Longstanding Maritime Dispute Between Israel and Lebanon


Photo source: NS Energy

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Due to the demarcation of land and sea borders, Israel and Lebanon have had long-standing disputes. It was in 2010 when off the coast of northern Israel two gas fields were found, holding as much as 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 34.5 trillion cubic meters of gas, putting the spotlight on the stretch of the eastern Mediterranean. In October 2020, the US eventually brought Lebanese and Israeli officials to Nakoura, a city in southern Lebanon near Rosh Hanikra for negotiations on the maritime border.

Israel, in the past, had agreed to split the area 58:42 in favour of Lebanon. This concession would have in fact helped Lebanon to start drilling for gas as soon as possible, but it soon went into tatters, when Lebanon sharply increased its demands after four rounds of talks mediated by the United States, increasing the disputed area which include the northern end of Karish natural gas field. At the same time, Israel has said that it will defend Karish, which it has called a strategic asset.

In fact, after the arrival of United Kingdom-based Energean, an oil and gas exploration company, drilling operations have begun close to a disputed maritime zone in the eastern Mediterranean. The vessels haven’t yet strayed across the maritime boundary, known in Lebanon as ‘Line 29’. But, oil and gas fields don’t respect man-made boundaries, which actually gives Israel a political advantage over Lebanon.

With time Lebanon quickly asked for urgent US mediation to resolve the spat while Lebanese Hezbollah is watching the situation closely. In fact, Hezbollah will resort to force anytime, if necessary, to protect what it says are Lebanon’s fossil fuel rights.

According to an article by Nicolas Blanford in Atlantic Council: ‘Sporadic negotiations waxed and waned over the years with no result. Then, in late 2020, Lebanon offered a new interpretation of its maritime boundary. This one cut far to the south of Line 23, adding another 1,430 square kilometres to the Lebanese claim. The new Line 29 retained all the Qana gas field inside Lebanese waters and half of the Karish gas field that Energean was preparing to exploit. Israel rejected Lebanon’s ‘maximalist claim’ and said that it will only negotiate the 860 square kilometre pocket. The US mediation, currently headed by Amos Hochstein, the Joe Biden administration’s energy envoy, also has balked at beginning negotiations anew based on Line 29.’

However, Lebanon’s veteran political leaders, namely Aoun, acting Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, want to adopt a more cautionary stance, perhaps they want to understand the potential ramifications of approving Line 29. If Line 29 was formally adopted, the US almost certainly would drop its mediation efforts, leaving the dispute in stasis with no resolution on the horizon. In such a case, Israel may not be able to exploit the Karish field for the time being, but it has several other gas and oil deposits to pursue further south. Lebanon would be the economic loser, in such a case.

Hezbollah is leaving it to the Lebanese government to chart a course of action. It has appointed Nawaf Mussawi, a Hezbollah former parliamentarian, to handle negotiations with other political leaders, suggesting it seeks a consensual approach. It likely wants to wait before taking any military action. There are few options available to Hezbollah though which would allow it to flex its martial capabilities without triggering an unwanted escalation. One possibility is to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the location of the exploratory drilling to circle and film the vessels.

Politically, Israel and Lebanon don’t have diplomatic relations and have been in a state of war since Israel’s founding in 1948. The countries don’t have an agreed-upon land border but are committed to a cease-fire along what is known as the Blue Line, a boundary drawn by the United Nations after Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. Add to that, since the ill-fated Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, during which the IDF lost nearly one hundred twenty troops and scores of civilians and about two hundred seventy Hezbollah fighters and fifty Lebanese soldiers and police personnel died, there's been an understanding between the two enemies that neither would do anything that could spark a return to all-out conflict. Both sides have, until now anyway, recognised a degree of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

US diplomat Hochstein’s visit to Beirut in February 2022 and his proposal, which suggests starting Lebanon's negotiations from Line 23 instead of Line 29, might have led Lebanese officials to refrain from amending the decree, for fear of losing Washington’s support in other negotiations. At the same time, however, the Lebanese government has yet to give Hochstein an answer regarding his proposal.

If Lebanon resolves the maritime dispute, it could also detach itself from Russian gas, and European Union likely will also help Lebanon with oil exploration investments, and the scenario would boost its economy.


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