Peace-keepers walk the thin blue line

Robert Fisk joins a Norwegian UN patrol in Bourhoz, southern Lebanon
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The Independent Online
"Martini please, Bob - shaken, not stirred." Wicked laughter comes from the Norwegian rifle squad's 1st platoon. Second Lieutenant Vidar "Sims" Simensen, lazing in his deck-chair in the morning sunshine on the mortar platform, looks uncannily like the young Sean Connery - and The Independent's man in southern Lebanon clearly qualifies as a mere honorary private. Only cola, lemon juice and milk is stored in the platoon fridge at United Nations Observation Post 4-27; but Elias Khoury, the local Maronite grocer, runs a makeshift restaurant up the road. The platoon has a two- way phone link to his "Hard Rock Cafe" so that pizzas can be delivered door-to-door. Tough life, I'm thinking, these UN guys have.

But then there's the little matter of the gun position on the hill above - De Facto Forces Position N329 on the UN maps - which just happens to be the most attacked Israeli compound in the Norwegian battalion's UN area, overrun last year by 70 Hizbollah fighters who crept up the cliffs of the Litani river valley and stormed into the artillery battery under mortar and rocket fire. Last time the guerrillas took a shot at N329, one of their Katyushas shrieked over Sims and his men and exploded in a nearby field. The Norwegians prefer mortars. "The Israelis and the armed elements [Hizbollah] are very good at firing mortars," Sims says. "We're happy about that - because it means they don't hit us."

Through the "binos" on top of 1st Platoon's observation tower, I can see a T-54 tank standing beneath an earth revetment. And across the valley to the east, four 155mm gun barrels - pale grey in the morning heat - bristle from another fortress of concrete and earth. Israel's fruitless, hopeless war against the Hizbollah - who have been struggling against the 2,000-strong Israeli occupation force and its South Lebanon Army militia allies here for 13 years - is set amid breath-taking scenery of parched wadis and mountain ridges, of gentle olive groves and wind-thrashed cliffs above the Litani river.

Sims calls a platoon briefing. I will be put on the day march before being allowed on a night patrol above the Hizbollah's infiltration paths. The men sip juice as Sims uses a coloured marker to draw a map on the back of a metal sheet. Roger Nikolaisen, at 33 the oldest in the platoon, sports a stunning tattoo of a naked blonde on his right arm, a relic of his days as a merchant seaman which bestowed upon him marriage and divorce and the maintenance of two children. Gunnar Schanke, bespectacled, an ex-security guard from Stavanger, has a crew-cut so short the platoon say his head is their emergency heli-pad. Morton Haagenstad, a 23-year- old car mechanic from Trondheim, is waiting for his 36-year old girlfriend to arrive on holiday in Beirut with her two children.

"We'll walk to Fort Noram and across the trail down the Blue Line, then through Bourhoz," the platoon commander says. The old South African police truck - sold to the UN and nicknamed Adolf because of its vicious associations with apartheid - takes us to a hillside of thorny bushes and grey boulders, a few of which have been splashed with pale blue paint. "You walk between these stones because we've cleared the path of mines," Sims says with Bond-like finality. "Outside the stones, you can go up in smoke." The thorns dig into the fabric of my army boots and tear at my trousers. The sun burns into our flak jackets until dark stains move across our shirts. I watch the blue line with the dedication of a rat.

"They say when the Hizbollah bodies are found, that they've all been wired up," Sims is muttering ahead of me. "They want to take their enemies with them after death. So motto number one: Never touch a dead Hizbollah."

The powerful, vital folk-lore of guerrilla warfare comes in bits and pieces as we pat the insects off our clothes.

"They use fake rocks as bombs now. We've found half a mobile phone in one of them - both sides use the same method. You set the thing up, take position and dial the number - BANG!" Walking slowly past a field of unexploded cluster bombs, I remember the Hamas bomber in Gaza who was assassinated by the Israelis. He picked up his mobile phone when it rang - and it blew most of his head off.

Far below us, I catch glimpses of pale green pools shaded by fir trees as the Litani froths through the gorge. We pad through the long grass to a palisade of sandbags smothered in cement, perched on a precipice of rock.

All around us on the mountain-tops are more grey forts, all manned by the Israelis or their militia allies, all waiting for an attack. More than 75 per cent of the Israeli stockades are built underground. Their artillery is fired automatically by their troglodyte defenders. Only we live on the surface of the earth, watching the insect-swarming trails.

Last year, a Norwegian night patrol was fired on by an Israeli tank just round the corner of the gorge. One of the Norwegians was hit by a fleshette shell - an artillery round containing 8,000 steel-tipped darts - and fell almost 100 feet down the mountain-side where he lay, firing 20 bullets into the air from his rifle to show his comrades he was still alive. By the time they reached him, he had bled to death.

Sims has not forgotten the incident. The heat is suffocating but he practises for an ambush, kneeling to fire across the Litani then running as Nikolaisen and Haagenstad and Schanke fire their rifles at the same distant rock, the bullets cracking over the gorge and re-echoing down the valley. For 19 years, I reflect, the Norwegians have been patrolling this terrain and guarding their acres of UN turf, for most of the time deep within Israel's occupation zone. And to what end? They have prevented the Israelis building artillery batteries inside the UN zone - but the Israelis have littered the valleys around it with their gun pits. They have, sometimes, forced the Hizbollah to turn back. They have given some measure of protection to the Christian and Druze villagers who fear both Hizbollah's brutal intrusions and the equally brutal attentions of Israel's Shin Bet secret police.

But of course, they have not stopped the war. And as if to prove it, Sims turns to me and says: "You'll come with us on the night patrol - that's when it's serious."

Netanyahu warns over rocket attacks

Jerusalem, (Reuter) - Pro-Iranian Hizbollah fighters in Lebanon rained scores of Katyusha rockets on northern Israel yesterday prompting a threat from Benjamin Netanyahu of a tough Israeli response.

"If there is no quiet on the Israeli side of the border there will not be quiet on the Lebanon side," the Prime Minister said while standing in a rocket-damaged house in Kiryat Shmona. A man was wounded in rocket attacks on the town and other parts of Israel's northern Galilee.