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Lebanon: Maritime Dispute with Israel Escalates

For a region so deeply rooted in religious conviction, divine intervention is hardly doing the troubled Middle East any favours.

Hezballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has exclaimed that God had given Lebanon an opportunity to rid itself of a crippling debt, and become a “rich country” by providing it lucrative offshore oil and gas reserves. There is, however, one major conundrum preventing Lebanon from exploiting such a resource: the reserves potentially lie in a disputed maritime border zone with Israel.

If there were ever a problematic area of the world to discover new oil and gas reserves, this is it. Unfortunately it also happens to be one of the world's most volatile conflict zones. Instead of being a source of economic development, the offshore deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean threaten to become yet another layer to the Israeli-Lebanese conflict as both sides adamantly persist on disputing maritime boundaries.

The two states remain technically at war, having fought the last war in 2006. Only a UN peacekeeping contingent is maintaining a fragile peace along the border, but it is a force that would hastily vacate the premises should Israel and Hezballah ever decide to enter a new round of bloodshed.

The maritime dispute has indeed raised the prospects of renewed conflict as Nasrallah declared Hezballah was “stronger and better” than ever before, vowing to strike Israeli oil facilities if the Jewish state were to attack Lebanon over the dispute.

Point of contention

Google map of disputed maritime zone - Courtesy of Qifa Nabki

Google map of disputed maritime zone – Courtesy of Qifa Nabki

The two states are in disagreement over their actual maritime border, which will thus determine each country's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

As Israel and Lebanon do not have diplomatic relations, they have each sought UN intervention to mediate in the dispute.

A negotiated boundary between Israel and Cyprus in 2010 angered Lebanon as Beirut claims Israel placed its border far too north, encroaching on Lebanese sovereignty.

Lebanon has submitted its own documents to the UN disputing Israel's border claim, insisting that its EEZ extends several kilometres further south.

Political blogger, Elias Muhanna, has covered the story at Qifa Nabki, including a Google map indicating the points of contention (above):

  • In 2010, Cyprus signed an agreement with Israel establishing their maritime borders, and used the same Point 1 as a terminal reference.
  • By then, Lebanon had determined that Point 1 was actually too far north and the real point of intersection between all three countries was several kilometers to the south, known as Point 23. It filed papers with the UN to that effect in July 2010.

An alternative map posted in the comments section of Qifa Nabkis post shows, however, that Israeli exploration of coastal oil and gas reserves falls well within Israel's EEZ.

Ghassan Karam, also on Qifa Nabkis site, plays down the significance of the dispute:

There are many maritime borders that are is dispute all over the world. So we add another one, that is not a big deal.

What is important in the case of Israel-Cyprus-Lebanon is not the 200 nautical mile EEZ since the distance that seoarates Lebanon from Cyprus is under 150 nautical miles. The only potential problem is to agree on the point from which the maritime border starts; which point on the coast, and the angle at which the line is drawn in order to make coastal points on both sides equidistant. But even that does not need to be resolved since no country is under an obligation to go to arbitration.

But what if the gas/oil is discovered in a field that stradells both sides of the border? The most likely principle is that the resources go to the country that extracts first.

Rani Hazbani, on Qifa Nabki's blog, argues that Lebanon should stop complaining about Israel exploring potential oil and gas reserves, and start drilling in its own waters:

It seems that also here, as in other places, the Lebanese government is more keen on talking, complaining and making troubles for Israel than on doing positive deeds for Lebanon. For their own good the Lebanese should stop complaining and start drilling as soon as possible.

The big international money will not be kind to any nation that will use force in such situations, they are stronger than Israel & Lebanon. Lebanon should declare the best line for her and start exploring intensively the sea bottom NORTH of the Israeli line without regard to any thing that Israel say or does. That is what most nations do. Lebanon should demand that her technical people will participate in all the stages of the exploration. There are Lebanese expat doing all kinds of jobs in that industry in the Gulf, they should be brought back to Lebanon. As things are now in Lebanon it is possible that if Lebanon will not act cleverly and fast soon you will see, off its coast, all kinds of strange operators: Iranian-Nowegian, Norwegian-USA-KSA, and even Chinese etc. And again Lebanon will be left behind.

The discovery in the Eastern Mediterranean is a major win for the United States, according to Lebanon Spring. Israel with substantial oil and gas reserves will renew the strategic importance of the US-Israeli alliance, potentially making the US less dependent on Arab oil:

The recently discovered oil and gas in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean will not only change the balance sheets of the involved countries, but also the balance of powers towards the side of the US – via Israel

We, in Lebanon, are still yet to confirm the legal internal framework for the whole process, and more likely to have a disputed area with Israel. The Turkish part of Cyprus has threatened today Greek Cyprus that it is entitled to block any sea deal with neighbouring countries (although this was Turkey’s position in 2008 according to Wikileaks).

But in the mean time, and according to the World Energy Council, Israel’s Shfela Basin (south of Jerusalem) holds 250 billion barrels of recoverable shale oil. This will put Israel in the third place in such reserves after the US and China. I recommend reading the above mentioned article in full (The Globe and Mail – thanks Kamal to the link), as it gives a rough estimation on how the US could plug the gap in its energy demand, while Israel is playing a role in that.

It’s probably something for the regional policy makers, dictators and Arab Sheikhdom to take note of...

As the two rival states dispute their maritime border, no evidence exists as yet that any offshore deposit straddles the contested border region.

Israel has commenced drilling of deposits within its EEZ, and is thus, well ahead of Lebanon in benefiting from a resource that could dramatically benefit both states.

Perhaps it is time for Lebanon to stop talking of grandeur and begin some drilling of its own to ensure it receives a slice of the lucrative pie.

2 comments

  • The mentioned article on Lebanon Spring Blog has this closing statement: ‘But one day – count on it – Israel will match Canada in oil exports to the U.S. and thus free its long-time friend from needing to deal with tyrants’.

    I think the above statement is true. And this should be enough to kill any hope that some people have, that America could change its foreign policy towards Israel.

    The Israeli oil is another reason to strengthen the relation with it, from America’s point of view.

  • Ian Ess

    Israel’s oil dispute with Lebanon pales against the need for an economically viable and free State of Palestine, a subjugated people to whom Israel owes vast recompense.

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