Lebanon and Israel have nearly come to blows over Beirut’s offshore oil and gas exploration projects, a running standoff that has kept the Middle East on edge considering the tumultuous history between the two sides.
It all started last week, when Israel described as “very provocative” a Lebanese tender for projects in two of its 10 offshore blocks in the Mediterranean Sea.
In December, the cabinet of Prime Minister Saad Hariri granted licenses to a consortium of three international companies -- Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatek -- to carry out exploratory drilling in Lebanon’s Block 4 and Block 9 territorial waters and determine whether they contain oil and gas reserves.
Shadow of war
The announcement did not go down well in Tel Aviv, which claims sovereignty over Block 9.
“When they issue a tender on a gas field, including Block 9, which by any standard is ours ... this is very, very challenging and provocative conduct here,” said Israel’s minister of military affairs, Avigdor Lieberman.
Continuing his hostile comments, the Israeli war minister told a security conference in Tel Aviv that the international firms contracted by Lebanon were making “a grave error” by accepting the offer.
Lieberman picked up an even more aggressive line against Lebanon at the same event, warning that the country would "pay the full price" should another war erupt between the two sides.
Lebanon was quick to respond to the blatant threat, with Lebanese Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil stressing that Beirut was going to push ahead with its exploration plans.
“We consider this [Lieberman’s] statement as an aggression on Lebanon’s sovereignty to practice its natural right to explore our oil resources,” Abi Khalil said, adding that the block was “inside Lebanese territorial waters and Lebanon demarcated maritime borders in accordance with international laws.”
Vowing to use all the diplomatic powers vested in him to resolve the dispute, President Michel Aoun said Lebanon had a right to “defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity by all means available.”
He also warned that some elements inside the country and abroad were seeking “to create climates that are consistent with the Israeli threats to attack Lebanon.”
Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah called Lieberman's comments “a new aggression” and pledged to “decisively confront any assault on our oil and gas rights.”
Israel waged two all-out wars against Lebanon — in 2000 and 2006 — but fell short of its military objectives in both cases in the face of strong resistance by Hezbollah and the Lebanese army.
Ever since their latest military confrontation, Tel Aviv has been taunting Lebanon by intruding on the Arab country’s borders and staging assassinations against top Hezbollah commanders.
Hariri said Lieberman’s hostile comments were only one instance of the several “threatening messages” that Israel had relayed recently.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said that he had sent a letter to the United Nations, reaffirming Lebanon’s right to act in its territorial waters.
What is at the stake?
The territorial dispute runs over 776 square kilometers (300 square miles) of waters claimed by both sides.
The underlying Levant basin of the Eastern Mediterranean has been proven to contain large natural gas reserves and maybe even crude oil.
Israel itself has long been developing a number of offshore gas deposits in the Mediterranean Sea, with the Tamar gas field, with proven reserves of 200 billion cubic meters, already producing gas, while the larger Leviathan field is expected to go online in the coming months.
A source close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in 2012 that Israel's natural gas reserves were worth around $130 billion. A BusinessWeek estimate later that year put the reserves' value at $240 billion.
Israel relies heavily on gas. According to estimates by the Israel Natural Gas Lines, the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories consumed around 9.5 Billion Cubic Meters (BCM) in 2016. The number is expected to reach 10.1 BCM in 2018.
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