Coveting thy neighbor's shores: Israel and Lebanon border conflict shifts to sea

Published July 26th, 2011 - 08:20 GMT
The Israeli-Lebanon land border dispute plays out in the sea as well, extending to maritime boundaries.
The Israeli-Lebanon land border dispute plays out in the sea as well, extending to maritime boundaries.

For most countries, the prospect of enormous fossil fuel deposits located within their territory would be a reason for national rejoicing. But when those deposits fall within the territorial waters of Lebanon and Israel, possibly stretching across a maritime boundary that does not yet exist, celebrations are tempered by the realities of economic rivalry and the threat of renewed conflict.

The quarrel over the path of the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel has intensified with the latter’s submission earlier this month of its proposed sea border. The Israeli line runs north of Lebanon’s proposed line which was submitted last year, leaving an expanse of sea under dispute.

So how did things reach such an impasse? Are the Lebanese being greedy in trying to encroach upon Israeli waters? Or is it Israel that is trying to expand its slice of oil- and gas-rich seabed at Lebanon’s expense?

The events that led to this controversy began in 2007 with the delineation of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) between Lebanon and Cyprus. A bilateral agreement was signed in January 2007 in which the edges of the zones were marked by six coordinates judged to be equidistant between the two countries.

Point 1 marked the southernmost extent of the boundary and Point 6 the northern limit. Included in the agreement was a clause that left open the possibility of amending Points 1 and 6 “in light of future delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone with other concerned neighboring states,” meaning Israel to the south and Syria to the north.

The clause, which is routine in such agreements, essentially allows Lebanon some wiggle room in future negotiations with Israel and Syria over the path of their respective maritime borders. Cyprus has ratified the EEZ agreement in Parliament, but Lebanon has yet to do so.

In 2009, two years after the signing of the Lebanon-Cyprus EEZ agreement, a U.S.-Israeli consortium discovered the Tamar gas field some 90 kilometers off the coast of Haifa in northern Israel which contains an estimated 2.3 trillion cubic meters of recoverable gas, the largest natural gas find in the world that year. In early 2010, another potentially larger field called Leviathan was discovered 130 kilometers offshore in the same area with an initial estimate of 4.5 trillion cubic meters of gas. In March 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Levantine Basin in the eastern Mediterranean, which includes the territorial waters of Lebanon, Israel, Syria and Cyprus, could hold as much as 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 34.5 trillion cubic meters of gas.

The prospect of massive fossil fuel deposits waiting to be tapped beneath the eastern Mediterranean sharpened the debate over the delimitation of the Lebanon and Israel EEZs.
Israel has moved much more quickly than Lebanon in exploiting its potential gas and oil sources, parceling up some 9,600 square kilometers off its northern coast in a series of licensed exploration blocks. In 2009, Israel sold exploration licenses for three of the six “Alon” blocks, which collectively cover 2,300 square kilometers of seabed lying in Israel’s northern territorial waters. The three blocks – Alon A, B and C – were purchased by U.S. and Israeli companies and lie south of the remaining blocks – Alon D, E and F.

Significantly, the northern edges of the Alon D and F blocks run at a 291 degree angle which conforms to a reasonable interpretation of where a future maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel could run.

In other words, in slicing up its territorial waters for future oil and gas exploration, the Israeli government took into account the potential path of a future maritime boundary with Lebanon. After all, no prospective petroleum company will want to purchase a license for an exploration block that might one day be bisected by a newly formed international boundary, leaving part of it in the territorial waters of another country.

Indeed, the licenses for the Alon D, E and F blocks have yet to be purchased, presumably because of the ambiguity over the path of the future border.

With the Israelis surging ahead in pursuit of its fossil fuel resources, the Lebanese Parliament in August last year voted through a long-awaited draft bill on oil and gas exploration.

By October, the government had submitted to the U.N. a unilateral proposal for the southern boundary of Lebanon’s EEZ. The boundary is composed of eight points running from Point 18 on Ras Naqoura, which marks the land border between Lebanon and Israel, to Point 23 which lies 133 kilometers out to sea at an average angle of 291 degrees (the proposed boundary is not quite a straight line). Point 23 lies 17 kilometers southwest of Point 1, the southernmost marker in the Lebanon-Cyprus EEZ agreement.
At first glance, it might appear that Lebanon is looking to snatch a segment of Israeli territorial waters by placing its maritime boundary marker further south than the limit agreed with Cyprus.

In fact, Lebanon’s proposed boundary is pragmatic and justifiable on two counts. First, remember that the Lebanon-Cyprus EEZ agreement contained a clause that allowed the location of Point 1 to be altered depending on future border negotiations with Israel. Lebanon was simply staking a claim to a boundary that begins 17 kilometers to the southwest.
Second, this was not an arbitrary southward expansion of the boundary. Instead, it conforms very closely to the northern edges of Israel’s Alon D and F licensed exploration blocks.

According to calculations by The Daily Star, Lebanon’s proposed boundary actually cuts fractionally into the two Alon blocks, leaving approximately 16.5 square kilometers of the concession on the Lebanese side of the line.

Clearly, Lebanon for political reasons cannot admit that it based its line on Israel’s previously delineated gas and oil exploration blocks, but the proposed boundary has been privately recognized by the U.N. and the U.S. as an eminently reasonable opening bid.

In December, two months after Lebanon submitted its southern maritime boundary proposal to the U.N., Israel and Cyprus signed their own EEZ agreement. This agreement consisted of 12 geographical points defining the edges of their EEZs. However, the first boundary marker in this agreement was placed in exactly the same location as point 1 in the Lebanon-Cyprus EEZ agreement.

What this means, therefore, is that Israel’s EEZ boundary with Cyprus begins 17 kilometers northeast of point 23, where Lebanon has proposed its maritime border with the Jewish state. The Israel-Cyprus agreement contains the same clause regarding amending the first and last markers depending on future border agreements with other states.

On July 11, Israel submitted to the U.N. its proposal for a maritime boundary with Lebanon. As expected, the first marker in Israel’s EEZ agreement with Cyprus would also serve as the most westerly point in its proposed maritime border with Lebanon.
The upshot of all this is that there now exists a disputed zone between Lebanon and Israel consisting of approximately 854 square kilometers stretching between Ras Naqoura, Lebanon’s point 23 and point 1.

With both countries vowing to defend their economic interests, diplomats are left scratching their heads to try and find a solution to the territorial dispute and stave off the possibility of a conflict erupting.


By Nicholas Blanford

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