Lebanon asks France to resolve sea spat with Israel
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Lebanon asks France to resolve sea spat with Israel

Beirut says dispute over natural resources-rich offshore field is holding back its economic development, could lead to war

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

French President Francois Hollande speaks during a joint press conference with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, after their meeting in Beirut, April 16, 2016. (AFP/ANWAR AMRO)
French President Francois Hollande speaks during a joint press conference with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, after their meeting in Beirut, April 16, 2016. (AFP/ANWAR AMRO)

The speaker of Lebanon’s parliament on Saturday asked visiting French President Francois Hollande for help in demarcating the maritime border with Israel, amid warnings a dispute over a resource-rich patch of sea could lead to war.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri said Israel was laying claim to a patch of sea thought to contain to contain rich offshore gas and oil fields that Lebanon also considers part of its exclusive economic zone, the Lebanese Naharnet reported, citing Arabic daily al-Hayat.

Berri alleged that “Israel’s violations against Lebanon are not limited to the air and land, but include the sea,” an apparent reference to airstrikes in Lebanon attributed to Israel, claims of frequent overflights by Israel Air Force planes, and ground incursions during major conflicts between the IDF and Lebanese terror-group Hezbollah.

“Israel is claiming part of the EEZ as its own when in fact we have evidence of the contrary,” Berri told Hollande, who was in Lebanon for a two-day visit at the start of four days of meetings in the region.

“This dispute is hindering our efforts to invest in our oil and gas wealth,” he lamented.

A parliamentary source cited by Naharnet said the tiff could widen into a larger conflict.

“This is a problem that Israel is creating and it may spark a war,” the source said.

An EEZ is an region of sea in which, under UN convention, a country has the right to develop maritime resources.

According to the report, the area in question consists of over 850 square kilometers (323 square miles) of territorial water.

Beirut claims a maritime map it submitted to the United Nations matches an armistice accord with Israel from 1949 that is not contested by Israel.

In 2014, Berri made a similar appeal to US Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit to Lebanon, calling on the US to continue its efforts to resolve the dispute with Israel.

According to a US Geological Survey in 2010, the field may contain up to 123 trillion cubic feet of gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil.

Lebanon, a resource-poor nation, is relying on the drilling site to provide the government with the means of paying off its mounting high debts.

In 2014 the then Lebanese energy minister, Gebran Bassil, announced that his country planned to conduct its first ever oil exploration drilling within the next few months. However, the US asked Lebanese officials to hold off on drilling in disputed waters until a final deal on borders was reached.

The Mediterranean Sea has become a new frontier of energy exploration with foreign investment lured in to prospect via deep-water drilling.

The Leviathan natural gas field, which is located about 80 miles off Israel’s coastline, contains 17 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Its detection in 2010 was one of the world’s biggest offshore discoveries in a decade. Developing the field has been dependent on the approval of a controversial agreement with an Israeli-US consortium that has faced persistent opposition from critics who say it gives away too much to the developers.

Adiv Sterman and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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