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Natural Gas Dispute: Hezbollah, Feeling UN Pinch, Comes Out Swinging On Maritime Border With Israel

Lebanese MP Muhammad Raad, of the Loyalty to the Resistance bloc (i.e., the Hezbollah party), said yesterday that “rockets of the resistance will cover all of Israel. Even the city of Eilat won’t be spared” if Israel dares attack Lebanon over the natural gas border dispute. In the next breath, he demanded that all funding and cooperation stop with the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which has handed down four indictments and arrest warrants against Hezbollah members for their role in the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri. (According to Matthew Levitt, counterterrorism and intelligence director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the indictments include Mustafa Badreddine, cousin and brother-in-law to Imad Mughniyah, who was chief of the Hezbollah external operations branch known as the Islamic Jihad Organization. This is far too close for Hezbollah’s comfort.)

The Tribunal and the row over natural gas exploration rights are closely linked. The more cornered Hezbollah feels by the Tribunal, the more bellicose it will become over Lebanon’s trumped-up maritime dispute with Israel — particularly at a time when Hezbollah’s Syrian patron and supplier is hanging on by his fingernails. The clash over the maritime border offers Hezbollah exactly the cover it needs to consolidate its increasingly shaky position: by “defending” Lebanon’s natural gas claims (which are themselves a hostile and aggressive act against Israel), the group can continue to purport that it acts in Lebanon’s interests and as “resistance” against the Zionist state — which, lest any Lebanese forget, remains the ultimate enemy.

A year ago, before the gigantic Leviathan discovery had been made by Houston’s Noble Energy and Netanya’s Delek under the seabed off the Haifa coast, Lebanon proclaimed to the UN that it had decided its maritime border with Israel. Lebanon and Israel have been in a state of war since Israel’s founding, and Israel — continuing a policy of studied disregard concerning the maritime border — elected not to respond to Lebanon’s unilateral declaration.

Then came the Leviathan discovery at the end of last year and Israel’s subsequent explorations of the area. On July 9, as noted by Simon Henderson at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Lebanese paper published two front-page stories: one accusing Israel of stealing its natural resources, and the other asserting that Lebanon will fight to defend them.

The day after those pieces appeared, Israel — now concerned that silence in the face of Lebanon’s earlier border declaration might ultimately be viewed as acquiescence — announced that it would be submitting its own claim to the UN detailing what it believes the maritime border with Lebanon to be. Israel claims that the line unilaterally declared by Lebanon encroaches on Israeli territory. The Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructuresmap, which shows Israel’s recent government petroleum leases and licenses, implies a border that extends to the northwest, an approach consistent with the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Lebanese claim that the border should extend in a straight line due west from the spot at the coast where the countries meet, an assertion that contradicts the terms of that treaty.

The Washington Institute’s Henderson explains the Law of the Sea as it pertains to this region thus:

The main Law of the Sea principle by which maritime borders are drawn between two adjacent coastal states is the notion of “baselines,” or straight lines that run along the coast. Once this principle is applied, the border is drawn equidistantly from points along the coasts. In the case of Israel and Lebanon, this approach produces a border extending from the coast at approximately 300 degrees, or slightly below northwest. Although Lebanon has not revealed its official view, an Israeli newspaper has produced a map claiming the Lebanese line runs at 292 degrees. Arab media reports seem to suggest the line’s bearing should be 270 degrees — that is, directly west, continuing the rough line of the assumed land border between the two countries…

In Israel’s potential favor, a line of small reefs and rocky islands (viewable on Google Earth) lies several hundred yards offshore between the northern Israeli city of Nahariya and Ras Naqoura/Rosh Hanikra. According to Law of the Sea conventions, such islands could be considered the baseline for calculating the maritime border. If so, this would shift Israel’s EEZ [exclusive economic zone] even further northwest into what Lebanon currently regards as its own waters.

Henderson also notes that neither Israel nor Lebanon has signed the Law of the Sea treaty, so how this will end up is anyone’s guess.

Now, the Lebanese claim is highly suspect right out of the gate, since it contradicts Lebanon’s own (agreed-upon but not ratified) maritime border with Cyprus. It is thus unlikely to withstand close scrutiny should it be submitted to the UN for arbitration.   Still, nothing is certain, particularly as UN arbitration in disputes between Israel and her Arab neighbors is not guaranteed to be a shining example of unalloyed impartiality.

Hezbollah is talking tough, but hasn’t dusted off its long-range rockets just yet. Right now, it is enjoying an unusual congruence between its rhetorical line and that of its enemy, the party of Sa’ad Hariri (no doubt particularly welcome at a time when Hariri’s outrage over the Tribunal indictments is bubbling over). Yesterday, Lebanese MP Mohammad Qabbani — member of Hariri’s Future bloc and head of Parliament’s Public Works, Transport, Energy and Water Committee – threatened to complain to the UN Security Council over Israel’s “aggression” regarding the border dispute. According to Qabbani, Israel’s natural gas explorations “threaten international peace and security” and thus warrant full-on extortion until such time as she will yield to Lebanon’s territorial demands. “Following this move [the complaint at the Security Council],” he said, “and even if Israel does not abide by the UN resolution, large international [excavating and offshore drilling] companies will no more be able to operate in an area dubbed as disputed by the UN.”