Lebanon warns against drilling in offshore field as gas rig reaches Israeli waters

Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Sunday warned Israel against drilling in an offshore natural gas field claimed by Beirut as the drilling rig entered Israeli waters.

Aoun’s office said the president discussed the matter with Prime Minister Najib Mikati and asked army leadership to keep him updated on the rig, which is operated by Greek energy firm Energean. It also noted ongoing US-mediated talks aimed at settling the maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel.

“Any action or activity in the disputed area represents a provocation and a hostile act,” the presidency said.

According to Reuters, Mikati accused Israel of “encroaching on Lebanon’s maritime wealth, and imposing a fait accompli in a disputed area.” He called the Israeli move “extremely dangerous.”

“The decision about a response [to the ship’s entry] is in the hands of the state and Hezbollah,” Bassam Yasin, the head of the Lebanese delegation to the negotiations, was quoted saying by the Kan public broadcaster.

Longtime foes Israel and Lebanon have held talks over the past year aimed at demarcating offshore exclusive economic zones. The disputed area, hundreds of square miles wide, is thought to contain large deposits of natural gas, a potential game-changer for Lebanon, which is mired in a devastating economic crisis.

The Hezbollah terror group has warned Israel against unilaterally searching for natural gas in the disputed maritime region before any agreement is reached.

An illustration of a floating production and storage rig of Energean. (Courtesy)

The negotiations are meant to focus on an 860-square-kilometer (330-square-mile) disputed sea area according to a map registered with the United Nations in 2011.

But in 2020, Lebanon demanded an additional area of 1,430 square kilometers further south, Lebanese energy expert Laury Haytayan said, characterizing the new phase of talks as a “war of the maps.”

The additional area extends into part of the Karish gas field which Israel has assigned Energean, which was expected to begin pumping gas to the Israeli domestic market last year. Karish, Hebrew for shark, contains 1.4 trillion cubic feet of proved and probable gas.

UN military vehicles of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) enter the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura, where the second round of talks started on October 28, 2020, between Lebanon and Israel at a UN base on the demarcation of the maritime frontier between the two countries. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

Lebanon’s foreign minister responded positively in February to proposals from US negotiator Amos Hochstein on settling a maritime border dispute with Israel, as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah reportedly gave a green light to continue negotiations.

However, Nasrallah expressed fierce opposition to the US-mediated talks last month, appearing to contradict the earlier reports.

The area around Karish also includes a prospect known as Block 72,  which is thought to also contain large hydrocarbon deposits. In June 2019, the Israeli government gave US-based Noble Energy the go-ahead to carry out exploratory drilling there, though development of the field has reportedly been hampered by worries over its fate in the dispute with Lebanon.

Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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