The US President is not the only leader enamored with border wall building. The drumbeat in Israel for a northern barrier has been getting louder these past weeks as Lebanon has finally awarded permits to offshore gas exploration blocs that abut Israel’s exploration zone. While some construction has been started by Israel south of the Blue Line that marks the demarcation between Lebanon and Israel, Israel disputes Lebanese charges that part of the planned barrier infringes on Lebanese territory.
The latest round of charges started with Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s comment that “Israeli soldiers may have to operate deep in Lebanese territory and maneuver on the ground on the battlefield if war breaks out.” His remarks and others from senior officials warn of Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s attempts to produce precision missiles in Lebanon, a topic recently broached by Prime Minister Netanyahu with President Putin.
Not lost on the Lebanese government is the impact of the Blue Line dispute on its offshore gas exploration plans in blocs awarded last year. In fact, Minister Lieberman called Lebanon’s first offshore oil and gas exploration tender “very provocative” and urged international firms not to participate.
In the recent trilateral security meeting between Israel, Lebanon, and UNIFIL, the Lebanese side made it clear that it sees the planned barrier and its negative consequences on Lebanon’s exploration zones are unacceptable.
Lebanese and other press accounts noted that a statement released by the Lebanese President Michel Aoun a meeting held with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri discussed "the Israeli threats, and saw them as a clear violation of Security Council Resolution 1701 and a direct threat to the stability of the border region.” The article stated that they would continue “To move at various regional and international levels to prevent Israel from building the wall within the Lebanese border and the possibility of its encroachment on oil and gas wealth in Lebanese territorial waters.”
At least three other claims of violations were made by Lebanese officials this past week including several incursions into Lebanese waters and violation of its airspace. According to security officials, Israeli jets recently carried out reconnaissance missions at over the villages of Arqub, Marjayoun, and Hasbaya up to the eastern and western Bekaa Valley; and three Israeli warships violated Lebanese territorial waters near Ras al-Naquoura on several occasions.
In response to the statement by Lebanon’s leadership, Israel is calling for international mediation to resolve the disagreement over the exploration zones. Its Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said that “There is a dispute, which is no secret - it’s been going on for years - over the border demarcation between our economic waters and Lebanon‘s. “We hope for, and are prepared to move forward on, a diplomatic resolution to this matter.”
Lebanon’s Energy Minister, Cesar Abi Khalil, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that Lebanon will go ahead with its exploration program despite the threats voiced by Defense Minister Lieberman. “We consider this statement as an aggression on Lebanon’s sovereignty to practice its natural right to explore our oil resources.” He added that the block that is on the border with Israel is “inside Lebanese territorial waters and Lebanon demarcated maritime borders in accordance with international laws.”
A major find in Lebanon’s southernmost waters could raise the possibility of a dispute with Israel, which is developing a number of offshore gas deposits, with one large field, Tamar, already producing gas, and the larger Leviathan field set to go online next year. It is ironic that the benefits of Lebanese production would also benefit Israel in that it would spur economic development in Lebanon’s southern regions, immediately address the economics of Lebanon’s very large energy import costs, and gradually provide greater stability to the area.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that “We support the right of both Lebanon and Israel to exploit their maritime resources in accordance with the international Law of the Sea,” and “We encourage both countries to continue efforts to address the delimitation of their respective maritime exclusion zones and the exploration of their natural resources in a manner that does not give rise to tensions” but instead “builds confidence through dividends of cooperation.”