Israel, Hezbollah square off over eastern Med gas dispute
Beirut - Israel’s unilateral move to establish sovereignty over a disputed maritime zone claimed by Lebanon in the eastern Mediterranean, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas, is adding tensions to a region fearful of a new war between these long-time protagonists.
Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s parliamentary speaker and a staunch supporter of the politically troubled country’s bid to develop its potential offshore oil and gas wealth and rescue its tottering economy, declared that Israel’s decision was “tantamount to a war”.
The dispute between Israel and Lebanon has been going on for years but the Israeli government’s plans to propose legislation that could effectively annex the contested maritime sector would further agitate the relationship.
Berri, a Shia ally of Hezbollah, which Israel considers an implacable enemy, warned that such a move would open “many dangerous possibilities”.
Lebanon has brought a formal complaint over Israel’s plan to the United Nations but the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which has repeatedly warned Israel to steer clear of the disputed maritime zone, has remained silent.
Hezbollah is in possession of a little-publicised amphibious warfare unit that analysts say could be used in the Mediterranean if war with the Jewish state were to break out. The prospect is causing considerable alarm.
In January, Lebanon opened five offshore blocks to bidding in its first round of licensing after a three-year delay. Three of the blocks are within the disputed zone, which forms an 854-sq.km triangle.
This action seems to have provoked Israel, prompting a bill in parliament claiming sovereignty over the area.
How seriously the Israelis are considering the annexation of the disputed zone is unclear. The bill may be no more than a knee-jerk response to Lebanon’s decision to open its offshore blocks for international oil companies to bid on. These firms are already spooked by the simmering tension between Lebanon and Israel, as well as the wider dimensions of the wars in Syria and Iraq.
However, if Israel’s parliament annexes the disputed zone, there could be a military reaction from Hezbollah, which is already heavily engaged in the Syrian conflict with its mentor Iran. Israel is threatened by recent developments in Syria, where Hezbollah has begun encroaching on areas of the Golan Heights that overlook northern parts of the Jewish state.
Given Hezbollah’s military commitments in the region, a maritime war with Israel is probably not on its leaders’ agenda but as a self-declared defender of Lebanese sovereignty against Israeli aggression, it would be difficult for Hezbollah to ignore the Jewish state’s seizure of territory it claims, especially when the disputed zone contains top prospects for oil and gas exploration.
Hezbollah’s marine unit dates to the 1990s and has personnel trained at Iran’s amphibious warfare school in Bandar Abbas, the Islamic Republic’s naval headquarters. The unit monitors Lebanon’s coastline and has offensive capabilities that include seaborne insertions on Israeli beaches or sabotage operations in Israeli ports.
It is also believed to possess various vessels, such as Zodiac rigid inflatable boats, semi-submersible fast-attack craft and swimmer-dispersal vessels designed to carry several frogmen under water.
Hezbollah also possesses Nour anti-ship missiles, an Iranian reverse-engineered version of the Chinese C-802 that was used to disable an Israeli corvette in the 2006 war.
Some are concerned that the organisation has also acquired Russian Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, which have a range of 300km and could be used to impose a sea blockade on Israel. Such missiles could be used to target Israel’s offshore gas platforms around the Leviathan field, Israel’s main gas-producing unit.
Russia is believed to have supplied an unknown number of these advanced weapons to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hezbollah’s ally. Hezbollah’s development of armed drones opens the possibility that Israeli platforms could be attacked from that quarter.
After decades of war, Israel takes threats from Hezbollah extremely seriously, particularly given the vulnerability of oil and gas rigs.
In addition to unmanned sea vessels and anti-missile systems to protect its rigs and shipping supplies, the Israeli Navy employs an array of above-water and underwater sensors.
The US weekly military journal Defense News reported that the threat posed by Hezbollah in the Mediterranean has led Israel to double the number of Iron Dome anti-missile systems fitted onto four new German-built corvettes set to enter service in 2019.
Israel and Hezbollah are already at daggers drawn over the Golan Heights as well as over Iran and Syria’s transfer of advanced weapons into Lebanon. Concerns that the two could soon come to blows after a decade of relative calm that followed their 34-day war in 2006 are rising.
The growing tensions over the fate of eastern Mediterranean energy resources pose an increased risk of conflict. The United Nations and the United States should intervene to soothe the tension.