'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 were a bunker [system], we would have found it' - Maj.-Gen. Claudio Graziano When Maj.-Gen. Claudio Graziano arrived at United Nations headquarters in New York in January to receive his deployment orders, he was told by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that he was about to become one of the most influential people in the world. Six months later and with Katyushas once again falling in Kiryat Shmona, Graziano, commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), knows that Ban was right.
Graziano Q & A
Israel's eye in the sky
While almost a year has passed since Hizbullah's abduction of IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser and the eruption of the Second Lebanon War, Israel's northern front appears to be once again on the brink of conflict.
The June 17 attack is proof of that. While Hizbullah has denied involvement in the Katyusha rocket fire, the attack shows that southern Lebanon is still home to a number of armed groups, some Palestinian and affiliated with al-Qaida. One wrong move could easily escalate into a full-fledged war and a repeat of last summer.
It is up to Graziano, as commander of the UNIFIL peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, to prevent that from happening.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post ahead of the war's first anniversary, Graziano dismisses Israeli claims that Hizbullah has returned to its former strength in southern Lebanon, and declares that if UNIFIL's peacekeeping mission continues, the threat of war could be completely removed from the region within two to three years.
A cordial man, Graziano conducts the interview in English - a language in which he became fluent during his year studying in the US and his years of peacekeeping service, most recently in Afghanistan. He speaks quickly, but he watches every word and is aware that in a sensitive position like his, the wrong quote or remark could destabilize the fragile relationship he is trying to forge with Israel and Lebanon.
Graziano arrives at the interview accompanied by a large group of staff - some in uniform and others dressed in civilian clothes - as well as a number of bodyguards.
WHEN GRAZIANO'S appointment was announced in January, it was warmly received at Northern Command headquarters in Safed. Graziano was a former classmate of OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot from their days together as young officers studying at the United States Army War College in Carlisle. In addition to the past friendship, the IDF was more satisfied with the decision to transfer command over UNIFIL from France to Italy, one of Israel's closest allies in the European Union.
Rome's decision to accept command over UNIFIL was a further effort by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi to enhance his country's involvement in the region. Italy is already in command of the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), which was in charge of the Rafah Crossing until Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip.
Graziano, 53, also came to the job with a strong peacekeeping background. A commissioned infantry officer in the Italian Armed Forces since 1974, Graziano was a commander in a peacekeeping operation in Mozambique in 1992 and was Commander of the Kabul Multinational Brigade in Afghanistan until February 2006.
While he wears a camouflaged military uniform with UNIFIL's trademark blue beret, Graziano is more than just a military commander, often playing the role of a diplomat in a war-torn region. As the UN's representative in southern Lebanon, Graziano chairs monthly tripartite meetings between the IDF and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) at UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura - essentially the only platform for talks between the two countries.
Besides the routine dialogue, two major issues are currently on Graziano's agenda to ensure the complete implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 33 days of fighting last summer. The first is the persistence of IAF overflights, which Graziano says occur daily over Lebanon. The flights are a source of indignation for the UN, which believes that Israel is undermining UNIFIL's credibility by violating Lebanese airspace. The second issue is the continued IDF presence in the northern part of Ghajar - a village cut down the middle by the Blue Line border.
"He is a professional military officer and peacekeeper," a senior IDF officer said recently of Graziano. "He takes the job seriously and believes in his mission - and most importantly, he leaves politics on the side."
Such compliments were not heard a year ago when Graziano's predecessor, France's Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini, held the post. Pellegrini, the IDF believed, was anti-Israel, and his comments infuriated Jerusalem on several occasions during his three years in the position. One of his last comments before leaving office was that UNIFIL was allowed to shoot down IAF jets patrolling Lebanese skies.
Graziano quickly admits that his current mission with UNIFIL is vastly different from any other peacekeeping mission in the world. Unlike in Afghanistan, where the coalition forces have been trying to simultaneously maintain security and rebuild the country and its government, Graziano's clearly-defined mission in Lebanon is to preserve stability in the limited region of the country's South.
