Italy’s defense minister Arturo Parisi, interviewed last week on a morning show about Hizballah’s activity in southern Lebanon, dismissed any concern about its arms smuggling. “I am not aware [of any arms smuggling],” he said, “at least not to the extent that it requires a change of behavior by the UN.”
Parisi did recognize Lebanon’s difficult situation—given the ongoing battle between the Lebanese army and Fatah-al-Islam in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, near the Syrian border, it would be hard to deny it. But he stated that the real trouble in the region stems from “actors coming from abroad and present in the Palestinian camps, whose links lead both to Sunnis and Shi’as”—and not, apparently, to Hizballah.
Parisi’s statement is baffling, in light of mounting evidence to the contrary. After all, he should know better. He is not merely the defense minister of Italy. Commanding the largest single contingent of troops in Lebanon and the UNIFIL forces in general, Parisi has access to privileged information about the situation on the ground. How, then, can one reconcile his recent statements with this one, from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon:
I have received information from Israel on arms trafficking. This information has been detailed and substantial, as outlined in my recent report. In addition, I have also received reports from other Member States detailing that illegal transfers of arms do occur. According to such reports, some weapons produced outside the region arrive via third countries and are brought clandestinely into Lebanon through the Syrian- Lebanese border. Such transfers are alleged to be taking place on a regular basis.
Ban wrote this in an interim report to the Security Council on the implementation of UNSCR 1559, which demands the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. A news report by IRIN, the news network affiliated with the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), went further still. IRIN’s report offered specific details, interviews with foreign fighters, and eyewitness accounts of arms smuggling in Lebanon:
The two most significant reported violations of Resolution 1559’s demand for disarming militias over the past six months were weapons seized from members of the Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP) in north Lebanon and a truck full of rockets and mortars seized in the eastern Bekaa Valley, which Hezbollah said was bound for its fighters.
Arms smuggling has also been reported in the international press and media. In a recent article in the French daily Le Figaro, Georges Malbrunot quoted a UN official close to the Secretary General saying that “This time the satellite photos that the Israelis showed us seem conclusive.” Malbrunot’s piece continues:
During their six months patrolling southern Lebanon its bloodhounds have discovered over a hundred bunkers, some of them cunningly established alongside UNIFIL positions, and a great many arms caches concealed under mosques and soccer pitches. To coordinate their attacks on Tzahal, militiamen have even established a telephone network independent of the Lebanese postal service! “How could the Beirut government have been unaware of all that?” one senior UNIFIL official asked; he suspects Hizballah of concealing weapons in the cellars of homes in southern Lebanon, to which blue helmets do not have access. “We could be unaware of many things,” this UN official complained.
Judging by his statements, one can only conclude that Parisi is also unaware of these developments, despite the wealth of information available even in the public domain. Unlike the UN Secretary General, who, at least, is “deeply worried” about the Lebanese crisis and the role played by Iran and Syria in arms smuggling, Parisi has dismissed any concern. And perhaps he genuinely doesn’t know.
But Parisi may simply be loath to embarrass his colleague Massimo D’Alema, Italy’s foreign minister, who is expected to visit Damascus soon. The purpose of this trip, as D’Alema reportedly claimed in a recent phone conversation with his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni, is “to lecture” the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Given the evidence (and D’Alema’s foreign policy record), it’s tempting to assume he will pretend that all is business as usual—as Parisi did last week in front of the cameras.