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Lebanon Does not Seek War with Israel over Disputed Maritime Borders

Beirut nevertheless vows to uphold its sovereign rights

Lebanon is not seeking war with Israel but will not relinquish its sovereign rights over land and maritime borders, Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told a US delegation – led by Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee – on May 25.

In recent weeks, Lebanese officials, including President Michel Aoun, have met with US Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard and other officials to discuss the impasse over the matter.

Lebanon and Israel are in a dispute over 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of Mediterranean waters where offshore oil and gas reserves were first discovered in 2009. Tensions over the area have grown since last year when Lebanon announced its first exploration and production agreement with a European consortium, a project scheduled to begin in 2019.

Analysts believe the fossil fuel reserves could generate billions of dollars in revenue in the coming decades.

“[Lebanon] has been able to overcome many difficult stages through the unity of the Lebanese people and dialogue among themselves,” Berri said in reference to the disagreement.

Lebanon-based journalist Rabe’e Damaj told The Media Line that public opinion over the issue is sharply divided.

“There is huge confusion and people will not simply accept the US’ plan,” Damaj said, adding that “the [prevailing] assumption is that the borders [have already been] drawn.”

He further explained that some key actors – including Iranian proxy Hizbullah — are against the US proposal, which would allocate about one-third of the disputed zone to Israel.

During an April meeting with Maj.-Gen. Stefano del Col, commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Berri said that Beirut was prepared to establish a maritime border and special economic zone with Israel as long as it involved a similar mechanism used in adopting the so-called Blue Line.

The UN demarcated the Blue Line in June 2000, following the Israeli military’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon. It has since become the unofficial border between the countries and is monitored by UNIFIL peacekeepers. The area includes a disputed location known to Israelis as Mount Dov and to Lebanese as Shebaa Farms.

Del Col responded favorably to the possibility of such a move, implying it would enhance security and stability.

Israel, however, has repeatedly accused UNIFIL of failing to fulfill its mandate by allowing Hizbullah to become one of the region’s most powerful armed forces.

Lebanese parliamentarian Imad al-Hout confirmed to The Media Line that Lebanon has provided the UN with documents allegedly proving Beirut’s right to all of the disputed waters. He also claimed that the legislature vehemently opposes the prospect of allocating one part of the area to Israel.

Al-Hout emphasized that while Lebanese officials were willing to discuss the issue with US mediators, Washington had not become the formal interlocutor between Lebanon and Israel.

“We don’t mind negotiating with the American delegation, but the consultations are not exclusive to them,” al-Hout said.

All of this comes against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the US and Iran, which some argue warn could manifest themselves in a conflict between Israel and Lebanon. Notably, Israeli and Lebanese officials reportedly met recently in Europe, where Aoun is believed to have conveyed that “Hizbullah does not intend to attack Israel, although it may respond to an American attack on Iran, possibly inside the Gulf.”