search

Lebanese flotilla protests gas dispute along maritime border with Israel

No disturbances reported as protesters demand ‘our right to every inch of our waters,’ days ahead of expected visit by US broker of ongoing Beirut-Jerusalem talks

Lebanese protesters sail near an Israeli Navy vessel during a demonstration Lebanese protesters on a motorboat carry their national flag as they sail in front of an Israeli Navy vessel during a demonstration backing Lebanon's claims to disputed maritime oil and gas fields, near the southern border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, September 4, 2022. (AP/Mohammed Zaatari)
Lebanese protesters sail near an Israeli Navy vessel during a demonstration Lebanese protesters on a motorboat carry their national flag as they sail in front of an Israeli Navy vessel during a demonstration backing Lebanon's claims to disputed maritime oil and gas fields, near the southern border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, September 4, 2022. (AP/Mohammed Zaatari)

Lebanese protesters on Sunday sailed down the country’s coast in dozens of fishing boats and yachts toward Israel, days before a US envoy is expected in Beirut to continue mediating in a maritime border dispute between the two countries, and as reports circulate that an agreement could be imminent.

Lebanon and Israel, which have been officially at war since the latter’s creation in 1948, both claim an area of some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to exploit offshore gas reserves as it grapples with the worst economic crisis in its modern history. Lebanon and Israel kicked off maritime border talks almost two years ago.

Sunday’s flotilla carried Lebanese flags and banners, with slogans in Arabic, French and Hebrew expressing what they say is Lebanon’s right to its maritime oil and gas fields.

“We are demanding our right to every inch of our waters,” Aya Saleh, one of the protesters on a fishing boat, told The Associated Press. “And we are sending a message from the Lebanese people.”

Lebanese and Israel navy vessels were present, though no tensions occurred.

Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser for energy security at the US State Department, has shuttled between Beirut and Jerusalem to mediate the talks. He was last in Beirut in late July, when he informed Lebanese officials of Israel’s response to a proposal Lebanon made in June, and signaled optimism after his trip.

Lebanese protesters in boats demand the cash-strapped country’s right to disputed oil and gas fields on the Mediterranean Sea, near the southern marine border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, September 4, 2022. (AP Photo/ Mohammed Zaatari)

According to Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s office, Hochstein notified Lebanon’s adviser and deputy parliament speaker, Elias Bou Saab, that the American would visit Beirut later this week. Lebanese media have speculated that both countries could soon reach an agreement.

Also Sunday, the Saudi news network Al Arabiya reported that a US-brokered deal to end the two-year maritime border dispute is “almost complete.”

According to the reported emerging agreement, Israel’s Karish oil field, which was erected in June in an area near the border that Lebanon claims is contested, will remain under full Israeli control, while gas produced at the nearby Qana oil field will go exclusively to Lebanon.

However, tensions between Lebanon’s Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah and Israel have also simmered in recent months surrounding the border talks. In early July, the IDF shot down three Hezbollah unarmed drones flying over the disputed Karish gas field in the Mediterranean.

Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati criticized Hezbollah, saying the move could pose risks to the country. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in an interview that month that the terrorist group can locate and strike Karish and any other Israeli gas field.

The Israel Defense Forces said Sunday that it would conduct a three-day military drill along the Lebanese border in light of the recent tensions.

Energean’s floating production system (FPSO) at the Karish gas field in the Mediterranean Sea. (Energean)

Israel has sought to develop the Karish gas field, as it tries to position itself as a natural gas supplier to Europe. 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.

The dispute over the Israel-Lebanon maritime border has been going on for over a decade. In 2012, Lebanon rejected an American proposal to receive 550 square kilometers (212 square miles), or almost two-thirds of the area, while Israel would have received the remaining third.

The disputed area — a total of 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea — covers both the Karish and the Qana gas fields.

The Al Arabiya report cited White House officials who have said that resolving the dispute is “a priority” for US President Joe Biden’s administration.

When Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid spoke via phone last week, the White House noted that the two leaders discussed the ongoing negotiations to end the maritime border dispute.

Tobias Siegal contributed to this report.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed