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Testing of gas pipeline set to start at Karish drilling site amid Hezbollah threats

Defense minister warns of ‘resolute’ response to any attack as proposed maritime deal flounders; ‘And if things develop into a broader conflict, we will take Lebanon apart’

Left: Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at the launch of the National Unity party campaign for the upcoming elections in Tel Aviv, September 6, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90); Right: An Israeli Sa’ar Class 5 Corvette guards the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Karish gas field, in footage published by the military on July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)
Left: Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at the launch of the National Unity party campaign for the upcoming elections in Tel Aviv, September 6, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90); Right: An Israeli Sa’ar Class 5 Corvette guards the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Karish gas field, in footage published by the military on July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Gas drilling company Energean is set to start testing the pipeline of the Karish gas rig, according to Saturday reports on Israeli television, despite heightened tensions with Lebanon over the site as the sides continue to struggle to reach a maritime border deal.

Channel 12 reported that Israel’s security establishment has given the company the green light to start its tests. Kan news reported that these could begin as soon as Sunday. Full operations could begin within weeks once tests are completed.

The Karish gas field has been at the center of the conflict with Lebanon over gas drilling rights, with terrorist group Hezbollah repeatedly warning it could attack if gas extraction begins without an agreement being reached over drilling rights.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel would move ahead with extraction plans even if no deal is reached and warned Hezbollah that any attack would meet a “resolute” response.

“If Hezbollah makes that mistake and attacks Israel in any way, by air, sea or land, Israel will defend itself resolutely, it will attack resolutely, and if things develop into a broader conflict, we will take Lebanon apart, and that would be a great pity,” he told Channel 12.

He said he hoped a deal would be signed soon, but acknowledged that Lebanon had issued fresh “caveats we do not approve of.”

“We’ve said so and it’s in Lebanon’s hands now,” Gantz stated.

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

In a separate interview with Kan, Gantz said: “If we reach a deal with the Lebanese government it will be good for both sides. It will be good for stability and serve all players.”

He said Israel was “not anxious” over Hezbollah’s threats. “We keep making clear that Israel is prepared for a deal, [but] Israel is determined to maintain its economic and security interests.”

Gantz also rejected opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticism of the proposed accord. The former prime minister has accused the government of bargaining away Israel’s “sovereign territory” and has said he will not be obligated by it if he returns to power.

Gantz brushed away the comments Saturday, saying Netanyahu “would have run to sign” such a deal, and insisting it served the country’s economic and security interests. He said the former premier was “engaged solely in political manipulation.”

Likud party and opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media in Tel Aviv, October 3, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Gantz’s office on Saturday invited Netanyahu to a security briefing to provide him details on the proposed deal.

On Friday, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides also shot down right-wing claims the accord was a surrender to Hezbollah.

“That is ridiculous,” Nides told JTA. He also said Netanyahu “supported a very similar deal a few years ago.”

On Friday, Lebanon seemed to be sticking firm to its stance on the proposed maritime deal despite reported pressure from the Biden administration to drop some of its demands.

The Hezbollah-linked Al-Akhbar newspaper quoted a Lebanese official telling US mediator Amos Hochstein that “Lebanon does not intend to retract its comments” on the deal. The unnamed Lebanese official added that “it’s on the US to fulfill its promises and manage the issue with Israel.”

Despite indications earlier this week that the deal was close to being sealed, it has since appeared to falter as Lebanese negotiators insist on certain changes that have been rejected by Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, gives a televised speech for the Shiite commemoration of Arbaeen, September 17, 2022. (Twitter screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

According to Kan, the Biden administration was pressing Lebanon to drop some of its demands as Hochstein remained in direct contact with both sides.

Although the deal’s exact points of contention remain unconfirmed, Al-Akhbar reported Tuesday that Beirut did not agree to recognize Israel’s buoy-marked boundary — which Jerusalem unilaterally placed five kilometers (3.1 miles) off the coast of the northern town of Rosh Hanikra in 2000 — as an international border.

The report also claimed Beirut was against the idea of demarcating a land border as part of the agreement and maintained that the issue must instead be reserved for discussions with the United Nations.

On Thursday, as the maritime deal stalled, Gantz placed IDF forces on alert after holding a situation assessment with military chief Aviv Kohavi.

“The defense minister directed the IDF to prepare for a scenario of escalation in the north, both offensively and defensively, given the developments in the negotiations on the maritime border,” a statement from Gantz’s office said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report

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