A long-running dispute between Lebanon and Israel concerning land and maritime borders has recently been making headlines again – although those getting their news from the BBC would not be aware of that fact. The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s related visit to Beirut on February 15th (as part of a Middle East tour that was barely covered by the corporation) was not reported and neither were related threats from the head of a terrorist organisation.
As Ha’aretz reported:
“During a press conference in Beirut on Thursday, Tillerson, who arrived in Lebanon as part of his Mideast trip, discussed the growing tensions between Israel and Lebanon, and urged Lebanese leaders to ensure the border between the two countries remains calm.
Lebanon has an unresolved dispute with Israel over the territorial and maritime border issues, in particular concerning Block 9 in the Mediterranean sea which extends partly into waters claimed by Israel. Recently Lebanon has signed an offshore oil and gas exploration and production agreements for the contentious block.”
The US has been trying to mediate between Israel and Lebanon on that issue for some time – as explained in a comprehensive article by Oded Eran of the INSS.
“In late 2011, Israel, out of a willingness to compromise, began to look for diplomatic ways to resolve the developing dispute. In inter-ministerial consultations, the decision was taken not to grant new licenses for the area under dispute in order to facilitate a compromise solution. It was decided not to use UNIFIL as a channel for discussion between Israel and Lebanon, since the mandate of the Force does not refer to the maritime border, and Israel prefers to avoid UN mediation. The Israel interest in mediation led to several contacts by third parties, and ultimately American mediation was the preferred option.
In February 2012, State Department Special Envoy for Middle East Peace Frederic Hof, who was heavily involved in developments in Syria in the framework of the Arab Spring, undertook the task of mediation. Israel reiterated to him its willingness to resolve the dispute by reaching a compromise in direct talks with representatives of the Lebanese government. In April 2012, at separate meetings in London (in view of the Lebanese refusal to participate in a joint meeting), Hof submitted a proposed compromise involving division of the disputed area. On May 2, 2013, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Liberman approved the American proposal, even though it granted Lebanon a larger share of the area. To this day no official response from Lebanon has been received, although according to reports of US diplomats in contact with the Lebanese government, they discussed inter alia depositing the proposal with the UN. From this it appears that the proposal was acceptable to the Lebanese government.”
As the Times of Israel reported, the dispute also includes a barrier which is being constructed by Israel along its border with Lebanon.
“On Monday, Lebanese military officials told their Israeli counterparts during face-to-face talks that the border wall violates Lebanon’s sovereign territory.
Israel has been building the obstacle — made up of a collection of berms, cliffs and concrete barriers — for a long time, but it has only now angered Beirut.”
Prior to the US Secretary of State’s visit to Beirut:
“Lebanon’s top security body on Wednesday instructed the country’s military to confront any Israeli “aggression” on its land or maritime borders. […]
Hezbollah, a powerful terror group considered to have more military clout than the Lebanese army itself, recently threatened to open fire on IDF soldiers building the barrier, Israel’s Hadashot TV news reported last week.”
Of course under the terms of UN Security Council resolution 1701, the border area is supposed to be “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL”.
The day after Mr Tillerson’s visit, Lebanon dismissed the US mediation efforts.
“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.”
And on the same day, the leader of the Hizballah terror organisation weighed in.
“Hezbollah on Friday urged Lebanon to stand firm in its offshore energy dispute with Israel and warned it could act against Israeli oil facilities if necessary, as the U.S. mediates between the two countries.
In a televised address, the leader of the heavily-armed, Iran-backed movement, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, described the issue as a “battle for all of Lebanon”.
“If Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council were to decide that (Israeli) offshore oil and gas plants…should be forbidden from working, I promise they would stop working within hours,” he told a rally.”