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Israel's plunder of Egyptian gas must be investigated

January 27, 2014 at 10:44 am

It is essential for an investigation to be opened into Israel’s plunder of Egypt’s huge natural gas resources. The matter is too serious to be met with silence and too dangerous to be disregarded.

It is undoubtedly good news that exploration indicates the presence of huge gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean; an estimated 1.22 trillion cubic metres is valued at $220 billion. The surprise is that this lies within Egypt’s economic territorial waters but the gas is claimed by Israel and Cyprus. What is shocking, though, is that Egypt has not only made no move to claim its rights over the field but it has also expressed its readiness to stand by and watch as such a valuable resource is exploited by others.

When I first mentioned this I relied on reports and testimonies from three experts: Dr Nael Al-Shafei, a New York-based Egyptian communications expert; Dr. Khaled Abdulqader Awdeh, Head of the Geology Department at Asyut University; and Ambassador Ibrahim Yusri, former head of legal affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Yusri was the person who, along with others, lodged a legal case to abrogate the contract for selling Egyptian natural gas to Israel.

The gist of the basic information about this case is that there is an underwater mountain in the Eastern Mediterranean that rises about 2,000 metres above the sea bed. This is known by geologists as Eratosthenes, named after Eratosthenes of Cyrene, the third trustee of the Library of Alexandria during its golden age (around the year 200 BC). He was the first to highlight the significance of this area in the Mediterranean which happens to sit on the slopes of this mountain. Exploration of the region and related geological surveys started as early as the 1960s. Only during the past three years, though, have we seen reports revealing that the region possesses the biggest natural gas reserves in the world. This promises to be a major development of no less importance than that which took place in the Gulf following the discovery of oil there.

What should we do? This is not the only question but I consider it to be at the top of a list of related questions that should be asked when investigating this matter. I don’t think anyone will disagree about the importance of verifying the basic information which has been supplied. The most significant thing is that relating to the site of the gas field and whether it is truly within Egypt’s economic territorial waters or not. It is well known that the UN Maritime Law agreement signed in 1982 estimated the economic maritime borders to be up to a distance of 200 nautical miles. If this is confirmed then we shall be dealing with an open infringement of Egypt’s territorial waters, with foreign powers claiming that which is not theirs in clear breach of international law.

I know that the people who have stolen a country will not be perturbed by stealing natural gas reserves, so it is not surprising that Israel is involved. However, we are talking about the process of establishing facts from the legal point of view in order to protect national rights and resources. In addition, an effort should be exerted to determine the size of the gas field and which states are entitled to have a share in it; at the moment, Israel is behaving as if it has the right to be in full control as the only party responsible for the Mediterranean gas. Evidently, it is already engaged in selling and exporting gas taken from the field in what amounts to piracy aimed at establishing a status quo it wants to impose on others. In doing so, Israel is inspired by its own experience and “success” in the theft of Palestine and the threat it still poses in the occupied territories.

In the light of this, it might be possible to raise another question about the demarcation of Egypt’s maritime borders. I understand that this is the responsibility of the armed forces in Egypt, whose officers direct the Ministry of Petroleum to work within specific areas. I am amazed that the armed forces do this on their own, with no input from the technical experts in government ministries. The identification of national borders on land and at sea is too big a task to leave to the military on its own.

What we know for sure is that Egypt signed a border agreement with Cyprus in 2003. However, that agreement did not determine the starting point of the territory on its eastern side towards Israel. Consequently, in 2010 Israel started drilling the Leviathan well on the southern slope of Eratosthenes. Cyprus decided that Israel had a right to that region although the ownership of the slope by Egypt had been established since 300 BC. The slope is just 190 kilometres away from Egypt but 235 kilometres from the port of Haifa.

The matter is no longer confined to reconsidering the border demarcation agreement with Cyprus, that agreement which opened the way for squandering Egypt’s rights to the East Mediterranean gas. Any serious consideration of the issue necessitates the re-demarcation of Egypt’s borders in the economic maritime zone between Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip as well as between Egypt and the economic borders of Turkey and Greece all the way from Alexandria to Salloum. It would also be a good idea to establish the borders with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. I am sure this endeavour would be met with Turkish support and assistance.

