UNIFIL commander denies illegal weapons south of Litani

UNFIL's Gen. Luciano Portolano said that there is no indication that the Shebaa region is being infiltrated by jihadists from Syria.

al-monitor An Indonesian soldier from the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is seen during a snowfall in the southern Lebanese village of Adaisseh, Dec. 13, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Ali Hashisho.

Topics covered

unifil, syria, shebaa, lebanon, jihadists, israel

Jan 5, 2015

The southern border is quiet. The quiet is reflected in the civil and construction activities in the villages and towns. The quiet is only accented by party flags and pictures, which remind visitors of the complexities of the region’s political landscape, and the Lebanese army is present in force. Despite the pressure caused by the situation in Syria in the north and the Beqaa Valley, the Lebanese state still maintains visible elements of its existence here. The state’s presence is being demonstrated by the repeated visits of civilian and military Lebanese officials to the region. Joint patrols by UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) and the Lebanese army can be easily observed on the southern coast.

It is the same scene at the UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura, where officials present a stable picture of the area south of the Litani River. “UNIFIL has seen no evidence of unauthorized weapons transfers in its area of operations,” according to UNIFIL’s Italian commander, Gen. Luciano Portolano. There is also no evidence that what is happening on the northern front of Lebanon could happen in the south. Al-Nahar met Portolano in Naqoura for his first interview with the Lebanese media. Below is the text of the interview.

Al-Nahar:  What messages have you conveyed to Lebanese officials when you met them over the past two weeks?

Portolano:  The Lebanese government strongly supports UNIFIL, and Lebanon is strongly committed to UN Security Council Resolution 1701. My meetings with representatives of Lebanese institutions have concentrated on security issues, the implementation of Resolution 1701, the situation along the Blue Line and the general situation of the region that falls within our scope. The message that I received from the parliament speaker, the prime minister and the ministers of defense and interior dealt with the political part, while the army commander, Gen. Jean Kahwaji, emphasized the strong commitment of the Lebanese government to the implementation of Resolution 1701. He also expressed strong confidence in UNIFIL. In fact, we have mutual feelings in this regard. I stress and acknowledge the activities of the Lebanese armed forces, which operate in the region within the scope of our work. The Lebanese armed forces are a strategic partner for UNIFIL in implementing the tasks of our mandate.

Al-Nahar:  There is deep concern about the possibility that the smuggling route in Shebaa might turn into a new path for Jabhat al-Nusra fighters to reach Lebanon [as was the case with] Arsal. How do you comment? Can the Golan Heights scenario be repeated in Shebaa?

Portolano:  My focus is on security and stability in the south and along the Blue Line. This includes the safety of the local population, UNIFIL and its personnel. Based on my contacts with Lebanese government representatives, I have heard encouraging words. I don’t have any indication at the moment that what is happening in the north could happen in the south. The spread of the Syrian conflict is a source of concern for Lebanon as a whole as well as for UNIFIL. We are in close contact with the Lebanese armed forces and security forces and we are watching the situation in our area of operations.

Al-Nahar:  However, UN reports consistently warn about the spread of extremism in Lebanon, especially from groups like the Islamic State [IS].

Portolano:  I’m not in a position to comment on what is happening outside the region that falls within the scope of my work. It could be said that from south of the Litani River up to the Blue Line, there is no evidence of the existence of extremist or terrorist groups that would endanger the stability that now characterizes southern Lebanon.

Al-Nahar:  Is there information about sleeper cells in the camps in your area of operations?

Portolano:  We do not monitor the activities within the camps, and this is not part of our mission. We work in close coordination with the Lebanese armed forces. On the basis of the information available to date, there are no sleeper cells that could affect the stability of our [area] of operations in southern Lebanon.

Al-Nahar:  Why hasn’t the stage of a permanent cease-fire been reached yet?

Portolano:  A permanent cease-fire is the ultimate goal of Resolution 1701. In this context, we are working on a daily basis to ensure stability along the Blue Line and to maintain the cessation of hostilities. And this is one of the steps [needed] to move toward a permanent cease-fire, which must be achieved through the political process, noting that this issue is not within the purview of UNIFIL.

Al-Nahar:  Violations against the Blue Line and [UNIFIL] forces have repeatedly broken the prevailing calm, for example, the events of October 7 last year. What is the outcome of your investigation into these breaches and attacks?

