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Lebanon appeals to UN as maritime energy dispute bubbles to surface

Beirut says Jerusalem bid to legislate over area of sea with possible energy reserves is tantamount to a ‘declaration of war’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Buoys marking the border between Israel and Lebanon. CC BY Chadica, Flickr)
Buoys marking the border between Israel and Lebanon. CC BY Chadica, Flickr)

Lebanon has appealed to the United Nations to intervene following moves by Israel to formalize a maritime border between the two countries that gives the Jewish state rights to a potentially lucrative patch of sea.

Nabih Berri, Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, has called Israel’s decision to advance a Maritime Areas Bill a “new attack on Lebanon’s sovereignty” that is tantamount to a “declaration of war.”

“The recent decision taken by Israel on the territorial waters is equal to a declaration of war on Lebanon,” he told Lebanese media last week.

“This will be the Shebaa Farms conflict at sea, which will open a situation with many dangerous possibilities,” he warned, referring to a terrestrial area of dispute between Israel and Lebanon on the Golan Heights.

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)

Israel is moving ahead with legislation aimed at defining those parts of the Mediterranean Sea where it will enjoy exclusive rights to look for and use natural resources, such as oil and gas, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported earlier this month.

That move is apparently in response to Lebanon’s recent publication of a tender for exploration within the same disputed area.

Israel and Lebanon do not have a peace agreement and are technically still at war.

Attempts by the United Nations and the US to help fix a maritime border have led nowhere.

Maritime map of the eastern Mediterranean showing Exclusive Economic Zone borders, including an area of dispute (marked 4) between Israel and Lebanon. Source: IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2012 (www.iemed.org/medyearbook)
Maritime map of the eastern Mediterranean showing Exclusive Economic Zone borders, including an area of dispute (marked 4) between Israel and Lebanon. Source: IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2012 (www.iemed.org/medyearbook)

International law calls on neighboring countries in such a situation to reach agreement on their maritime borders by meeting in the middle — something Israel and Lebanon have been unable to do.

At issue is a roughly 860 square kilometer (332 square mile) triangular patch of the Mediterranean Sea where oil and gas reserves are predicted to generate up to $600 billion over the next few decades.

The triangle meets at Rosh Hanikra on the Israeli-Lebanese border, and fans out into Cypriot economic waters.

The issue surfaced after Cyprus and Israel signed a maritime border agreement in 2010, the Globes newspaper reported, though for a time it was mostly ignored.

That seems to have changed, though, with the formation of a new Lebanese government backed by the Hezbollah terror group and headed by President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, both of whom have made resisting Israel central planks of their policies.

The Israeli legislation would give the energy minister responsibility for supervising the disputed maritime zone, moving it out of the exclusive purview of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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