Graziano knows that what happens in southern Lebanon radiates outward through the entire region, and last summer's bombardment of Beirut proved that Israel's response to Hizbullah attacks and provocations would not remain limited to the 1,100 square kilometers between the Blue Line international Israeli-Lebanese border and the Litani River.
Graziano takes his job seriously. Unlike Pellegrini, with whom the IDF never really got along, Graziano travels to Israel on a sometimes weekly basis aboard a UN-marked helicopter that flies him from Naqoura in Lebanon - right next to Rosh Hanikra - straight to Sde Dov Airport in northern Tel Aviv. There he is met by IDF liaison officers, who escort him to his meetings at the Kirya military headquarters.
He has also taken a keen interest in Jewish and Israeli history. He used Ki-moon's March visit to Israel and an event at the President's Residence in Jerusalem as an opportunity to pay a quick visit to the Old City, where he was given a tour of the Western Wall. He says he would very much like to visit Jerusalem again, but notes that Tel Aviv appears to be a more casual and laid-back city.
SINCE THE Second Lebanon War, the IDF has gradually begun granting more importance to the multinational forces deployed along Israel's borders. There is the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in Syria, UNIFIL in southern Lebanon, the Multi-National Force and Observers in the Sinai Desert, and the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) at the Rafah Crossing in the Gaza Strip.
The outcome of the Lebanon war last summer, as well as Israel's heavy reliance on UNIFIL to prevent Hizbullah from returning to its former borderline outposts, has created a new understanding within the IDF: Better to work with the foreign forces than to work against them.
As a result, the IDF has upgraded talks with UNIFIL and particularly with Graziano, who is invited for weekly high-level meetings with senior IDF officers, including his old classmate Eizenkot and head of Strategic Planning Brig.-Gen. Udi Dekel. The Northern Command has also beefed up its strategic liaison office, now headed by Lt.-Col. Sorrel Hershkowitz and his two deputies, who are fluent respectively in English and French.
Graziano tries to downplay the new and close relationship with the IDF and says that his previous relationship with Eizenkot does not affect his work. But he admits that he was flattered when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert quoted him in a speech at the Knesset earlier this month, in which the prime minister defended the outcome of the war.
"I remain a friend to Gen. Eizenkot, just like I am friends with Gen. Abdul Altani, minister of defense in Qatar, as well as with officers from Saudi Arabia," he says diplomatically. "I have the same level of relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the IDFâ€¦ [T]he good thing about the UN is the universality. Israel belongs to the UN, as does Lebanon. We are not speaking about opposite countries, but when I speak at the table, everyone belongs to the UN."
WHILE ISRAEL is generally satisfied with UNIFIL's conduct - senior IDF officers claim that the European contingents take their jobs seriously and have found large numbers of weapons caches - defense officials have claimed in recent weeks that Hizbullah has returned to its former level of strength.
Two weeks ago, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said in an interview with the Post that Hizbullah had, since the war, created a "double grip" on both sides of the Litani, rebuilding its infrastructure to the level it boasted before the war last July."They [Hizbullah guerrillas] don't walk around southern Lebanon in the open with the weapons, but rather are limited to ... urban areas that the LAF and UNIFIL do not enter," Mofaz said. He added that Hizbullah had also recreated its infamous "forest preserves" - forest areas used for bunkers and as launch pads for the group's short-range Katyusha rockets, 4,000 of which pounded northern Israel last summer.
Mofaz was not the only one to warn about Hizbullah's rearmament in the south. On June 4, the head of Military Intelligence's research division, Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Hizbullah's weaponry was being restored by Syria, which was rapidly rebuilding its forces south of the Litani River. Despite the presence of UNIFIL peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, Hizbullah had largely rebuilt its military presence, he said.
Graziano, however, dismisses these claims and says that the guerrilla group is practically nonexistent south of the Litani. "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 were a bunker [system], we would have found it."
If Israel were to transfer intelligence on Hizbullah positions to UNIFIL, he would immediately send forces to inspect, he added.
"If we receive indication, we work to prevent hostile activities, but there is no evidence of any rearmament happening in southern Lebanon," he says. "There is no one going around southern Lebanon with weapons - and if we did see someone, even a hunter, then they would be arrested."
