Lebanon-Israel maritime border disputeLebanon has 95.9 trillion cubic feet of gas and 865 million barrels of oil in just 45 percent of its economic waters; enough to ignite the closed Mediterranean region. To the south, its neighbor Israel claims ownership of 860km of the exclusive economic zone of Lebanon, to the north Syria is drowning in war, then there is Cyprus, which is lost between its Turkish and Greek affiliations.
The most comprehensive multilateral convention in the history of general international law is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It was adopted as the exclusive economic zone extending 200 miles - about 370km of the shoreline - to which Lebanon had acceded under Law 295 on February 22 1994. The matter is complicated by the fact that Israel has not signed this agreement. While Lebanon signed its first oil and gas exploration and exploration agreements in February 2018, this small country strives to solve the problems it faces in demarcating its maritime border which will have a direct impact on the extraction process if a solution is found quickly.
The overlapping zone between the two countries’ EEZ resulted in a disputed area over 850 km2, in the shape of a triangle whose western apex is the Israeli-Lebanese land border and seaward base is Israel and Cyprus EEZs. Both sides agree that Ras al-Naqoura lies on the common land border. However, they disagree on the angle of the line drawn from Ras al-Naqoura toward the Cyprus EEZ. The area is relatively small when compared with both countries’ EEZ, which totals 48,000 km2, and does not overlap with the gas fields discovered so far, in particular the Tamar and Leviathan. Nevertheless, the area may contain potentially significant hydrocarbon resources given its location near the center of the Levant Basin.
This legal dispute was accompanied by tensions between the two countries and appeared in the speeches of several Israeli and Lebanese government officials. Lebanese politicians declared that Lebanon has the right to explore its resources. Israeli officials have warned of retaliation for attacks on its oil and gas facilities, and have vowed they won't surrender any gas reserves and will use military forces to protect them.
Lebanon and Israel began negotiations about their Mediterranean Sea maritime borders in October to try to resolve a dispute that has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area. Lebanon and Israel have resumed US-mediated talks on a dispute about their Mediterranean Sea border. Negotiations between the old foes began in October to try to resolve the dispute which has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area, but the talks stalled. Tuesday talks will reopen issues of border issues to both sides. The countries held several rounds of talks hosted by the United Nations at a peacekeepers base in southern Lebanon, the culmination of three years of diplomacy by the United States.
Resolving the border issue could pave the way for lucrative oil and gas deals on both sides. And Lebanon's economy needs all the help it can get. Its unprecedented financial meltdown has pushed most Lebanese into poverty since 2019 and has sent the price of staple foods soaring.
Lebanon and Israel are still technically at war. They have no diplomatic relations. Israel invaded Lebanon twice during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war to battle Palestinians who had launched cross-border attacks, and it occupied a strip of territory in southern Lebanon until 2000. The United Nations has monitored the land boundary since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 at the end of the 22-year occupation. In 2006, Israel and Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group fought a 34-day war to a draw.
The US has pushed for years for negotiations to resolve the dispute and brokered deals for two Gulf Arab states to establish full ties with Israel, but to no success. Lebanon and Israel hold monthly tripartite indirect meetings in Naqoura to discuss violations along their border. The issue of the shared maritime border is sensitive, mainly because of a dispute over coastal drilling rights. They each claim about 860 square kilometres (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their own exclusive economic zones. The two nations have been negotiating based on a map registered with the United Nations in 2011.
But Lebanon considers that map to have been based on wrong estimates and in April demanded an additional 1,430 sq km (552 sq miles) of sea farther south, which includes part of Israel's Karish gas field, according to Lebanese energy expert Laury Haytayan. It also includes Block 72, a few kilometers east of Karish, which the Israeli government gave Noble Energy permission to conduct exploratory drilling in 2019. Lebanese President Michel Aoun has said the demarcation line should start from the land point of Ras Naqoura, as defined under a 1923 agreement, and extend seaward in a trajectory that extends the disputed area.
Israel already pumps gas from huge offshore fields elsewhere in its economic waters. Israel’s Leviathan field, located 130 km (80 miles) off Israel’s coast, already supplies the Israeli domestic market and exports gas to Jordan and Egypt. Its shareholders include Chevron and Delek Drilling.
But Lebanon had yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters. In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for offshore drilling for oil and gas with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek. Two blocks (4 and 9) in the eastern Mediterranean are part of the deal, but Israel claims that part of Block 9 belongs to the Jewish state.
Lebanon began offshore drilling in early 2020 and wants to soon start drilling for gas in the disputed area with Israel. Lebanon is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. The financial meltdown has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and by an explosion that wrecked a swathe of Beirut in August, killing nearly 200 people. In 2020, Lebanon’s then parliament speaker Nabih Berri Berri, said the gas discoveries on the Israeli side of the Mediterranean “prove that there are reserves and God willing this will help us pay our debt.” Lebanon has one of the highest debt ratios in the world standing at about 170 percent of its GDP. Three of Lebanon's 10 offshore blocks are along the disputed maritime border with Israel.
Israel has accused Lebanon of changing its position seven times and of contradicting its own assertions. Another hurdle is that Lebanon's bickering politicians are either unwilling or unable to form a government. Lebanon's outgoing public works minister, Michel Najjar, signed a decree to extend the claim to include the 1,430 sq KM (550 sq miles) at sea but the decree still requires the president's signature.
The Lebanese government signed an agreement with Cyprus that delineates its western EEZ border in defining six equidistant points along a West line from South to North. However, the Lebanese Parliament did not ratify this agreement due to political pressure coming from Turkey who wanted to include the Northern part of Cyprus in any agreement done by Cyprus. Another reason is that Lebanon wanted to reach a free trade agreement with Turkey; which was actually signed at the end of November 2010. Therefore, this non-ratified Agreement does not bind Lebanon.
In 2019 Lebanese government said a 2,000-km gas pipeline planned to bring gas from Israel to Europe should not violate its maritime borders, as Beirut still has an unresolved border dispute with Israel. Israel is hoping to enlist several European countries in the construction of a 2,000-km pipeline linking vast eastern Mediterranean gas resources to Europe through Cyprus, Greece, and Italy at a cost of $7 billion.
Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said he had written to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini and the foreign ministers of Cyprus, Greece, and Italy to request that the pipeline does not infringe on Lebanon's rights within what it claims as its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).