‘Falling out’ with Israel over the safety of Irish soldiers in Lebanon

Newly released files show tensions flared between the Irish government and Israel over the safety of Irish troops serving in Lebanon on peacekeeping duty.

At a meeting between foreign affairs minister Gerry Collins and the Israeli ambassador A Argov in May 1982, the minister said one “fact” for the “falling out” of Ireland and Israel was Israeli support for Maj Saad Haddad in South Lebanon.

Haddad’s forces had been involved in incidents which had led to the deaths of Irish peacekeepers in previous years.

“The Irish people found it hard to understand why Israel should be supporting someone whose forces were harassing and sometimes shooting at Irish soldiers who were engaging in peacekeeping in Lebanon,” the file of their discussion reveals.

Irish soldiers operating under Unifil (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) had been killed in the area, while relations between Israel and Ireland had been strained for a number of years.

In 1982, then taoiseach Charles Haughey met the US ambassador and while stressing that Irish Unifil troops would remain on the ground as peacekeepers “unless something dreadful happened”, he urged the US to apply pressure on the Israelis and said Ireland would look to America to get Irish troops home “in the event of a catastrophe”.

Israel launched an invasion of Lebanon on Jun 6, 1982, with tension evident between the Israeli Defence Forces and Unifil, while in Dublin, Mr Haughey condemned the invasion.

Files show that as far back as 1976, a letter was written to then taoiseach Liam Cosgrave from within government on how the Israelis had been pressing for a resident embassy.

“We have been stalling on this as much as possible because of the security problems it could raise — not merely in its own right but because it would encourage the Arabs to seek similar resident missions here and the net effect of this could create quite a problem for us.”

Two years later, the Israelis were still raising the issue of an embassy in Ireland and by 1980 and 1981 — the latter year saw an Irish soldier in the Unifil force shot and killed — meetings were increasingly tense with then foreign affairs minister Brian Lenihan told by the Israeli ambassador in 1980 that relations between the two countries were at “a low ebb”.

In 1980, the Irish ambassador in Athens received a letter from the chairman of the Israel-Ireland Friendship League in Jerusalem, Dr David Birkhahn, whose father had worked as a dentist in Bantry for many years.

In the letter — which was passed on to Dublin and which illicited an official government response — Dr Birkhahn expressed “consternation and indignation” that Brian Lenihan, as foreign affairs minister, had recognised Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

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