Israel-Lebanon maritime dispute explained

Beirut, Lebanon – Earlier this month, the new Lebanese government, led by President Michel Aoun, published a tender to explore untapped gas and oil reserves that lie in the eastern Mediterranean.

Lebanese Minister of Energy and Water Cesar Abou Khalil has said that the offshore resources could be a major economic boost for the country at a time when its financial lifelines, namely tourism, have taken a major hit due to the ongoing war in neighbouring Syria.

However, other troubles have quickly appeared on the horizon.

The fate of the project is now in jeopardy after Israel made the claim this week that the maritime area off the coast of the Israel-Lebanon border is “Israeli territory”, thus should be placed under Israeli sovereign control. Following that proclamation, the Israeli government announced that the Knesset will soon vote on a bill clearly defining where its maritime economic border with Lebanon lies.

In response, Lebanon’s parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, said last week that the Israeli bill claiming the 860sq km zone was a “new attack on Lebanon’s sovereignty”. “The recent decision taken by Israel on the territorial waters is equal to a declaration of war on Lebanon,” he told local media.

The area claimed by both countries covers a triangular expanse of approximately 800sq km, which is rich in coveted natural resources like gas and oil.

READ MORE: Thousands rally in Beirut against proposed tax hikes

The move comes on the heels of years of failed initiatives by the United States and United Nations to mediate a peaceful resolution to the maritime dispute. While the initiatives were unsuccessful in yielding the desired result of splitting the territory between both countries, they were successful in stalling Israel’s unilateral annexation of the area.

However, if passed by the Knesset, Israel has said that the new bill will provide it with the political justification for annexing the territory, and effectively place it under Israeli sovereignty, mainly for the purpose of harvesting the natural resources found there.

Cesar Abou Khalil shows a map of Lebanon with sea blocks for oil and gas licensing [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Elias Khoury, a local journalist in Beirut who has been focusing on the issue since 2007, told Al Jazeera that Israel’s threats of annexation are unacceptable.

“Both Lebanon and Israel have been unofficially exploring those waters for years now, and there’s been a tacit agreement that they will stay out of each other’s way,” he said. 

“But Aoun’s government broke that status-quo recently by announcing its intention to search for gas and oil, which officialised Lebanon’s claim that the area is Lebanese territory.”

After news of the proposed Knesset bill broke out earlier in the week, senior legislators in Aoun’s government were reported as saying that Lebanon will not yield its maritime territory to Israel.

Both countries have made claims to the ocean territory for decades, but the dispute was exacerbated following separate maritime agreements with Cyprus, signed by Lebanon in 2007 and Israel in 2010.

Overlaps between the distance of both the Israeli and Lebanese borders caused a diplomatic quarrel to break out, ending with each side accusing the other of territorial theft.

Ramat Jalloh, a specialist in maritime law from the International Maritime Law Institute, told Al Jazeera over the phone from her office in Malta that unilateral annexation is not a legal option.

“International law is very clear on this, in cases where states share a maritime zone, perhaps a border like the case with Israel and Lebanon, it is customary to divide the territory between the states that sit near that maritime area,” Jalloh said. “This should always be achieved through bilateral and mutual treaties or agreements. In other words, both sides must meet at a halfway point.” 

Unfortunately, it seems that few are optimistic about the possibility of both countries reaching a mutual agreement on demarcating the area equally.

An official from the Lebanese Ministry of National Defence – who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the story – is quick to dismiss the idea: “There are two reasons why Israel will absolutely not share that territory.”

“Firstly, zoom out and consider Israel’s behaviour in regards to other territorial disputes with Lebanon, like the Shebaa farms, which they still occupy. Or maybe the Syrian Golan Heights. They do not have the incentive to leave, because nobody makes them do so, they can take areas whenever they like with impunity,” he said. 

“The United States has also supported them in this and now they have the support of Trump. Secondly, we predict with certainty that there are approximately 865 million barrels of oil and 96 trillion cubic feet of gas in that area, this is something that Israel will fight tooth and nail for.”

Both Lebanon and Israel have been unofficially exploring those waters for years now, and there’s been a tacit agreement that they will stay out of each other’s way [Amir Cohen/Reuters]

Lebanese officials continue to assert that the entire triangle of territory falls within Lebanon’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and that Israel’s taking of it would be tantamount to violation of Lebanese sovereignty, justifying a case at the international courts.

An exclusive economic zone (EEZ), is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of Seas and says that a state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources within its coastal waters.

But with stagnant economic growth and playing host to more than one million Syrian refugees, Lebanon’s drying up coffers desperately need filling.

Khoury says that Lebanon cannot afford to be dealt the short straw on the maritime territory. “After floating the idea of oil and gas exploration a few years ago, we had massive investor interest and a number of oil companies saying they would like to bid,” Khoury said.

“Our country is coping with a lot of political unrest and the new jobs and prosperity brought by that new industry would provide the optimism we need, I think.”

“We must do everything we can to stop Israel from taking it, even if that means taking them to the international courts.”

Source: Al Jazeera