Another major border dispute has broken out between Israel and Lebanon, one that offers each country the choice of sharing prosperity or inflicting on each other an economic catastrophe. The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved the coordinates of an exclusive economic zone delineating waters up to 200 nautical miles off its coast in which it claims oil and gas exploration rights. The borders of the area overlap with those submitted by the Lebanese government six months ago to the United Nations in delineating its own claims for an exclusive economic zone. The overlap area in dispute consists of about 5.8 square miles.
What makes the dispute particularly charged is that probes in the past year by offshore rigs in Israeli waters south of the disputed area have uncovered vast reserves of natural gas and oil valued at many billions of dollars, with a potentially far-reaching impact on the Israeli economy.
When Israel first announced these finds, Lebanese officials claimed that the waters were Lebanese and that Israel was stealing its resources. Israeli officials in turn warned that any attempt by Lebanon – or the dominant Hezbollah faction – to strike at the offshore facilities would elicit “strong” retaliation. In the Lebanese proposal submitted to the U.N., there is, in fact, no claim on the area where Israel has already discovered gas, but there is evident hope in Beirut that similar finds will be made in its own waters.
Although animosity between Israel and Hezbollah keeps them constantly on the edge of armed conflict, the very vulnerability of oil rigs to land-based missiles or airstrikes would be a major restraining factor for both sides. Unlike Israel, Lebanon does not have any oil rigs off its coast, but it is clearly in Israel’s interests that Lebanon eventually does make significant underwater finds. It would be clear then to the Hezbollah leadership and Lebanon’s business community that any strike on Israel’s oil facilities would bring the immediate destruction of Lebanon‘s. If this deterrent did not exist, Israel’s facilities would be at constant risk.
In the wake of the dramatic gas discoveries in Israel’s waters, Lebanon hired a Norwegian firm to conduct a seismic survey on the border of Israel’s claimed exclusive zone.
Both Israel and Lebanon have concluded agreements with Cyprus regarding the western edge of their respective exclusive economic zones. But the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon has never been established. Israel is demanding that the dispute with Lebanon be settled in direct negotiations. However, Lebanon does not recognize Israel and is leaving the matter to be resolved by the U.N.
For long, a country’s territorial waters extended only three nautical miles from the shore, the effective range of a cannon shot. In 1982, a U.N. convention on the Law of the Sea extended territorial waters to 12 miles and established for maritime countries exclusive economic zones extending 200 miles offshore except where there is overlap with a neighboring country’s claims. Australia has the third-largest exclusive economic zone off its shores, behind only the United States and France. One of the major extant disputes is that between China and neighboring countries over the area of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Abraham Rabinovich, a Jerusalem-based journalist.