Hezbollah: 'consequences' if Israel maintains operations in disputed maritime field

Hassan Nasrallah says Israel does not have the right to conduct activity in area before border negotiations with Lebanon are complete

An Israeli navy vessel guards next to a water border marks in the Mediterranean sea next to Rosh Hanikra, near Haifa at the Israel-Lebanon border, 06 June 2022. EPA
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Israel should stop activity in disputed maritime gasfields until it has come to a clear border agreement with Lebanon in negotiations mediated by the US, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Thursday.

Nasrallah called the presence of Israel's offshore gas production vessel, operated by Energean, an “aggression against Lebanon” and called for its owners and crew to “withdraw quickly or face consequences”.

“As Lebanon is waiting for the results of the negotiations, so too does the enemy need to wait,” he said in a speech.

The arrival of the ship last week angered Lebanese leaders, who maintain the ship is sailing too close to a gasfield partially claimed by Lebanon.

The argument is over the Karish offshore gasfield, which both Lebanon and Israel claim as part of their exclusive economic zones.

Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati said on Tuesday that Israel was “encroaching on Lebanon's maritime wealth and imposing a fait accompli in a disputed area”.

Indirect negotiations about the countries’ maritime borders, mediated by the US, began in 2020 and are technically continuing but have made little progress.

The talks stalled before the arrival of the Energean vessel, after which Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Mr Mikati called on US special envoy for energy affairs, Amos Hochstein, to restart negotiations.

During the talks, Lebanon had expanded its territorial claim by about 1,400 square kilometres — from the “Line 23” maritime demarcation to “Line 29", under which the Karish gasfield falls.

The claim, known as Decree 6433, was never officially sent to the UN with the amended territorial declaration because it was never officially signed by Mr Aoun.

In April 2021, a draft to amend the decree was sent to Mr Aoun by then-caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab, which would officially expand Lebanon’s claim to Line 29.

It is unclear why the document was never signed by Mr Aoun, despite Lebanese leaders’ contention that their claim to Line 29 was rightful.

Leila Hatoum, an adviser to Mr Diab at the time, said Mr Aoun had sent the decree back to Cabinet under the pretext that it required an official session and approval.

But Ms Hatoum said a Cabinet session to amend the decree was not a constitutional requirement.

Energy expert Laury Haytayan thinks stalling the amendment of the decree was a diplomatic tactic.

“I think this was a kind of bargaining chip in his hand — saying, ‘I can sign the decree any time but I’m not going to’, in order to keep the door open for negotiations,” Ms Haytayan said.

Nasrallah said his party would not interfere with the demarcation of the maritime border.

“That issue is with the government,” said the leader of the Iran-backed movement.

Ms Haytayan said Lebanon’s expanded claim to Line 29 is simply a “maximalist” strategy to extract better concessions out of Israel to compensate for what many experts say is Beirut's “minimalist” claim over Line 23.

Mr Hochstein has repeatedly dismissed Lebanon’s claim to Line 29, calling on the country’s leaders to adopt a unified stance on maritime demarcation.

Hezbollah will not take part in negotiations, Nasrallah said, but it would follow them closely.

“We don’t fear war,” he said of Israel’s moves on the Karish gasfield, “but we don’t want war.”

Ms Haytayan maintained that Hezbollah’s speech is a push towards the continuance of negotiations.

“They’re saying we will not let Israel enjoy its gas if we can't use our gas,” she said.

Rather than go for Line 29, which is a non-starter for negotiations, Ms Haytayan said Lebanon should hire a company to conduct an official survey of the disputed area.

Then “they should request from Energean to ensure that the Karish gasfield is not crossing Line 23 — because if it does, we can stop it.”

Updated: June 10, 2022, 8:59 AM