Israel and Lebanon have traded threats over the ownership of a potentially lucrative natural gas field in the Mediterranean.
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The Lebanese media reported last week that the country’s speaker of its parliament, Nabih Berri, asked the American government to help it in its conflict with Israel over the disposition of natural gas reserves under the Mediterranean Sea. According to a report in Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper, Berri made an official request on the matter directly to the US Secretary of State John Kerry when the latter visited Lebanon last Wednesday.
Berri said that Israel is “ignoring the fact that according to the maps the deposit extends into Lebanese waters.”
In response, Israeli Minister of National Infrastructures Uzi Landau stated, “We will not hesitate to use our force and strength to protect not only the rule of law but the international maritime law.”
The Lebanese, it seems, offered the Americans a future partnership in the exploitation of such natural gas deposits, as well as oil, as an incentive to take their side in the dispute.
The disagreement between Israel and Lebanon centers on claims made by both countries to sovereignty over a 530 square mile are in the Mediterranean near the land border between the two countries. The issue is the result of an ambiguity when it comes to marking international boundaries between nations outward and into a sea.
Robbie Sable, a professor of international law at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said that Lebanon’s claim is complicated because Lebanon’s border with Israel is indented, which makes it more difficult to establish where Israel’s waters end and Lebanese waters begin.
The disputed area is said to be rich in offshore gas and oil fields. Specifically, Lebanon claims sovereignty over a field called Block 9 which is almost 4 kilometers from Lebanon’s official territorial waters. Israel claims the same area as its own.
It is no wonder that the two nations both want to claim the field. It is said to hold as much as 123 trillion cubic feet of gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil. Lebanon is not as wealthy as Israel and desperately needs the new source of income that the filed would provide to pay down its high foreign debt. Lebanese Energy Minister Gebran Bassi already announced Lebanon’s intention to begin drilling there this year.
Block 9 is near Israel’s Leviathan gas field, located about 80 miles west of Haifa. Leviathan was discovered in 2010. Israel claimed this area, as well as the location of Block 9, and has declared it to be Israel’s exclusive economic zone.
In August 2010, Lebanon submitted to the United Nations its official position on its maritime border with Israel in which it indicated that Leviathan gas field is not in Lebanese territory, but this did not include other possible gas fields. At the time the American government expressed support for the Lebanon proposal.
The United States has attempted to mediate the dispute in the past, but with no success. For now, it has asked the Lebanese government to delay its drilling plans until a final settlement can be reached.