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Maj.-Gen. Claudio Graziano of Italy formally took over command of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon on Friday amid hopes within the IDF that he would lead an aggressive approach and curb Hizbullah's military buildup in southern Lebanon.
Graziano, who was selected by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this month, succeeds Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini of France, who has led the UN force, known as UNIFIL, since 2004 and headed the operation during the Lebanon war this past summer. Defense officials expressed satisfaction with the change of command, stressing that the Italian armed forces were known for their high-level of professionalism in running peacekeeping missions.
While IDF Military Intelligence has warned in recent months of the possibility of a renewed conflict against Hizbullah in the summer, the assumption within the Italian defense establishment is that the guerrilla group cannot succeed in launching attacks against Israel due to the size of UNIFIL. The number of UNIFIL peacekeepers rose last week above 12,000 following the arrival of a 184-strong contingent of soldiers from Qatar.
"It will be very difficult for Hizbullah to launch attacks against Israel with such a large force spread out throughout southern Lebanon," a senior foreign diplomat told The Jerusalem Post.
Graziano is scheduled to meet with OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot in the coming week.
Pellegrini, whose term as commander was known for the tense relationship between the IDF and UNIFIL, used the occasion of the change-of-command ceremony on Friday to once again blast Israel for the continuation of IAF overflights in Lebanon. "They are continuing [overflights]on a daily basis," Pellegrini told Europe 1 radio. " ... Sometimes there are five or six a day." In response, sources in the Northern Command claimed that the overflights were necessary to collect intelligence on the Hizbullah buildup in Lebanon and the non-stop smuggling of arms from Syria into Lebanon.
"I leave with the conviction that we have together laid new foundations for a solid and, I hope, lasting stability," Pellegrini said at the ceremony held at UNIFIL headquarters in the southern Lebanese coastal town of Nakoura.
Graziano, who arrived in Lebanon last Monday, is an infantry officer trained in mountain warfare and airborne operations and has served in Mozambique and Afghanistan. He has been deputy chief of staff for operations at Italy's Joint Operations Headquarters since March 2006. He will head the Lebanon operation for the coming year.
"I am taking command of a well established and strong mission that is in good shape," said Graziano. "UNIFIL has in recent months successfully transformed itself to meet new challenges and is ready to face them. I pay fulsome tribute to Major-General Pellegrini for his leadership."
AP contributed to this report.