Hezbollah says rare maritime talks with Israel don’t mean normalization

Terror group’s political wing says landmark US-brokered indirect negotiations on disputed border, starting next week, are strictly about ‘reclaiming our land’

Illustrative: A Hezbollah supporter chants slogans as he holds his group's flag during a protest against US involvement in Lebanon's affairs, near the US embassy in Aukar, northeast of Beirut, Lebanon, July 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Illustrative: A Hezbollah supporter chants slogans as he holds his group's flag during a protest against US involvement in Lebanon's affairs, near the US embassy in Aukar, northeast of Beirut, Lebanon, July 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The Hezbollah terror group said Thursday that Lebanon’s rare, indirect talks with Israel beginning next week on a longstanding maritime border dispute do not constitute normalization or peace talks with the Jewish state.

Lebanon’s parliament speaker Nabih Berri confirmed last week that an agreement had been reached on a framework for the negotiations.

Israel had announced the talks several days earlier, saying Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz would lead the Israeli delegation.

“Despite all the talk that has been going around, the negotiating framework deals with our southern maritime borders and reclaiming our land, so as to delineate our national sovereignty,” the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, Hezbollah’s political wing, said in a statement Thursday.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with ‘reconciling’ with the rapacious Zionist enemy, nor with the normalization that some Arab countries have adopted,” the terror group added, referring to the recent deals Israel reached with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Yuval Steinitz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 18, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“These countries never believed in or practiced resistance against the nation’s enemy for a single day,” the statement said.

The talks will be mediated by the United States and will be held at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, in the southern border town of Naqoura under the banner of the United Nations, Assistant US Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker told reporters last week.

“Both sides seem eager to get a deal on this… [and] came under understanding that this was the time,” Schenker said.

Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as within their own exclusive economic zones.

Both are hoping to explore and develop new gas fields in the Mediterranean following a number of big finds in recent years. US diplomats have been shuttling between the two countries and pushing for direct talks for years.

Illustrative: Israel’s offshore Leviathan gas platform. (Albatross)

Lebanon, which is mired in a severe economic crisis, is especially eager to develop offshore energy resources.

UNIFIL last week welcomed the announcement of the talks and said in a statement that it was prepared to “extend to the parties all the support at its disposal.” The peacekeeping force added that it was also prepared to assist the sides in solving their Blue Line land border dispute.

Schenker said the US will “welcome” steps by the parties to resolve the Blue Line dispute. However, he clarified that the current talks are “a separate track.”

Indirect talks mean that Lebanese army negotiators will not be speaking directly to members of the Israeli delegation but through UN officials.

Schenker has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Beirut in recent months in an effort to reach an agreement where previous administrations have failed.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 10, 2019. (Dalati Nohra via AP)

The agreement on the framework comes as Lebanon is going through its worst economic and financial crisis in decades, compounded by the massive blast at Beirut’s port in August. Lebanon is hoping that oil and natural gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help it pay back its massive debt.

Lebanon began offshore drilling earlier this year and is expected to start drilling for gas in the disputed area with Israel in the coming months.

Israel invaded Lebanon during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war to battle Palestinian terrorists that had launched cross-border attacks, and it occupied a strip of territory in southern Lebanon until 2000.

In 2006, Israel fought a month-long war with Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran. The terror group has vastly expanded its arsenal of rockets and missiles since then, and today Israel views it as its most immediate military threat.

Neither side is believed to be seeking war, but they have traded fire on a number of occasions in recent years, and both have warned that a future conflict would be far more devastating for the other side.

Supporters of Hezbollah terror group leader Hassan Nasrallah chant slogans ahead of his televised speech in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, January 5, 2020. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the US and other countries, is part of a political alliance that dominates Lebanon’s parliament and government.

The Israeli government in May 2019 said it had agreed to enter US-mediated talks with Lebanon to resolve the maritime border dispute. However, pressure from Hezbollah was reported to have caused Beirut to back out.

In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for offshore drilling in two blocks in the Mediterranean for oil and gas with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.

Lebanon in April said initial drilling in an area known as Block 4 had shown traces of gas but no commercially viable reserves. Exploration of another area, Block 9, has not started and is much more controversial as Israel also claims ownership over part of it.

Jacob Magid, Aaron Boxerman and agencies contributed to this report.

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