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The gas that could ignite war

January 25, 2014 at 8:39 am

Following the discovery of off-shore gas fields, a crisis of maritime demarcation has suddenly erupted between Lebanon and Israel. Israel is acting freely in determining its own space, while Lebanon believes that what Israel has set out for itself encroaches on an area that belongs to Lebanon.
The dispute very quickly caused tension, and even before Lebanese media, the Western media began to talk about the possibility of a military confrontation between the two parties which could develop into a state of war. If a war breaks out, it will not be limited to Lebanon and Israel alone.

Israel discovered gas in late 2009 through a company called Noble Energy; a U.S – Israeli consortium with company headquarters in the United States. So far, two fields have been discovered. The first, which was discovered in 2009, is called Tamar, while the second which was discovered in 2010, was given the name Le Vetan. Israel immediately began offshore drilling to extract the gas, and it is expected to start gas production in the Tamar field in 2012, and in the Le Vetan field either in 2014 or 2015.

The area of gas production lies between three countries: Lebanon, Cyprus and Israel, and in this case, the demarcation of the borders of the water for exclusive economic exploitation by each country must be decided. There is an alternative possibility, that even if the identification of areas of economic exploitation exclusive to each country could be achieved, it allows for the gas to be exploited jointly between the two states.
Demarcation of maritime borders between Israel and Cyprus has been done in the past, but it has not been done between Israel and Lebanon due to the lack of diplomatic relations between them. As such, this matter was not been discussed within the framework of the Armistice Commissions. This issue was discussed a short while ago in a trilateral military meeting (Lebanese – Israeli – International) held in Naqoura on 7/3/2011, where the Lebanese side was represented by Major-General Abdul Rahman Shiteley. Shiteley proposed the demarcation of maritime boundaries in a manner similar to the Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel, which was drawn on land under the supervision of the United Nations.
Major General Shiteley asked that the commander of the UN forces (UNIFIL) officially transfer Lebanon’s request to the UN to demarcate a security border in line with the cruise lines i.e. a naval blue line, without any negotiation between Lebanon and Israel. It is important to note here that the United Nations refused Lebanon’s request to assist in the demarcation of the maritime border with Israel, and this was announced by the Special Coordinator of the UN Secretary-General for Lebanon, Michael Williams, at the conclusion of the closed session of the Security Council on 21/7/2011. He even refused to talk about what the Lebanon’s representative, Ambassador Nawaf Salam, talked about at the same meeting where he asserted that Israel was “unilaterally and illegally installing a floating marker inside Lebanese territorial waters”. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East, Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, said that in regards to this conflict, his country is neither with Lebanon nor with Israel.
As a result of this situation, Lebanon is now trying to formulate an ‘oil law’.  Jibran Bassil, Minister of Energy, said that Lebanon has drawn its marine borders on the basis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which it had signed. He added that, “Israel has to sign this agreement and to abide by it before talking about international law.”
Lebanon subsequently announced that at the beginning of 2012, it intends to launch tenders for contracts to explore oil and gas, especially south of its exclusive economic zone next to Israel or overlapping with it. Israel also immediately took the initiative of proposing a military threat with Uzi Landau, Israeli Minister of Infrastructure announcing “Israel’s readiness to use force to protect gas fields that were discovered in the Mediterranean.” He drew attention to US Time magazine, which predicted in turn that the discovery of Israeli gas … would lead to a possible war between Israel and Lebanon.
In response to these threats, Lebanese President, Michel Suleiman, made a statement in which he said, “We warn Israel against taking any unilateral decisions on the issue of maritime borders, and I affirm Lebanon’s readiness to defend its rights and wealth, by all legitimate means.” Then, on 26/7/2011, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah made statement warning Israel “about extending a hand into this region or any act that may lead to the theft of Lebanon’s wealth.” He also said, “When the Lebanese government considers an area to be territorial waters, the resistance will act as if it is a Lebanese regional area.” In another statement, Nasrallah warned that “if Lebanese facilities are exposed to Israeli bombardment, Israeli installations will be bombarded.”
This new Lebanese-Israeli confrontation on the issue of offshore gas fields forms part of a larger confrontation. There is a long history of conflict of interest and borders between Israel and Lebanon, on land and water, as Israel still occupies parts of Lebanon despite the purported withdrawal in 2000. Israeli troops occupy the Shebaa Farms and the heights of Kafr Shuba in southern Lebanon, as it does occupy the Western part of the village of Ghajar. The eastern part of Ghajar belongs to Syria and is located in the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967. In light of all this, the issue of maritime demarcation becomes complicated because any change in determining the land border means a similar change in the maritime borders, and this would lead to the continuation of the current confusion about the location of gas fields discovered for Lebanon or Israel.
As for Israeli ambitions in Lebanese water, particularly the waters of the Litani River, the story here is a long one which begins with the establishment of the State of Israel and extends until present today. We recall the 1952 project proposed by the American special envoy Eric Johnston to share water between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. It gave Israel a large share of the water while depriving Lebanon from any share on the grounds that Lebanon has no projects to develop agriculture. Although this project was rejected at that time, Israel still refers to it as it seeks to control the waters of the Litani River. In its invasion of southern Lebanon in 1978, the goal of the invasion was to reach the Litani River, and as such the invasion was called ‘Operation Litani’. At the time, Israel dug a 17 km long tunnel to siphon the water of the Litani into Israel and it has always looked to having the Litani as its northern border. This indicates that Israel has permanent aspirations for the occupation of southern Lebanon.

The issue of gas which has recently emerged must be viewed within the permanent Israeli vision for its borders with Lebanon, as it wants to retain a fundamental part of the land and it also wants to control the water. It now is looks forward to controlling the deep sea gas. When these three things meet, the prospect of war becomes permanent, and now it is more likely than ever. And when war breaks out in Lebanon, it will not remain a conflict confined to within Lebanese borders, but will become a war involving the whole region. All concerned should therefore read the warning signs.

*The author is a Palestinian writer. This article first appeared in the Arabic newspaper, Al Sharq Al Awsat, on 1/8/2011

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.