Israel's gas-drilling rig, stationed in the Karish gas field west of Haifa last week, is not in the area Lebanon claims is a disputed maritime border, according to an investigation by Haaretz.
Lebanon claimed that Israel violated its maritime sovereignty and “invaded its marine resources," when it stationed a gas rig in the area, while Israel claims that the rig's location is not in the zone under dispute, nor subject to the negotiations that have been taking place between the two countries over the maritime border since October 2020.
An analysis of the gas extracting vessel's updated location, based on satellite images from this week, and of documents Lebanon submitted to the UN as part of its negotiations with Israel, shows that the new rig and a further drilling vessel belonging to the gas company are located 10 kilometers (6 miles) southwest of the official southern border Lebanon submitted to the UN, a boundary Lebanon claims is the southern border of its exclusive maritime economic zone.
The British-Greek company Energean, which owns the Karish-Tanin gas fields, placed the floating platform 75 kilometers northwest of Haifa last Sunday, in the hopes of beginning gas extraction in the next three months. Israel’s navy has been protecting the rig, called Energean Power FPSO, ever since it left the Suez Canal. Israel has clarified that any attack on gas rigs will be considered a declaration of war.
Energean bought the rights to the Karish-Tanin fields in 2016 but postponed drilling several times due to the coronavirus pandemic and the negotiations over the area north of these fields. Since 2020, Israel and Lebanon have been in intermittent, U.S.-mediated negotiations over the boundary between the countries’ maritime economic zones. Both countries claim ownership to an area spanning 850 square kilometers (328 square miles), which extends from the border of Rosh Hanikra to the west. The goal of these talks is to settle the dispute over natural gas exploration in the area.
According to Israeli sources, the negotiations are at a dead end due to obstacles imposed by Hezbollah on Lebanon’s government. Lebanon has already issued tenders for extracting gas in the disputed area, but is avoiding implementing them while negotiations continue. The Karish gas field lies south of the southern boundary of the disputed area, and an analysis of satellite images from last week shows that in contrast to Lebanese claims, the rig and another vessel used for drilling are indeed located south of the area under dispute. Diplomatic and defense sources told Haaretz last week that the rig was placed in an area that was never controversial, and that Lebanese officials involved in the negotiations have confirmed this.
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Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun saod earlier in the week that the Lebanese army had learned that an Israeli ship had entered the disputed region for the purpose of drilling for gas. Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that Israel was trying to create facts on the ground, and that its conduct could lead to an escalation.
"The Israeli enemy's attempts to create a new crisis, by encroaching on Lebanon's maritime wealth, and imposing a fait accompli in a disputed area in which Lebanon adheres to its rights, is extremely dangerous, " Mikati, head of Lebanon's transition government, said.
On Monday, Naim Qassem, the deputy leader of Hezbollah, said that the militant group was ready to act, including by force, against Israeli operations in Lebanese waters, if Lebanon’s government formally accused Israel of violating its maritime sovereignty.
In response, Israel’s foreign, defense and energy ministers said the rig will not pump gas from the contested zone. They also said that Israel was ready to defend its strategic assets, calling on Lebanon to speed up the negotiations over the maritime border with Israel.
“The location of energy sources based on gas could greatly help Lebanon’s economy and citizens; it’s the foremost interest of Lebanon to promote talks on this issue, and we hope this will indeed take place,” wrote ministers Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and Karine Elharrar in a joint statement.
The latest developments come amid growing American concerns regarding Lebanon’s position in its negotiations with Israel. Only a few months ago, U.S. special envoy Amos Hochstein noted the “narrowing gaps” toward solving the dispute. But recently, Lebanon has started criticizing Israel and Hochstein, the Biden administration’s liaison to Israel and Lebanon in these negotiations.
These talks have significant implications for gas exploration in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, and the dispute is delaying searches in areas in which American companies have great interest.
Last week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that his organization has the power to prevent Israel from drilling for gas, adding that “all options are on the table.”
A month ago, he referred to the talks with Israel, telling Lebanon’s government: “If you want to continue negotiating, go ahead, but not in Naqura (the UN base on the Lebanese border, where the talks are being held), not with Hochstein, Frankenstein or any other Stein coming to Lebanon. Negotiating with an American mediator who supports Israel is unfair and will not yield results,” he said.
In response, Hochstein argued that he remains committed to ensuring stable energy supplies for Lebanon and to channeling foreign investments into the development of local energy sources and to reducing pollution. Hochstein recently visited Saudi Arabia and will visit Lebanon this Monday and Tuesday, the State Department confirmed.
“During his visit, Mr. Hochstein will underscore the Biden Administration’s hope that Lebanon and Israel can reach a decision on the delimitation of the maritime boundary. The Administration welcomes the consultative and open spirit of the parties to reach a final decision, which has the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for both Lebanon and Israel, as well as for the region,” the State Department said.