Gauge of Mideast tensions on Lebanon's border with Israel

From this UN border post, the sleek lines of two Israeli Merkava tanks 500 yards to the south are barely visible through the shimmering midday haze.

Indian soldiers serving a yearlong tour with the UN Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) keep close watch on this volatile stretch of the Blue Line, the UN's name for Lebanon's southern frontier, ever mindful that the tranquil scene could erupt into violence without warning.

When Israeli troops withdrew from an occupied strip of south Lebanon in May 2000, it appeared that UNIFIL's 26-year tenure was coming to an end. But the collapse of the Middle East peace process and the tension from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have persuaded the UN Security Council to prolong the mission's existence.

The Council recently renewed UNIFIL's mandate for another six-month period. In his report on UNIFIL, UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan warned that "considerable risk remains that hostile acts will escalate and lead the parties into conflict."

The Blue Line is a barometer of broader Middle East tension. When Ahmad Yassin, a senior official of the Palestinian Hamas movement, was assassinated in March in Gaza, Lebanese Hizbullah fighters shelled Israeli border posts. When Israeli jets bombed an old Palestinian training camp near Damascus last year, retaliation came along the Lebanon-Israel border with a Hizbullah sniper killing an Israeli soldier.

"Heightened tension in the region sees heightened tension along the border," says Milos Strugar, UNIFIL's senior adviser. "We are the eyes and ears of the UN and the international community."

The Indian battalion's 4-28 position sits in a grassy plain flanked to the east by mountain peaks of the Shebaa Farms and the rolling hills of the Golan Heights. The Shebaa Farms is a strip of mountainside occupied by Israeli troops and claimed by Lebanon.

The last bout of violence was in July when Hizbullah and Israeli forces exchanged fire across the Blue Line. Two Israeli soldiers and a Hizbullah fighter were killed. It's during these tit-for-tat incidents, with neither side usually willing to back down, that UNIFIL's role as an intermediary is appreciated.

"We are becoming increasingly important and vital in liaison," Mr. Strugar says. "It's perhaps the most important role we have now, preventing incidents from getting out of control."

Although it comprises 2,000 armed soldiers drawn from seven countries, UNIFIL is unable to intervene directly with the parties on the ground. UNIFIL is in Lebanon at the request of the Lebanese government. It is therefore obliged to respect the policies of Beirut, even if those contradict the mission's peacekeeping efforts, such as sanctioning Hizbullah attacks in the Shebaa Farms.

On the edge of the Shebaa Farms, 3,000 feet above the sweltering plain, clouds descend over the limestone mountain peaks, smothering an Israeli outpost. Another Israeli position a few hundred yards away looks ghostly in the fog banks.

"We generally see no movement by the Israelis or Hizbullah. We know Hizbullah is in the hills around here but they don't show themselves," says Maj. Ajay Kothiyal, whose company patrols the edge of the Shebaa Farms.

The absence of regular conflict means that the busiest member of the 650-strong Indian battalion is Maj. K.B. Mrityjunjaya, a veterinarian. In the seven months since the battalion arrived in Lebanon, Major Mrityjunjaya has treated 24,000 animals.

"My phone never stops ringing," he says, struggling with an uncooperative sick cow. The Indian battalion also holds medical and dental clinics.

Although UNIFIL is appreciated by villagers in south Lebanon (it adds $35.7 million to the local market each year), the force will not remain forever.

Beirut has irritated the UN and the international community by refusing to deploy troops to the border. Its claim that Lebanon cannot serve as Israel's "border guards" in the absence of regional peace has gotten little sympathy from the UN.

"The Lebanese government uses UNIFIL's presence ... as an excuse not to deploy their own forces," a Beirut-based diplomat says. "We can't baby the Lebanese forever. Sooner or later they will have to take responsibility for the border themselves."

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