I derived this information from a study conducted by Dr Awdeh and Dr Al-Shafei as well as from a report drafted by the Committee of Arab and Foreign Affairs and National Security at the Shura Council in Cairo. All three parties concur on the necessity of conducting investigations in order to unravel the ambiguities surrounding this compromise of Egypt’s rights which also undermines the foundations of its national security. I would suggest the following:

For a start, we need to look at the ambiguities surrounding the announcement by the Egyptian government on 22 April 2013 that it was terminating the contract to supply Israel with gas and the announcement by the US petroleum and gas company ATP only eight days later that it had started to develop the Samson offshore field for the Israeli government. The timing of the two announcements cannot be mere coincidence. The Egyptian government kept quiet at the time despite the fact that the Samson field is located inside Egypt’s maritime borders. It is worth noting that Israel also kept quiet about the Egyptian cancellation of the gas contract even though it represented about 43 per cent of its needs. Such silence was unusual and is suspect. Was it the product of a deal between the two sides according to which Egypt would keep quiet regarding the violation of its rights while the Israelis kept quiet about the cancelled contract?

Next, let’s look at the ambiguities surrounding the sudden withdrawal by Shell from the concession granted by the Egyptian Mediterranean Company in the North Eastern Mediterranean, including the slope of Eratosthenes, in March 2011. This happened seven years after the announcement in February 2004 that natural gas reserves had been discovered in two wells at a considerable depth in the area. The investigation should also include the statement by Shell that it would begin the second phase of exploration, to last four years, and bring the gas online. The withdrawal was not only sudden but also dubious because all indicators point to the fact that the company kept on working for seven years and then decided to relinquish its role despite having positive results in its drilling operations and having incurred huge costs. This makes one suspect the possibility of collusion with Israel which has seized control of the same location that Egypt had expected would turn from exploration wells into production fields.

Finally, it is important to investigate the failure of the Egyptian bureaucracy to follow-up on the messages and communications dispatched by Greece and Turkey to Cairo vis-à-vis Israel’s encroachment and Cypriot collusion with the theft of the gas located inside Egypt’s maritime borders. Such failure has been so profound that some Egyptian officials felt it was necessary to announce their adherence to the border agreement with Cyprus despite its obvious unfairness. The former oil minister went as far as claiming that the Cypriot discoveries of gas were not within the joint maritime area but his statement is belied by the maps, not to mention the fact that the minister was embroiling himself in a matter beyond his own expertise.

I would like to conclude by emphasising that what Israel has done with regard to the issue of natural gas represents aggression against Egyptian sovereignty and a breach of the peace treaty between the two countries. Egypt has the right to demand from Israel and Cyprus its right and share of the gas extracted from the Leviathan and Aphrodite wells, both of which are located on the slope of Eratosthenes that extends into Egyptian maritime economic territory and constitutes part of the concession of the Egyptian North East Mediterranean Company. This is the concession that was granted to Shell in 1999 which the company later forfeited.

Diplomatic communications and international arbitration are two options available to Egypt in order to gain its rights or, at least, to establish them at the basic level. The government in Cairo can widen the circle of its moves in cooperation with Turkey. This would be aimed at establishing an axis that would include Lebanon, Gaza and Turkish Cyprus in order to preserve the rights of all to the economic treasures located deep down in the Eastern Mediterranean. The creation of this axis is necessary in order to stand up to Israel and Cyprus.

Experience has proven that there is now an urgent need for Egypt to have the ability to photograph its lands and waters by means of a special satellite of its own design. This project is worth pursuing through a public company providing the foundations of an Egyptian Space Agency.

The Egyptian elite are preoccupied with their battles, reckonings and quotas. I do not know if there is anyone amongst them who is ready to think about the future of the country and what surrounds it. Nevertheless, I would claim that it is necessary to investigate the facts of this case because if we do not know where we are heading we should at least endeavour to understand what is going on around us.

This is a translation of the Arabic text first published by Shorouk newspaper on Tuesday 6 November, 2012

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