In an attempt to explain the discrepancy between Graziano's remarks and Israeli assessments, the former deputy head of the National Security Council, Brig.-Gen. Shlomo Brom, suggests, "The IDF could be talking about 'terror infrastructure,' which usually refers to people who are planning something and have weapons, even if they can't be seen." Brom is currently a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "Graziano talks about what is going on above ground, and we should take what he says seriously since if he doesn't see forest preserves, then they must not be there."
The Northern Command is less sympathetic than Brom. One high-ranking officer, involved in the coordination between the IDF, UNIFIL and the LAF, demanded this week that the peacekeeping force do more to prevent Hizbullah from rearming. He cited Sunday's Katyusha attack on Kiryat Shmona as proof of IDF claims in recent months that weapons and arms were flowing freely into southern Lebanon and were not being stopped by the UN force.
"Our claims to UNIFIL and the LAF that weapons have been smuggled into Lebanon have turned out to be true," the senior officer told the Post. "We expect UNIFIL to fulfill their mandate and the LAF to take responsibility over what is happening in southern Lebanon."
According to the IDF, UNIFIL's mandate grants it more than enough authority and "teeth" to get the job done. While the mandate is not a Chapter 7, which allows ensuring peace through the use of force, the mandate is also not exactly a Chapter 6 - the type of mandate UNDOF in Syria has - which allows the forces to only "observe and monitor."
"UNIFIL has a Chapter 6.5 mandate, and while they are not a full-blown Chapter 7, they have the ability to confront hostile activity," Hebrew University Professor Efrat Elron explains. "They don't have to wait to be attacked before using force."
WHEN IT comes to Lebanon, Israel has greater concerns than a couple of rockets like those fired into Kiryat Shmona on Sunday. Looking to Hamas's takeover in the Gaza Strip as an example, senior defense officials noted this week that it was possible that Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah would want to duplicate the Palestinian model in Lebanon and attempt a military coup to overthrow the US-backed government of moderate Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
Sunday's rocket attack came at a bad time for Saniora, whose army has been busy trying, so far without much success, to stop the Fatah al-Islam terror group at the Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli. The Katyusha fire was just another example of how fragile the situation in Lebanon really is and how the LAF is essentially powerless in the face of the large number of terror and guerrilla groups that roam freely throughout Lebanon, particularly in the South.
To complicate matters, Hizbullah's eight-month political standoff with Saniora has yet to be resolved. In November, Hizbullah held massive demonstrations in Beirut against the prime minister, and it demanded a national unity government and the opportunity to have veto power from within the cabinet. While Saniora has not yet caved in to the pressure, analysts in Israel have said it is possible he eventually will, and that if he doesn't, Nasrallah may try to topple the government militarily. If that happens, UNIFIL's days could be numbered, and Hizbullah would have the ability to revoke Lebanon's approval of the peacekeeping force deployed in the south.
With this possibility in the backdrop, Graziano says that UNIFIL is prepared to continue operating in Lebanon even in the case of a political vacuum. However, he says, "we hope that the situation can be solved, and we trust that the Lebanese Armed Forces will do well."
Overall, he believes that the only way to really prevent another conflict is to allow UNIFIL to retain its presence and to continue operating in southern Lebanon alongside the LAF. Citing UN operations in Bosnia as an example, he says that peace operations begun there in 1993 were only now winding down.
"Our mandate is to establish an area of security where no threat of war can rise again," he explains. "I think we are doing our job, but of course â€¦ we need international support and good cooperation from the parties, since a peacekeeping mission can only win if there is good cooperation from all the parties involved."
The possibility of another war this summer is unlikely, he adds. Hizbullah, he says, does not seem interested, but is instead busy rehabilitating itself after the losses it sustained last summer.
"It is a little bit speculation and a little bit political, but I don't think that they [Hizbullah] 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."
Brom agrees, but qualifies with, "If the Iranian issue reaches a boiling point and they are attacked by the US or Israel, then Iran could ask Hizbullah to get involved."
As a testament to the way Graziano envisions his mission, perhaps, are his remarks that his men believe strongly enough in their mission of preventing hostilities in southern Lebanon that they are 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."