Portolano:  There have been no attacks against UNIFIL recently. We work in the region that is subject to our mission, and we enjoy complete freedom of movement. Of course, there are some incidents, but the international force has a mechanism to address every violation of Resolution 1701. The focus of our investigations is to identify concrete steps that must be taken by the parties to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents in the future. The UNIFIL-affiliated investigation teams gather and check all the physical evidence and relevant information to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding the incidents. They give the investigation reports to both parties and to the United Nations headquarters. Regarding the Oct. 7 incident, our investigations are still ongoing.

Al-Nahar:  Are there weapons and armed elements between the Blue Line and the Litani River? Haven’t your investigation ended regarding that?

Portolano:  One requirement of Security Council Resolution 1701 is to prevent the deployment of any armed elements in the area of our mandate except those affiliated with UNIFIL and the Lebanese armed forces. The primary responsibility to ensure this matter belongs to the Lebanese armed forces, and UNIFIL helps the armed forces in this endeavor. Until now, UNIFIL has found no evidence of unauthorized weapons transfers in its area of operations. At the same time, incidents such as rocket fire indicate the presence of unauthorized weapons in the region. So the focus of UNIFIL remains on this task, alongside the Lebanese armed forces. And it seems clear that it is a long-term task.

Al-Nahar:  Do you mean that the relationship with Hezbollah seems quiet at present and that there is no evidence that it has weapons in the area of your operations?

Portolano:  We have no evidence of weapons belonging to any party, not just Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not my interlocutor. I deal with local institutions and leaders. On the basis of the evidence that we have, there are no weapons that would affect the stability of the region. We work closely with the Lebanese army to conduct our operations in this region in a way that prevents the entry of illegal weapons.

Al-Nahar:  Information has been published in the media that Hezbollah is seeking to acquire S-300 and Fateh missiles, which would affect the power balance in the south.

Portolano:  I can say that the scope of our operations has no proof of that.

Al-Nahar:  In recent days, there has been images of Iranian soldiers on the southern border.

Portolano:  We have no proof of that.

Al-Nahar:  What are the tripartite meetings in Naqoura focusing on right now? Why is the demarcation of the Blue Line being delayed?

Portolano:  There is no delay in the process of placing visual signs of the Blue Line. The matter is proceeding. We may sometimes find difficulties, such as the emergence or points of contention on the Blue Line or the existence of a minefield. And we are addressing these issues through bilateral and trilateral discussions to reach agreed solutions. In the tripartite meetings, we are now focusing on the security of the Blue Line. In short, I think that the tripartite meetings are a real mechanism that, in cooperation with the parties, allows us to find solutions to problems that can affect the area’s stability.

Al-Nahar:  Can you help Lebanon in delineating its maritime borders?

Portolano:  No. The matter is not part of our mandate. But UNIFIL will be ready to provide support to facilitate the activities when an agreement is reached between the parties to delineate the maritime border.

Al-Nahar:  Why has Israel has not responded until now concerning the security measures put in place in 2011 [via General Claudio Graziano] dealing with withdrawing from Ghajar?

Portolano:  In his reports, the UN secretary-general always mentions that Israel’s continued occupation of the northern part of Ghajar constitutes a breach of the Blue Line. And there is a strong appeal to the Israeli forces to withdraw from the region. Many solutions have been provided to both parties, including the initiative that I referred to in 2011. UNIFIL has proposed a solution to both parties. We received a response from the Lebanese side. And I am still following the issue with the Israelis.

Al-Nahar:  Lebanese parties have repeatedly appealed to UNIFIL to deploy on the Lebanese-Syrian border. Does your mandate allow that?

Portolano:  UNIFIL operates under Resolution 1701, which clearly sets out our missions and how they are to be conducted in our area of operations. The problems related to Lebanon and Syria do not fall within our mandate, noting that we have succeeded in maintaining security and stability in one of the most important points in the Middle East, which is in southern Lebanon.

Al-Nahar:  What about coordination with the Lebanese army and the ongoing strategic dialogue?

Portolano:  The coordination is ongoing. Whenever I get the opportunity, I acknowledge the activities of the Lebanese army in the south. I closely collaborate with the army’s commander of the southern sector of the Litani, Brig. Charbel Abou Khalil. What we seek to do on the basis of the strategic dialogue is to increase training and cooperation in various fields as well as joint activities. I am aware that the Lebanese armed forces are now focused on the north and the Beqaa, but [the army’s] presence in the south, alongside UNIFIL, is adequate to provide security.

Al-Nahar:  Defense Minister Samir Moqbel and Gen. Jean Kahwaji [chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces] visited the south a few days ago. What did your discussions focus on?

Portolano:  It was a strong message that the Lebanese government is committed to Resolution 1701. Recently, we were visited by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. The visits send a message to the local community as well as to the international community that the institutions in Beirut are also present in the south.

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