UN mission to Lebanon descends into farce on border

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If you want to take a look at the most preposterous military operation in recent UN history, you have to drive for three miles through a minefield and the old Israeli border fence, head up an Israeli-built frontier highway to an Israeli crossroads and turn left.

If you want to take a look at the most preposterous military operation in recent UN history, you have to drive for three miles through a minefield and the old Israeli border fence, head up an Israeli-built frontier highway to an Israeli crossroads and turn left.

Just in front, you will observe two Israeli Magash tanks - improved versions of American M-60s but poorly maintained - and a UN armoured vehicle with a captain from Limerick standing beside it. He believes he is standing on the "Blue Line", the original Palestine-Lebanon border. The Israeli soldier three metres away thinks he is standing on the Israeli frontier. I wonder about the nature of sanity.

The deployment of more than 700 UN soldiers to the Lebanese-Israeli border has turned the peace-keepers into a frontier force, cheek-by-jowl - or "co-located" as one of my favourite UN-speaks would have it, with the Israelis.

At BP (Border Post) 18, the Israelis dismantled their old earth berm when an Irish UN platoon arrived; and the Irish immediately produced an earth-mover to build another, identical berm at exactly the same spot. The Irish platoon commander may, if he wishes, speak to Lieutenant Tal, his opposite number in the Israeli army, by phone. Lieut Tal is actually sitting 20ft from the Irishman.

Even more incredible, the location of the eight UN positions on the "Blue Line" - the UN's version of the frontier - appear to have been decided by senior officers of the Lebanese army rather than by the UN command. Only by, in effect, taking orders from the Lebanese could the UN prove that the Israelis had ended their border infringements - and persuade the Beirut government to allow the UN deployment.

A few Fijian, Finnish and Ghanaian platoons have turned up in the territory from which the Israelis retreated in May but they have no checkpoints and appear to have only observer status. That, at least, is what Manar television - the TV service of the Hizbollah guerrilla army - has been telling its viewers.

The Israelis certainly gobbled up plenty of Lebanese land in their 22 years in Lebanon. At Yaroun, they clearly thought that the UN - and the Lebanese - would not notice they had moved their frontier wire and road 150 metres into Lebanon.

When I turned up there, Israeli engineers were working to build an entirely "new" Israeli frontier on the southern side of a hill; obviously unprepared for the UN's arrival (and its 1923 maps), the Israelis had done no planning to "move" the border fence. They thought they would get away with it.

But cynicism works both ways in southern Lebanon. The Lebanese defence minister, Michel Murr, has announced the deployment of 700 Lebanese troops to the south today; but they will not patrol their own frontier. And if the Lebanese authorities don't want their soldiers on the border, that means the Syrians don't want them there.

Why not? To leave the UN to do the dirty work and get the blame if Palestinian guerrillas - in the aftermath of the Camp David collapse - try to cross the Israeli border? To keep the Lebanese soldiers out of harm's way? And, if a Palestinian group decides to launch an attack on an Israeli frontier position, what happens to the UN troops "co-located" there?

At Yaroun, 32 Irish troops eat, sleep and peer through binoculars next to a platoon of Israeli soldiers, obligingly telling Lieut Tal when they plan to patrol the "Blue Line". The line is not really painted blue - as they used to be in Lebanon - but follows a series of pink posts and little UN flags that wander through piles of earth and debris up to a hill behind an Israeli cement factory. They are based on 38 Anglo-French border posts of which only six have survived.

"We hope," one of the UN men said grimly, "that anyone who thinks of firing up here can see the difference between the Israeli flag and the UN flag."

From the Lebanese wadi below, that isn't possible. It took me half an hour to drive the stone track to the border - at one point my driver and I had to gather stones and re-lay the ancient road to keep our car moving - where we were faced with a minefield on each side. The track in front had been cleared by Polish UN engineers (in some cases, by hand).

Once we were on the Israeli-made frontier road, its white line and electrified fencing and Hebrew road signs intact, we were - according to the UN - still inside Lebanon. Overhead clattered a UN helicopter with Lebanese officers aboard; checking the Israelis werereally on the southern side of the "Blue Line". From most of the wadi, you couldn't see the UN flag, just a clutch of Israeli radio masts.

Historians will enjoy this little scenario; how the Lebanese deployed the UN as a frontier force to live next to the Israelis. Maybe light opera is nearer the mark. When constabulary duty's to be done, the UN's lot is not a happy one.

* Israel's Chief Rabbinical Council avoided debate yesterday on a controversial plan to build a synagogue in Jerusal- em near Islam's third holiest shrine. Instead, a committee will be set up "to examine all the ways to realise our rights and sovereignty over the Temple Mount". Observers say the idea is now on the back burner.

The Temple Mount is where Jews believe the first and second biblical temples stood. It is also, as al-Haram al-Sharif, the Muslim "Noble Sanctuary", which includes the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques.

Israel Radio said an unidentified cabinet minister asked the council not to discuss the proposed synagogue to avoid angering Palestinians during Middle East peace efforts.

The shrine is in Arab East Jerusalem, claimed by the Palestinians as capital of a future Palestinian state. Israel, which captured East Jerusal-em in the 1967 war, regards all of the city as its "eternal andindivisible" capital.