Why are there so few answers to Irish peacekeeper’s murder in Lebanon? - analysis

Since the attack, there has been a tendency in major media outlets, including in Lebanon, to either downplay the incident or push a “wait and see” narrative.

 A UNIFIL peacekeeper stands next to a UN vehicle in southern Lebanon, in April (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
A UNIFIL peacekeeper stands next to a UN vehicle in southern Lebanon, in April
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)

The murder of Irish UN peacekeeper Seán Rooney, 24, in Lebanon last Wednesday is a significant escalation against the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Rooney and his fellow soldiers, there were claims that the incident lacked clarity. A week after the attack, many questions remain.

Since the attack, there has been a tendency in major media outlets, including in Lebanon, to either downplay the incident or push a “wait and see” narrative, one that would give the perpetrators time to escape. And the only way that could transpire is if Hezbollah is somehow involved.

Irish leader Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has expressed his confidence in the ongoing investigations to determine what happened in Lebanon and why an Irish soldier was killed.

“It’s important that we do that. It’s also important that we avoid any speculation, I think at this point, until those investigations are done,” he said. The Irish, the UN and Lebanon are all investigating.

A PEACEKEEPER of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) stands at a lookout point in the village of Adaisseh near the Lebanese-Israeli border. (credit: REUTERS/KARAMALLAH DAHER)A PEACEKEEPER of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) stands at a lookout point in the village of Adaisseh near the Lebanese-Israeli border. (credit: REUTERS/KARAMALLAH DAHER)

This week, Rooney’s body was returned to Ireland from Beirut on an Air Corps plane that refueled in Malta, according to reports. Rooney was a member of the Irish Defense Forces from northwestern Ireland’s County Donegal.

According to the Irish Mirror, “His colleague, Private Shane Kearney, from Killeagh in Co. Cork, was seriously injured in the incident and he remains in a serious condition in hospital.” Two other members were injured as well. They were members of the 121st Infantry Battalion, which has been serving in Lebanon since November.

Similar major incidents that took place in Lebanon have gone unpunished for years, meaning there is usually impunity for perpetrators.

This includes the impunity for those who assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, and those whose incompetence led to the deadly Beirut Port explosion in 2020. Usually in Lebanon, if the perpetrators belong to Hezbollah, there is no chance the government will do anything. Considering the lack of outcry in Lebanon, it stands to reason that Hezbollah, or those who Hezbollah are likely to help may be behind the attack.

The attack on the UN peacekeepers was extreme. It does not appear to have been an ordinary accident. People don’t usually spray a vehicle with gunfire and then hunt down the occupants, shoot at their windows and then shoot one dead.

Here’s what we know: The UN vehicle was part of a two-vehicle convoy en route to Beirut. At 9 p.m. on Wednesday night, it deviated from an approved – and usual – route and separated from the other vehicle. Both vehicles had four peacekeepers in them.

Perhaps it was a wrong turn

IT WAS supposed to be a two-and-a-half-hour drive. The convoy was driving two men who were returning to Ireland on compassionate or bereavement leave. Since the unit was new to the area and it was nighttime, it is possible they simply made a wrong turn.

Reports said the convoy was surrounded by a mob and fired upon. Seven bullets were recovered from the vehicle in which Rooney was killed.

The vehicle was overturned after it sped away from the area while being shot at. It’s not clear how it became overturned; whether it hit something and slid down an embankment or if a mob was subsequently involved in pushing it over. Videos posted online show one of the soldiers outside the vehicle after the incident.

The vehicle was armored and the glass was bulletproof. It appears the shooters tried to shoot out the windows and targeted each soldier individually. The perpetrators were only able to get in through the back of the vehicle, after which they shot Rooney from the rear.

UNIFIL coordinates its movements with Lebanese authorities, including the army. Hezbollah has denied responsibility for the attack, portraying it as an “unintended” incident between the Irish unit and the people of the village of Al Aqabiya.

It is not clear the degree to which Hezbollah controls the village, however, some reports portray it as a Hezbollah-controlled area and claim that when the vehicle deviated from its usual route, it was followed.

Lebanon24 reported that Hezbollah and the Amal movement have influence in the village. Pro-Hezbollah Arabic media described how the UN convoy clashed with local residents, even hitting them with the car and sparking a riot. One pro-Hezbollah commentator on Al Mayadeen TV said the UN was “hiding something.” Another claimed that there have been increased tensions in recent months between villagers and UN forces, with locals not wanting the UN to enter. Could the “locals” have been manifestations of Hezbollah?

Anti-Hezbollah Lebanese voices expressed a different view.

One such voice wrote in an article, “What happened in Al Aqabiya was not an act of chance or a disagreement over passage. Whoever fired the shots was not a ‘villager’ angry at ‘strangers’ coming through, but rather a professional killer carrying orders to open fire.”

This was a murderous warning from Hezbollah. What was the message? To keep the UN from expanding its mandate? To make sure UN vehicles only pass where they have coordinated, so that Hezbollah’s actions are never seen?

The murder of publisher Lokman Slim

OTHER ACCOUNTS critical of Hezbollah have drawn parallels between the lack of a quick investigation of this incident and the killing of Hariri and the murder of Lebanese Shi’ite publisher Lokman Slim.

“The official police cannot investigate or arrest,” one article noted. Another noted that Lebanese security forces or intelligence services did not go to the village quickly, asserting that this is because they will not go to Hezbollah-occupied areas without permission. One report did say that the authorities requested security camera footage.

An article at Aliwaa.com argued that the root of the problem is that Lebanon doesn’t have a new government or president, and that it only has an acting prime minister. This is convenient for Lebanese authorities because they can pretend a failed investigation shouldn’t result in any sanctions, since they have no government.

What are some of the remaining questions?

The vehicles were traveling north and were only a few kilometers away from Sidon, via route 51. The village is on the route, and it is not clear if the vehicles had already turned off from the road or drove on toward the village.

It doesn’t seem reasonable that an ambush was waiting for the vehicles, because the perpetrators would have no way of knowing that they would deviate from their path. Instead, it is more likely that the shooters were made ready as the convoy was followed.

While only seven bullets were found, it seems that more shots were fired. The extreme nature of the shooting seems to show that this wasn’t a case of an angry crowd. Why would a crowd be so sensitive to a UN vehicle driving through their area?

This is an area known for fishing, and there is a nearby port and hotel. A coastal road leads to nice restaurants and guesthouses and various small fishing villages and beaches. Therefore, it is unlikely that the village has never seen vehicles from other places.

In addition, it was late at night, when locals would not likely be out during the late fall. It seems that to get a “mob” together to stop the vehicle, someone had to warn and prepare them.

This would point to something that is far from spontaneous. The presence of weapons shows that someone targeted the vehicle. It was obviously a UN convoy, so everyone would have known what they were doing when they shot at the soldiers and eventually pried their way in to shoot them at close range.