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Dismissing claims that Hizbullah has returned to its former strength in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL commander Maj.-Gen. Claudio Graziano told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview on Thursday that the guerrilla group was practically non-existent south of the Litani River and that if the peacekeeping mission continued, the threat of war would be completely removed within three years.
Visiting Tel Aviv for meetings with IDF officers, Graziano, an Italian general appointed commander of UNIFIL in February, told The Post that his men believed in their mission of preventing hostilities in southern Lebanon and were willing to sacrifice their lives on Israel's behalf.
"Our job is to defend peace and it is a value-based job for soldiers," he explained. "There are people who will offer their lives for higher values like peace, security and stability."
Graziano's claim that Hizbullah had not rearmed itself or rebuilt its military infrastructure in southern Lebanon came a week after Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz told The Post that the guerrilla group was back at its former strength particularly inside southern Lebanese urban areas as well as forest preserves.
He also rejected news reports that Hizbullah had built up a new bunker system nearby UNIFIL positions. Graziano said that UNIFIL - made up of over 13,000 soldiers - conducts over 400 patrols daily and mans close to 200 observation posts throughout the area of operations which is 1,100 square kilometers from the Litani River in the north to the Blue Line border in the south.
"In my area of operations there is no open hostile activity and we also do not see a rearmament happening," he said. "We are physically patrolling every corner of southern Lebanon and if there was a bunker [system] we would have found it."
Turning to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's difficulty in quelling Fatah al-Islam in Palestinian refugee camps, Graziano said that UNIFIL was prepared to continue operating in Lebanon even in the case of a political vacuum.
"I think that we are ready to work in a situation that can sometimes be a political vacuum," he said. "We hope that the situation can be solved and we trust that the Lebanese Armed forces will do well."
Slamming Israeli policy to continue flying drones and fighter jets over Lebanon, Graziano said that flights undermined UNIFIL's efforts to maintain order as well as Siniora's government which was trying to demonstrate its rule.
He also said that Hizbullah was not interested in initiating a new war with Israel.
"It is a little bit speculation and a little bit political but I don't think that they have an interest at the moment in running any kind of incident or hostile activity in the south," he said. "Maybe they are involved in the political process and in Beirut business but at the moment I don't see [them doing anything] in southern Lebanon."
The full interview with Graziano will appear in next Friday's Upfront magazine.
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