The Lebanese leadership has warned Israel of violations of their nation’s territory, with Israel’s activity in the maritime zone being labelled “provocative and hostile” by Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s President. Will the dispute over maritime and land borders between Tel Aviv and Beirut lead to an escalation?
A potentially explosive dispute has emerged between Israel and Lebanon, over territorial waters that are claimed by the Lebanese State and are now being violated by Israeli exploration crews. The disputed area in question is the Karish field. The Karish field is clearly within the Lebanese territorial scope and is claimed by both Israel and Lebanon, yet misleading reports in Western media — including in Reuters — state that it is “about 80 km (50 miles) west of the city of Haifa [north of occupied Palestine]”. To state, as Western media and Israel have been doing, that Karish is simply “West” of Haifa is completely incorrect, anyone who looks at a map will see that it is far North of Haifa city, whereas the Leviathan fields are directly to Haifa’s West.
In response to an alleged exploration ship that headed to Karish field, Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, said that Israeli is “encroaching on Lebanon’s maritime wealth, and imposing a fait accompli in a disputed area”, going on to call the situation “extremely dangerous”. Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s President, also warned Israel of any attempts to impose a new equation over the disputed maritime borders and land areas. Negotiations over the disputed territory have been on and off, since October 2020, with Israel consistently insisting that the entirety of Karish field falls within their exclusive economic zone. Although Lebanon has the clear ability to demand the entire Karish field area, so far it has seemed that they are claiming the largest chunk of it, but not its entirety.
If gas and oil in this field, which is believed to be a gold mine, indeed turns out to be abundant, this could be a solution to Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis and may provide the Lebanese State with the ability to solve its ongoing electricity problems. The single field is separated from a cluster of fields, which is generally labelled the “Leviathan fields”, that Israel is already exploiting and is seeking to expand upon in the near future, potentially to ensure the expected profit cannot be used in Lebanon’s economic recovery. Israel has no immediate need for the Karish field and there is still work to do in even discovering the resources that are believed to be located there, yet Tel Aviv will not let this issue go. Both Israel and Lebanon, which are technically under a ceasefire in a state of war, say that through American mediation there will be an agreement reached. Lebanon has welcomed Amos Hochstein, the US mediator on this issue, calling on the Americans to revive efforts to resolve the issue diplomatically.
Although there is hope that the issue will be solved diplomatically, there is a huge potential problem, and that is the power imbalance at play here. The US is explicitly pro-Israel, and Israel is a much more powerful State than Lebanon. Tel Aviv is also not known for its ability to give concessions for nothing in return. The US government is also reportedly fiercely opposed to Lebanon getting its hands on the offshore crude oil and natural gas, through its own exploration projects, in the event that it would guarantee its sovereignty over the area. Again, Israel really does not need the Karish field, despite its potential treasure trove. The field itself is not exactly the most contentious territorial issue to the Israeli public either, such as giving up the West Bank or Golan Heights, or even the Shebaa Farms area that Israel still occupies from Lebanon. This being said, without any pressure placed on the Israeli regime, there would be no reason for them to give up a potentially resource rich area to their sworn enemy.
This is where the Lebanese resistance forces come into the equation, specifically Lebanese Hezbollah. This Monday, the Deputy Secretary General of Hezbollah, Sheikh Naim Qassem, stated that “when the Lebanese state says that the Israelis are assaulting our waters and our oil, then we are ready to do our part in terms of pressure, deterrence and use of appropriate means – including force”. Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary General, also stated in a speech last month that the group will not sit by idly if Israel attempts to violate Lebanon’s sovereignty. What is interesting here is that Hezbollah also issued a threat that a “regional explosion” would come as a result of continued violations of the Holy shrines in the old city of Jerusalem, by Israel, which is yet to occur despite the threats from various Palestinian groups.
There has so far been three physical border quarrels between Israel and Lebanon this month, with attempts by Israeli forces to intimidate the Lebanese civil defence. If Hezbollah is looking to act against Israel, it may not be alone in doing so, having regional forces poised to also act in retaliation for Israel’s large-scale desecration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound around two weeks ago and the continued incursions into the site. Iran also vows to respond to the assassination of one of its IRGC members in southern Tehran, which they blame on Tel Aviv. There is also much enthusiasm from the Lebanese public for Hezbollah to act to ensure the defense of the maritime borders and the Karish field which could alleviate much of the nation’s economic issues. With the US not yet looking immediately ready to facilitate talks between the two sides, due in large part to the belief that the Israeli government could collapse soon, this may well be a window with which Hezbollah can find the backing of the Lebanese public to try to teach Israel a lesson and provide incentive for Tel Aviv to give up its claim to Lebanon’s oil and gas.