Israeli drilling in the Karish gas field
An Israeli floating gas production unit arrived in the maritime zone disputed between Israel and Lebanon on Sunday – prompting the anger of the Lebanese government, especially as negotiations between the two countries on this dispute are at a standstill.
In abeyance for more than a decade, the dispute between Israel and Lebanon over the two countries’ maritime borders resurfaced on June 5. The Lebanese presidency warned the Israeli government against any “aggressive actions” in the disputed maritime area.
After a floating production, storage and offloading unit belonging to the company Energean (listed in both Tel Aviv and London) arrived on Sunday, the problem was obvious: Israel and Lebanon have never drawn their borders. The Karish gas field where Israel is exploring is located in a disputed area of 860 km2 in the middle of the eastern Mediterranean where huge gas reserves have been found in recent years.
Hezbollah is ready to take action “including force” against Israeli gas operations in disputed waters once the Lebanese government adopts a clearer policy, the heavily armed movement’s deputy leader told Reuters on Monday.
Israel says the field in question is within its exclusive economic zone, not in disputed waters.
But in a statement on Sunday, the Lebanese presidency said Aoun discussed with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati the vessel’s entry “into the disputed maritime area with Israel, and asked the Army Command to provide him with accurate and official data to build upon the matter”.
Aoun said negotiations to delineate the southern maritime border continued and “any action or activity in the disputed area represents a provocation and an aggressive action”.
There was no immediate response from the Israeli government to Aoun’s statement. Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar welcomed the vessel’s arrival and said she hoped it would be brought online quickly.
“We will continue to work to diversify the energy market and maintain stability and reliability,” she said.
Energean said its floating production storage and offloading vessel arrived on Sunday at the Karish field, about 80 km (50 miles) west of the city of Haifa, in Israel’s exclusive economic zone. The company said it planned to bring it online in the third quarter.
Mikati said Israel was “encroaching on Lebanon’s maritime wealth, and imposing a fait accompli in a disputed area”, calling this “extremely dangerous”.
Israeli violation of Lebanese territory
The latest spark in the dispute comes with a recent background of repeated territorial violations in recent years.
Over the past 15 years, 22,111 Israeli military aircraft have violated Lebanese airspace, a report has found.
According to the site, Air Pressure, 8,231 fighter jets and 13,102 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have conducted incursions into Lebanon’s skies since 2007. With the average time in the airspace lasting 4 hours and 35 minutes, the combined duration of all of those flights amounts to 3,098 days, or eight and a half years’ worth of airspace violations.
The site managed to collect and report the data after sourcing it from 243 letters uploaded to the UN’s digital library between the years 2006 to 2021, which contained all the radar information such as the time, duration, type and trajectory of each aircraft violation.
Those letters were written by Lebanon’s permanent representative to the UN and were addressed to the UN Security Council (UNSC), and the site’s team were only able to compile all of the necessary data into a report after manually analysing and transcribing each of them individually.
“The UN Security Council, and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon have been monitoring and recording these violations, and have had clear access and capacity to do this work themselves. Instead, by storing the data in a piecemeal and uncoordinated fashion, these institutions have obfuscated the scale of these crimes”, Air Pressure stated.
According to the report, the primary reason for the airspace violations – especially by the UAVs – was that of “mass indiscriminate surveillance”, in which the Lebanese population’s phone calls and text messages are accessed, and their movements and homes are photographed.
Israel also uses Lebanese airspace to carry out airstrikes against Iran in neighboring Syria where it is attempting to entrench its forces and militias as a forward-operating base against the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, former IAF commander Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amikam Norkin said in an April interview with Kan that Israel no longer had full aerial superiority and freedom of action in Lebanese skies.
Norkin said that due to the anti-aircraft capabilities of Hezbollah, Israel had to reduce the number of surveillance flights over the country, harming the IDF’s intelligence-gathering capabilities. Israel and Lebanon are still officially at war.
War or peace?
As the possibility of another full-scale war re-appears between Israel and Lebanon, efforts to avert such a catastrophe have already begun to surface. Lebanon has agreed to call on the United States to resume mediating indirect maritime border talks.
The talks on Tuesday focused on finding a solution to rising tensions between Beirut and Tel Aviv over the boundary between the two countries in the Mediterranean Sea.
Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser for energy security at the US State Department, arrived in Beirut on Monday following an invitation from the Lebanese government.
Hochstein did not speak to reporters after his 40-minute meeting with Aoun.
Lebanese media reported before Tuesday’s meeting that Aoun would put forward several proposals, including one which shows readiness to give Israel full control of the Karish field in return for Lebanon getting the Qana field, part of which stretches deep into the disputed area.
During a visit to Lebanon in February, Hochstein handed Lebanese officials a proposal which gives more than half of the disputed area to Lebanon. Lebanon did not respond to the proposal.
Asked what the UN could do to advance the negotiations, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN secretary-general, said the body can “work with the parties to help them find a solution through dialogues, through discussion, between both sides”.
The dispute over the maritime border is more than 10 years old.
In 2012, Lebanon rejected a US proposal that would have seen the country getting 550sq km (212sq miles), or almost two-thirds of the area, with Israel getting the remaining third.
The offer was known at the time as the “Hoff Line”, named after US diplomat Frederick Hoff who had mediated between the two countries.
Despite this, Lebanon appears more open to negotiating such an agreement this time around, despite Israeli aggression in the region. Hezbollah however have displayed a less compromising stance, which could block the acceptance of a potential solution from the US. Although tensions are rising, the willingness on both sides to come to the negotiation table has shown that war is still not likely in the near future, although one wrong move could change this. Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi has warned that overwhelming force would be used in Lebanon during the next potential war. Meanwhile, Hezbollah have also been strengthening their forces in recent years. A potential war between the two would therefore be on a much larger scale and would likely be much longer than the previous one, something both sides want to avoid.