Maritime Dispute Between Israel and Lebanon Threatens To Escalate Tension With Hizbullah
An Israeli Navy vessel patrols in the Mediterranean Sea at the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon, off the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura, on September 4, 2022. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images)

Maritime Dispute Between Israel and Lebanon Threatens To Escalate Tension With Hizbullah

Hizbullah’s threats against Israel over the Karish gas field in the Mediterranean Sea are serious, analyst says

Tension has been running high between Israel and Hizbullah along the Israel-Lebanon border in recent weeks, as the two sides continue to exchange threats. 

In recent days, senior Israeli military officers are seeing the increased possibility of an imminent confrontation with Iranian-backed Hizbullah, led by Hassan Nasrallah.

“We have informed decision-makers of the potential for escalation in this arena. I hope for Nasrallah that he does not underestimate the Israeli response should he decide to make a move,” said Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, head of the Military Intelligence Directorate of the Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday. Haliva was speaking at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, in central Israel.

Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, head of the Military Intelligence Directorate of the Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday, speaking at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, in central Israel, on September 13, 2022. (Gilad Kavalerchik)

Negotiations on the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel, which began more than a decade ago, are underway and have picked up in recent weeks through American mediation. US envoy to the negotiations Amos Hochstein said last week after shuttling between Beirut and Jerusalem that more time was needed for an agreement to be reached.

The maritime dispute began after Israel discovered natural gas reserves in its territorial waters. The US-mediated negotiations began in 2020, over Lebanese claims that the Qana and Karish gas fields are within its territory in the Mediterranean Sea. Israel maintains Karish is within its borders and recently set up a gas rig there, causing tension to surge further.

Hizbullah is interested in strengthening its image as the defender of Lebanon and the real entity that safeguards Lebanon’s political, security and economic interests. Hence, there is a real possibility of escalation between the parties.

Lebanon, which is knee-deep in economic woes, hopes the natural gas in the Mediterranean Sea will extricate it from its troubles.

In July, the Israeli military downed three Hizbullah drones that flew over Karish. Nasrallah has repeatedly said his organization will defend Lebanese maritime interests. However, the organization did not retaliate against Israel’s downing of the drones.

“We will not accept this presence. We will not allow Iran and its proxies to become a central player in our maritime arena,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said last week at a graduation ceremony for naval officers.

The last time Israel and Hizbullah went to war was in 2006. Both sides ended the war with large scars, but also with mutual deterrence that has largely remained intact until recently. The traumatic memory of that war is still fresh, but gradually fading.

On the one hand, Hizbullah is not interested in a war against Israel, due to the Israeli deterrence achieved in 2006, and due to the threats of senior Israeli officials to … widely attack civilian infrastructure in the country,” Dr. Omer Dostri, a military strategy and national security expert, and a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told The Media Line. “On the other hand, Hizbullah is interested in strengthening its image as the defender of Lebanon and the real entity that safeguards Lebanon’s political, security and economic interests. Hence, there is a real possibility of escalation between the parties.”

In the years after the war, there have been numerous incidents between Hizbullah and Israel. Israel’s almost muted response has reflected its interest in a quiet northern border.

“Hizbullah’s attacks against the IDF in recent years ended without a proper Israeli response,” Dostri said. “The deterrence still exists but naturally, over the years, it erodes and weakens.”

The parties may be reaching the point where deterrence no longer plays a decisive role in containing the conflict.

According to Sarit Zehavi, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and founder and CEO of the Alma Research and Education Center, which specializes in Israel’s security challenges on its northern borders, there is a connection between the maritime dispute and a marked increase in the presence of Hizbullah operatives on the border.

“Nasrallah’s threats are serious,” she told The Media Line. “It is not clear whether he means an all-out-war or a pinpoint operation that could risk leading to a war.”

The 2006 war began when Hizbullah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers during a cross-border raid. Nasrallah miscalculated the Israeli reaction. The month-long war took a heavy toll with the death of over 1,000 Lebanese citizens, the majority of them civilians, and Lebanon’s infrastructure was severely damaged by Israeli airstrikes. Over 160 Israelis were killed, most of them soldiers.

“If Nasrallah chooses to attack Israeli gas infrastructure, as he is threatening, it is clear that Israel will have to retaliate with full force,” said Zehavi. 

The dire economic situation in Lebanon is fertile ground for Hizbullah, which is also a Lebanese political party, to use tension with Israel as a diversion. 

“The political and economic situation is unstable and there is a lot of criticism toward Hizbullah in Lebanon,” Zehavi explained. “Hizbullah needs to find a way to justify its existence.”

“In the last year, the organization has not been able to influence the political system in Lebanon as much as it has wanted,” Dostri added.

Since 2019, Hizbullah operatives that were sent to Syria to help stabilize the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad have been coming back to Lebanon. They now need a new aim and the organization is free to re-focus on Israel. 

For Israel, the presence of hostile Hizbullah on its border with Lebanon in a continuous source of worry. Armed with hundreds of thousands of missiles, many believed to be capable of striking central Israel, Hizbullah is seen as Israel’s most immediate and formidable enemy. The organization listed as a terror organization in over 20 countries including the United States and Israel, which was established 40 years ago, is now stronger than ever.

The gas rigs off the coasts of Israel and Lebanon have now become the new focal point of tension.

“The likely scenario is that Hizbullah will strike at Israeli gas infrastructure,” said Zehavi. “From then on, things can spiral out of control.”

Needless to say, such an attack would be viewed as grave in Israel, perhaps even as a casus belli, despite its reluctance to engage in full-fledged warfare at this time.

The likely scenario is that Hizbullah will strike at Israeli gas infrastructure. From then on, things can spiral out of control.

Israeli media has reported that the government has decided to delay gas production from Karish until an agreement with Lebanon has been reached.

In a statement released to the media last week, the company that operates Karish denies any setbacks. “Production has not been delayed,” read a statement from Energean CEO Mathis Rigas. “It is on track to deliver gas from Karish within weeks.”

“In order to strengthen deterrence and weaken Hizbullah’s image in Lebanon and the entire region, it would be worthwhile for Israel to postpone the approval of the agreement … after the start of gas production, in order to show that Israel will not submit to Hizbullah’s dictates,” said Dostri. “At the same time, Israel must threaten Hizbullah and Lebanon that … Israel’s response will be disproportionate and will not be limited to a few days of fighting, but will lead to the start of an extensive war in Lebanon.”

Whether such threats will deter Hizbullah or not could determine the course of events.


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