon, along with daily reports of mortar assaults and company-sized Hizbollah attacks against the Israelis and their South Lebanon Army allies. Last week, an Israeli major was killed in southern Lebanon and three of his men wounded. Two of Israel's proxy militiamen died at the weekend.
The renewed Hizbollah offensive against the Israeli occupation army coincided with the start of the last round of Middle East peace talks in Washington, but it is acquiring a momentum all of its own. At one point last week, so much gunfire was smashing into the village of Bradchit that the Irish battalion's 'C' company had to run to their bunkers three times in a day. In Haddatha, a two-minute missile and heavy machine-gun attack by the Hizbollah against the Israeli compound on the hill above the village provoked a 75-minute barrage of tank shells and bullets from the Israeli position, sending a round through the local UN headquarters that narrowly missed the head of an Irish officer.
Time was, of course, when all these scruffy Shia villages were firmly in the hands of the nationalist Shia Amal militia, a situation in which the UN soldiers felt far more comfortable. But as Amal declines into little more than a political party, Hizbollah is rapidly taking over the villages, treating the UN with a mixture of indifference and contempt.
Filming the wreckage of the house in Bradchit last week, it took just three minutes for a Hizbollah official to turn up in the village square and order the television crew with me to stop work. 'We regard the UN as a total failure,' he said. 'They are the same as all the world bodies - they support Israel.'
After a polite five-minute discussion, he conceded our right to film a shell-smashed minaret but objected to pictures of a damaged villa and a grocery shop plastered with posters of Abbas Moussawi, the Hizbollah leader assassinated by the Israelis last year. When an Irish UN corporal tried to take a snapshot of the square, his film was seized.
It is, as it has been for the past 18 years, a nasty little war in southern Lebanon. The Israelis might withdraw to their border after a peace agreement but Hizbollah, who have no time for treaties with Israel, are content to make Israel's occupation troops and its SLA allies bleed in the meantime. Since the new Sagger missiles could not have been brought into Lebanon without Syrian assistance, Damascus is clearly encouraging the attacks; something it would never do if the Hizbollah were to suggest a raid or two across the Syrian frontier into occupied Golan.
Which is why Capt Connors and his men have been watching the Hizbollah on those new motorcycles. Within two minutes of a missile attack on the Israelis, the Party of God can now escape through the orchards and the narrow streets of Eit es-Zut, leaving the villagers to face Israel's retaliation. Most families have already abandoned their homes on the southern side of the hamlet, leaving only an elderly couple in a cottage among the olive orchard, a tiny white flag tied to their roof. 'When the last Israeli shells were fired, they blew an old man off his donkey down the lane,' Capt Connors recalled. 'That's why there are branches and leaves all over the road. His donkey was killed by the second shell but we heard the man pleading for help and rescued him. He says he'll never - ever - go back to his fields.'Reuse content