Lebanon rejects US proposal to solve maritime border row with Israel

Hezbollah chief urges Lebanese leaders not to be divided by American ‘devils’ in dispute over oil-rich waters

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) meets Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (R) in Beirut on February 15, 2018. (AFP Photo/Stringer)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) meets Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (R) in Beirut on February 15, 2018. (AFP Photo/Stringer)

The speaker of Lebanon’s parliament on Friday rejected a US proposal to resolve a maritime border dispute between the country and Israel.

“The proposal is unacceptable,” Nabih Berri was quoted as telling acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield by the official NNA news agency.

Israel has recently escalated its threats over Lebanon’s invitation for offshore gas exploration bids along the countries’ maritime border claiming that Lebanon will be drilling in areas owned by Israel. Lebanese officials deny the Israeli statements, saying the area where the country plans to drill belongs to Lebanon.

The long-standing dispute resurfaced recently as Lebanon signed a deal with an international consortium to start exploratory offshore drilling next year.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described the exploration tender as “provocative” and suggested Lebanon had put out invitations for bids from international groups for a gas field “which is by all accounts ours.”

Illustrative photo of an oil rig in the Mediterranean Sea. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

His comments drew sharp condemnation from Hezbollah, as well as Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

The head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah urged fellow Lebanese leaders not to let the US administration divide their ranks while it mediates the dispute.

Hassan Nasrallah said in televised address Friday that the US administration, which has been mediating the dispute, is not an honest broker. Instead, Nasrallah called the Americans “the devils,” adding that US officials have defended Israel’s rights and issued threats to Lebanese politicians.

Details of the US mediation were not immediately available. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Lebanon Thursday, and the issue topped the agenda.

There are over 800 square kilometers (300 square miles) of waters claimed by the two countries. US officials have previously tried to mediate the dispute, including most recently by Satterfield, who visited the border area in south Lebanon last week, and was accompanying Tillerson on Thursday.

“We’ve asked no one to give up anything. Rather, we’re looking for a solution,” Tillerson told reporters at a joint press conference with Hariri in Beirut. Tillerson said “constructive” discussions are underway on how to break the “stalemate” on the issue.

In addition to the contested maritime border, Israel and Lebanon are also in a dispute over the construction of a border wall that Lebanon says encroaches on its territory. The US has been trying to mediate in the dispute, and Tillerson suggested Israel should stop building a border wall until the border between the two countries is agreed on.

A picture taken on February 8, 2018, from Lebanon’s southern border town of Naqura, shows Israeli crews working on a border wall between the countries. (AFP Photo/Mahmoud Zayyat)

He also said Hezbollah’s growing arsenal was a threat to Lebanon’s security and called on the Iranian-backed militia to cease its activities abroad to help reduce tensions in the region. Both the US and Israel consider the Shiite Lebanese group which has sent thousands of its fighters to shore up President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria to be a terrorist organization.

“Hezbollah’s presence in Syria has only perpetuated the bloodshed, increased the displacement of innocent people and propped up the barbaric Assad regime,” Tillerson said at the news conference with Hariri, a western ally whose coalition government includes the group.

“Their presence in Iraq and Yemen has also fueled violence. And the consequences of Hezbollah’s involvement in these far-off conflicts — which have nothing to do with Lebanon — are felt here.”

Earlier on Thursday, Tillerson met with key allies of Hezbollah, including President Michel Aoun, Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil and Berri.

Tillerson is the most senior official from the Trump administration to visit Lebanon and the first by a US secretary of state in four years.

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