What’s Behind the New Israel-Lebanon Maritime Deal?
In the coming days, Israel and Lebanon are expected to sign a US-mediated agreement that regulates their maritime border, and respective rights to extract natural gas reserves from under the Mediterranean Sea.
The agreement has attracted intense debate in Israel over its advantages or disadvantages — of which it has both. It carries strategic value, in enabling Israel to immediately begin accessing profitable gas resources and de-escalating tensions with Hezbollah, which has threatened to attack the Israeli Karish offshore gas rig off the northern Israeli coast, if Jerusalem begins gas extraction before a deal is reached.
But it also strengthens Hezbollah’s ability to market itself inside Lebanon, and particularly to its Shiite Lebanese base, as “protector” of Lebanon’s interests, and as a violent entity that is able to use the threat of its missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles to force Israel into an agreement, under terms and at a pace that would not have otherwise happened.
Whichever way one may view the deal, it is important to note that over the past several years, the Israeli defense establishment has invested heavily in cutting-edge military technology, in order to defend Israel’s offshore rigs. And that Israel is far from relying only on an agreement with a state like Lebanon, whose actual sovereignty is very much in doubt due to the dominance of Hezbollah and Iran, in order to protect its strategic maritime energy assets.
The most significant step that Israel took to protect its strategic new energy assets took shape in December 2020, when INS Magen (Defender), the first of Israel’s new Sa’ar 6 corvettes, arrived at Haifa Naval Base. The second ship in the Sa’ar 6 series, the INS Oz (Strength), arrived in June 2021, while the INS Nitzhahon (Victory) and Atzmaut (Independence) arrived in July of that year.
Built by German shipyard builders ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, in close cooperation with Israel Navy engineers and planners, the ships are fitted with Israeli-made weapons that include the Rafael-made C-Dome air defense system — the sea version of Iron Dome — and the Israel Aerospace Industries-made Barak 8 air and missile defense system.
The C-Dome will be designed to intercept a range of threats, including rockets, cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles — of the type that Hezbollah is in possession of, while the Barak system can take on longer-range threats such as supersonic anti-ship missiles — another weapons system reportedly in Hezbollah’s arsenal.
The ships have on-board electronic warfare systems, which could be used to jam the guidance systems of incoming threats. They also come with advanced multi-mission radars made by IAI-Elta, and they also come with command-and-control systems that can detect, track, and intercept threats from over 200 kilometers away.
Also taking part in the defensive effort are the Israel Navy’s older Sa’ar 5 missile vessels, like the INS Eilat, which shot down Hezbollah unmanned aerial vehicles that the Iranian-backed terror organization launched toward Israel’s Karish platform on July 2, as a warning message.
But it is the Sa’ar 6s that are the designated offshore gas defenders, protecting rigs that can be targeted by both Hezbollah from Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
According to media reports, Hezbollah is in possession of the Russian-made Yakhont supersonic cruise missile, which has a range of up to 300 kilometers, which it is believed to have obtained from the Syrian military.
Hezbollah is consistently trying to obtain and develop other land-to-sea missiles and rockets. In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, it fired a C-802 Chinese designed anti-ship missile, striking the INS Hanit and killing four sailors. It was the first time that an Israeli ship was hit by a shore-to-sea missile, and represented a painful wake up call for Israel’s Navy.
Today, Hezbollah is likely in possession of more advanced threats, meaning that powerful radars are vital in detecting them.
As a navy source stated in 2020, “The issue with gas rigs is that it only takes one hit to achieve the potential damage that you want. As a navy, we cannot allow any missiles, ballistic threats, cruise missiles, or UAVs to get through us and strike any gas rig. It’s like building an iron wall.”
The Sa’ar 6s will patrol Israel’s economic exclusive zones. They can stay out at sea longer than their predecessors, and cover longer distances.
It seems fair to assume that the rigs also have underwater sonar systems installed on them, to sound alerts against Hezbollah divers. Naval threats are also developing to the south, where Hamas is trying to build “sea tunnels” that enable its commando diver forces to head out to sea, or to launch mini unmanned submerged explosive vehicles without being noticed. There too, Israel is building a network of sensors and obstacles to prevent this from happening.
Unmanned sea vessels such as the Elbit-made Seagull. which can patrol autonomously and detect threats using sensors and fire weapons, will also play a key role in protecting rigs.
In any future conflict, the Israel Navy will also take on offensive duties, striking enemy targets on land with its firepower.
The navy’s new role in protecting Israeli national assets at sea, both during routine times and in times of war, is a new strategic responsibility, and it must now cover distances that are larger than any it has defended in the past.
Taken together, these developments collectively create a new Israeli naval doctrine, based on recognition that Israel’s economy flows through the sea.
It’s not only the gas — Israel is often compared to an island, despite not technically being one. Its longest border is with the sea. Half of Israel’s fresh water comes from the sea via desalination plants; the communication cables that run under the sea connect it to the world; 70% of Israel’s electrical consumption comes from gas rigs out at sea; and 90% of Israel’s wheat is imported via the sea, as are vehicles and most raw materials.
Israel must be able to protect its waters if it is to protect its basic ability to function. As Israel’s enemies conduct an arms race to attack the country’s sea assets, the Israeli Navy has fashioned an entire new strategy to counteract the threat and stay a step ahead.
Yaakov Lappin is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute He provides insight and analysis for a number of media outlets, including JNS.org and a leading global military affairs magazine Jane’s Defense Weekly.
The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.