NAQOURA, Lebanon: The departing UNIFIL commander said Monday that while fears that the war in Gaza might extend to the Lebanese-Israeli border were legitimate, close coordination with the Lebanese Army should prevent escalation.
“We’re very concerned that the situation that is ongoing in Gaza can affect the situation in Lebanon but, on the other hand, we are working together with the Lebanese Army in order to try to avoid any escalation and any further launching of rockets [into Israel],” Maj. Gen. Paolo Serra told The Daily Star.
Unidentified militants launched salvoes of rockets from south Lebanon toward Israel on several occasions earlier this month, prompting retaliatory Israeli shelling of southern villages and augmenting tensions on a border that has generally been calm since the end of the 2006 summer war.
In an interview three days prior to handing over the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon’s command to his successor, Italian Maj. Gen. Luciano Portolano, Serra accused “rogue elements” of being behind the rocket attacks, saying they were trying to drag Lebanon into the unknown. He saluted the efforts of Lebanese security forces to track down and arrest the perpetrators.
Despite growing extremism in the region and in Lebanon, Serra maintained that the peacekeeping force was not a target.
“We are here to support the local population, therefore we are not the target of any group or terrorist organization or activity,” he said. “Though I think that in case of escalation we would be able to react and defend ourselves.”
Serra said that keeping in close contact with Lebanese southerners and listening to their needs was the key to the success of his mission here. However, he firmly denied holding any contact with Hezbollah, the leading military force in south Lebanon, throughout his 30-month tenure.
Serra explained that UNIFIL maintained a “strategic partnership” with the Lebanese Army and did not engage in any political contacts, as these fell within the role of the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly.
“When I meet with some authority on the ground – the mayor of a town, for example – the issue is not about which party stands behind him,” said the Italian commander. “I am dealing with the mayor because I know that the village needs some kind of support.”
Serra has concentrated UNIFIL’s efforts in three main areas – water, education and medical care – and described the response of local residents to humanitarian projects as “very favorable.”
“Our projects stem from the people’s needs,” he said. “UNIFIL tries to answer to the people’s demands with our means and capabilities.”
Serra’s new posting will be as military attaché to the head of Italy’s mission to the United Nations, a post he will use to continue to support the region – Lebanon in particular.
Serra said he fully trusted Portolano’s capabilities and vision for a better Lebanon.
“My advice to the incoming general was that [heading UNIFIL] is a marathon rather than a 100-meter sprint,” Serra said. “I told him that our work here is a long process and perseverance and [keeping] dialogue channels open are crucial.”
Serra underlined the importance of the meetings that UNIFIL arbitrates between the Lebanese and Israeli militaries, arguing they were essential to defusing tensions between the two sides.
“Tripartite meetings ... can really help stabilize and minimize the impact of violations,” he said.
He pointed to an incident in December when a Lebanese soldier opened fire on an Israeli patrol on the border, killing a soldier. In the immediate aftermath, the tripartite talks “helped avoid a big crisis,” he said. “This is just one small example.”
Without dialogue, Serra emphasized, any misunderstandings would be exacerbated.
“At least tripartite meetings enable both parties to draw a clear view and understanding,” he continued. “The importance of those talks is that you can disagree but you will learn about the point of view of the other side and you can build your position accordingly.”
Some things, however, cannot be talked through, and demand a political solution at a higher level.
The problematic border village of Ghajar, which has long been the subject of speculation, is one such issue.
In the wake of Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon, the northern part of the village was considered by U.N. mapmakers to be Lebanese and the southern section part of Syria’s Golan Heights, which is occupied by Israel. The two halves were dissected by the Blue Line until Israel reoccupied northern Ghajar during the 2006 summer war.
Although U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended that round of hostilities, decreed that Israel must withdraw from northern Ghajar to south of the Blue Line, Israeli troops remain stationed there eight years later.
According to Serra, all UNIFIL is able to do as a peacekeeping force is preserve calm and stability in order to pave the way for politicians to tackle the issue and solve it.
“During tripartite meetings, we have military-to-military [talks] so [the issue] is well-above the capabilities of those dealing with tripartite issues,” Serra said.
“We need some kind of political engagement. ... Otherwise the [issue of Ghajar will remain frozen] until [parties] move towards a cease-fire, or long-lasting peace, something that can instil trust between the two parties,” Serra continued. “Maybe today it’s too early.”
This phrase appears to be key to Serra’s outlook on the situation and on what can and cannot be achieved in Lebanon’s troubled south, where he believes he and his team have done well to preserve calm despite the violence grappling the region.
“It would have been very nice to bring peace and prosperity,” he said, before repeating again, “but maybe it’s too early.”