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June 15, 2022 10:30 am

A New Lucrative Gas Field Is Straining Relations Between Israel and Lebanon

avatar by Chaim Lax


London-based Energean’s drill ship begins drilling at the Karish natural gas field offshore Israel in the east Mediterranean on May 9, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Ari Rabinovitch

The recent arrival of a gas rig off the coast of Israel has invited renewed media attention to the simmering tensions between Israel and Lebanon (see here and here), with some analysts speculating that another conflict between the two countries might be in the offing.

In order to make sense of the volatile situation currently brewing between Israel and Lebanon (and what it has to do with a gas rig), it is important to understand the dispute’s historical context as well as what it means for the region’s actors.

Although they are neighbors, Israel and Lebanon do not share an officially recognized border.

Rather, the two countries are separated by the Blue Line, a territorial demarcation set by the United Nations after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. The Blue Line is based on the Green Line, the 1949 armistice line that was agreed to by Lebanon and Israel following the 1948-49 Israeli War of Independence.

While the Blue Line represents the recognized land boundary between Israel and Lebanon, it does not extend into the Mediterranean Sea, where both countries maintain territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (maritime regions where they retain sole control over all the economic resources). This failure to provide an official demarcation of maritime boundaries has led to disputes between Lebanon and Israel over where one country’s territorial waters ends and the other’s waters begins.

The recent tensions stem from a 2010 dispute over 330 square miles of the Mediterranean Sea that lie along the boundary between the two countries. Israel considers this area to be part of the northernmost boundary of its territorial waters, while Lebanon considers it to be part of its southernmost boundary.

In 20202, the United States and the United Nations helped to mediate indirect talks between the two countries regarding a final agreement on maritime boundaries. At these talks, Lebanon expanded its claims to include an extra 550-square-mile area of territorial waters claimed by Israel, including the Karish gas field.

Located 47 miles northwest of Haifa, the Karish gas field was discovered in 2013 to be a rich source of natural gas. In 2017, the Israeli Ministry of Energy okayed a plan for developing the field that included off-shore drilling by the Greek oil company Energean and the shipping of gas to Israeli land via a 56-mile pipeline.

With the scheduled arrival of Energean’s gas rig in the Karish gas field on June 5, 2022, the ongoing dispute between Israel and Lebanon came to a head. The arrival of the gas rig was met with anger in Lebanon, with both Lebanese politicians and citizens denouncing the move and threatening that any activity in the area would be considered a “provocation” and an “act of aggression.” In response, Israel called for a return to the negotiating table and promised that it would not drill for gas in the disputed 330-square-mile waters.

As reported by the Israeli daily Haaretz, satellite imagery shows that the Energean gas rig lies six miles south of the disputed 330-square-mile waters originally claimed by Lebanon.

US envoy Amos Hochstein visited Lebanon on June 13-14, in an attempt to reignite talks between Israel and Lebanon, and hopefully bring about a solution to the ongoing maritime dispute between the two countries.

The main reason that both Israel and Lebanon are adamant about including the Karish gas field within their respective exclusive economic zones is that such a large deposit of natural gas would provide an economic boon for each country.

For Israel, the processing of such a large amount of gas would allow it to increase its domestic fuel reserves while also being able to expand its export market to include European countries that imposed sanctions on Russian gas after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

For Lebanon, the Karish gas field is seen as a way of containing the country’s debilitating fuel shortage, while also providing a way out of the severe economic crisis that it has been experiencing since 2019. Aside from economic growth, the Karish gas field could also help provide stability to the country’s fragile political system.

Whenever there is a dispute between Israel and Lebanon, you can be sure that Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terrorist organization, is going to get involved.

In this particular case, Sheikh Naim Qassem (the deputy leader of Hezbollah), reportedly said in response to the arrival of the gas rig at the Karish gas field that if the Lebanese government would announce that Israel is formally breaching its sovereign waters, it would react with force “no matter the responses.” This could be considered a signal of Hezbollah’s willingness to inflame the tensions and engage in a direct confrontation with Israel, a possibility that the IDF is preparing for.

Qassem’s comments followed statements made by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah that the US-recognized terrorist organization is capable of stopping the off-shore drilling by force.

Nasrallah is also reported to have expressed his opposition to continued negotiations being conducted through Amos Hochstein, the US mediator. In an address rife with antisemitic undertones, Nasrallah is reported to have said, “If you want to continue negotiating, go ahead, but … not with Hochstein, Frankenstein, or any other Stein coming to Lebanon.”

In the past, Hezbollah has been known to exploit territorial disputes between Israel and Lebanon for its own nefarious purposes. A famous example of this is Hezbollah’s continued attacks against Israel in the lead-up to the Second Lebanon War, claiming that they were fighting on behalf of the disputed Shebaa Farms region.

With the volatile situation between Israel and Lebanon continuously developing, it is important that those reporting on it provide their readers with the proper historical context and that they do not resort to sensationalistic journalism that could exacerbate the situation or further inflame the tensions. When dealing with such a charged atmosphere, journalistic prudence is not a choice but a necessity.

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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