US mediates border dispute between Lebanon and Israel amid rising tensions

Lebanon’s claim for its southern maritime border overlaps Israeli claims.
Sunday 25/02/2018
Farmers are seen near the border with Israel close to the village of Kfar Kila in Lebanon, on February 10. (Reuters)
Rising tensions. Farmers are seen near the border with Israel close to the village of Kfar Kila in Lebanon, on February 10. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Tensions over Lebanon’s southern land and maritime borders with Israel have flared, exacerbating fears of war between the Jewish state and Iran-backed Hezbollah.

While the more pressing concern is linked to the ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and Israel’s attempts to thwart Iranian entrenchment, disputes over the path of the land border and the maritime boundary added to complexities and war fears.

David Satterfield, a veteran US diplomat, recently shuttled between Lebanon and Israel to mediate a dispute over the maritime boundary, which has taken on increased importance because of anticipated oil and gas reserves beneath the eastern Mediterranean and straddling Lebanese and Israeli territory.

Despite the intensity of the rhetoric, it is unlikely the sovereignty disputes will spark fighting between Hezbollah and Israel.

The land border conflict is about Israel replacing its technical fence along the border with a concrete wall. Lebanon complained that the wall will make permanent the border, which could prejudice discussions over its delineation.

The maritime boundary is thornier. Lebanon’s claim for its southern maritime border overlaps with Israeli claims, leaving an 854-sq.-km triangular sliver of disputed sea. The disagreement has been festering since 2010 when Lebanon submitted its maritime boundary proposal to the United Nations.

However, the issue hardened because part of the disputed zone is included in an offshore oil and gas exploration block that makes up Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Lebanon has a strong case for sticking by its maritime boundary claim. Lebanon’s endpoint, 123km out to sea, follows a cartographic rule of being equidistant between three locations on shore — the Akrotiri Peninsula in Cyprus, the promontory of Haifa in Israel and Ras Naqoura on the Lebanon-Israel border.

Further, Lebanon’s line appears to have been tacitly accepted by Israel before it was delivered by Beirut to the United Nations in 2010. The northern edges of Israel’s own gas exploration blocks follow the same path. Buoys placed by the Israeli Navy off Ras Naqoura correspond to the Lebanese line.

This is why Lebanese officials said they will not accept a compromise.

In 2012, Frederic Hof, then a diplomat with the US State Department and an expert on borders in the Middle East, proposed a line that would give Lebanon around two-thirds of the disputed zone and Israel the remaining third.

The “Hof Line” was rejected by Lebanon at the time but has been reintroduced by the United States. Lebanon is sticking by its refusal. Israel argues for the entire zone.

Lebanon agreed in December to allow a consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek to begin exploratory drilling in two blocks, one of which, Block 9, straddles the disputed area. Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman called Lebanon’s decision a “very challenging and provocative move.”

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah described the dispute as a “battle for all of Lebanon” and threatened to destroy Israel’s oil and gas platforms.

“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 recent rally.

The problem stems from 2007 when Lebanon and Cyprus agreed on the delineation of their respective EEZs. The most southerly point of the EEZ boundary lies 17km north-east of where Lebanon, three years later, staked its claim for the end point of its maritime boundary.

The EEZ agreement allows for a readjustment of the final point if Lebanon and Israel concur on their mutual EEZs but a precedent had been set and Israel exploited it in 2010 by using the same point as the beginning of its EEZ boundary with Cyprus, leading to the overlap.

Satterfield has a tough diplomatic assignment in trying to forge a compromise between Lebanon and Israel even though less than 10% of Block 9 falls within the disputed zone. The French-Italian-Russian consortium signalled it will not explore near the disputed area.

Whether or not Satterfield is successful in his diplomatic efforts, neither Lebanon nor Israel have an interest in seeing the maritime boundary dispute turn violent