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Israeli official: Demand is 'at best a failed joke'

Hezbollah demands return of border rail tunnel in likely bid to torpedo Israel talks

Minister aligned with terror group says passage, closed since Israel’s creation in 1948, is Lebanon’s sovereign territory; remark seen as trying to complicate maritime negotiations

Rosh Hanikra railway tunnel (Rimonah Traub, 2012, via Wikimedia Commons)
Rosh Hanikra railway tunnel (Rimonah Traub, 2012, via Wikimedia Commons)

A Lebanese minister affiliated with the Hezbollah terror group demanded Monday that Israel give Lebanon control over a long-shuttered rail tunnel that goes from Israel’s northern border town of Rosh Hanikra and stretches hundreds of meters into Lebanon.

“Our sovereign rights lie in our decision to restore every inch of the occupied tunnel, without compromising our decision to restore our land and sea borders as well,” Hamieh said during a visit to the Lebanese side of the border, Israel’s Channel 12 news reported.

Dug in 1941 by the British rulers, the 695-meters-long tunnel was part of a rail system that once linked Egypt to Turkey, passing through British Mandate Palestine and Lebanon. It has been closed since Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. In 2000, when Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon, it filled the Lebanese exit with concrete while the tunnel remained under Israeli control as a closed military zone.

Hamieh also demanded that the concrete barrier be pulled down.

Israeli sources were cited by Channel 12 as saying that relinquishing control of the tunnel would present a threat to Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra, which lies along the border.

Hamieh’s comments were seen as an effort to torpedo talks between Israel and Lebanon aimed at resolving their disputed maritime border and the question of who has rights to lucrative offshore gas fields.

The former British Cairo-Istanbul railway tunnel photographed in 1964 in Rosh Hanikra (Wikimedia commons)

Though Lebanese authorities have not made any demands about the tunnel for many years, the subject was previously raised by the Lebanese negotiating team in the maritime talks, according to the report.

The report said Hezbollah views the tunnel as a way of gaining leverage in the negotiations. However, political opponents to Hezboallh in Beirut are claiming the demand is just a distraction intended to complicate the maritime talks.

Screen capture from video of Lebanon’s Hezbollah-allied Public Works Minister Ali Hamieh, October 2021. (YouTube)

Moshe Davidovich, head of the Mateh Asher Regional Council, said in a statement that the “delusionary demand by the Lebanese government is at best a failed joke and at worst a foolish attempt to undermine the facts about the State of Israel.”

Hezbollah has recently escalated its rhetoric and actions over the border dispute, after Israel moved a natural gas drilling vessel into its Karish field, which Lebanon claims is a disputed area. Lebanon protested the development and Hezbollah made threats to attack the field. In its boldest move, Hezbollah sent three drones toward the Karish platform on July 2, all of which were intercepted by the IDF.

Last week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel with war, saying that drones sent recently to the Karish gas field were “only the beginning.”

“Write down this equation — we will reach Karish and everything beyond Karish and everything beyond that… If you want to prevent Lebanon from exercising its right to save itself by extracting oil and gas, no one will be able to extract oil and gas,” he said in a televised speech marking 16 years since the Second Lebanon War.

Last month, US energy envoy Amos Hochstein discussed with Israel’s negotiating team a Lebanese proposal to resolve the maritime dispute.

According to Hochstein, Lebanon had agreed to drop demands for control of part of the Karish field claimed by Israel, asking in exchange for full control of the Qana gas field that also straddles the countries’ offshore economic zones.

Israel says the Karish field is part of its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone and has been seeking to develop it as it tries to position itself as a natural gas supplier to Europe.

Earlier in June, Israel, Egypt and the European Union signed a memorandum of understanding in Cairo that will see Israel export its natural gas to the bloc for the first time.

Nasrallah’s speech last Wednesday coincided with US President Joe Biden’s first visit to the region as president. Hochstein, the US negotiator, joined Biden on the Israel and Saudi Arabia legs of the trip.

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