Lebanon's Energy Minister, Cesar Abi Khalil (second right), exchanges contracts with Stephane Michel, Total's head of exploration and production in the Middle East and North Africa during a signing ceremony in Beirut on February 9. Photo: AFP/Anwar Amro
Lebanon's Energy Minister, Cesar Abi Khalil (second right), exchanges contracts with Stephane Michel, Total's head of exploration and production in the Middle East and North Africa during a signing ceremony in Beirut on February 9. Photo: AFP/Anwar Amro

Lebanon has threatened a military response against “Israeli aggression” as tensions continue to escalate over Beirut’s plans to look for oil and gas reserves in an offshore block claimed by both countries.

Speaking at a conference in Beirut on stability in the Middle East, army chief General Joseph Aoun said he would use whatever measures were needed to protect Lebanon’s territorial borders.

“I reiterate today our categorical rejection of the Israeli enemy’s sovereignty of Lebanon and its sacred right to invest all its economic resources. And the army will not spare any method available to confront any Israeli aggression, whatever that costs,” Aoun said.

A military spokesman said he had spoken at a conference on Support for Stability and Development in the Arab States and the Middle East, sponsored by the Lebanese Army, which began today.

Israel has also hardened its stance since Lebanon revealed two weeks ago it had signed an oil and gas exploration and production contract with Total of France, Eni SpA of Italy and Russia’s Novatek for two offshore blocks. One of the blocks, designated Block 9, is in the contested zone.

Israel has said it would prefer a diplomatic solution

Total, which has a 40% stake in the consortium, said in a statement that the disputed waters comprise 8% of Block 9 and that its well “will have no interference at all with any fields or prospects” in the triangular area of about 860 square kilometers that is in dispute.

The deal was negotiated by Energy Minister Ceasar Abi Khalil, a protégé of President Michel Aoun, after being put on hold for nearly 10 years due to Lebanon’s on-going tensions. The oil firms are expected to start work in two of the 10 offshore blocks this year.

While Israel has said it would prefer a diplomatic solution, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz was adamant on Friday his country would defend its territorial claims.

“We made two things clear, in a very forthright manner, over the last year. One, don’t provoke us, and don’t explore in or even get close to the disputed line-of-contact,” Steinitz said. Israel plans to build a wall on the border, but Beirut says this would encroach into its territory.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened a “full-strength” invasion of Lebanon should drilling start in Block 9. “If in Israel they sit in shelters, then in the next fighting all of Beirut will be shelters,” he said.

American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson failed to break the stalemate during a flying visit late last week, though he insisted his talks with both sides had been “constructive”.  Tillerson is pressing Israel to freeze plans for a wall until the two countries have agreed on a border.

However, Israel wants the wall as a buffer against incursions by the Iranian-backed Shi‘ite Muslim Hezbollah movement, which has thousands of fighters based in Lebanon and is also helping to keep President Bashar Assad in power in Syria.

“Their presence in Iraq and Yemen has also fuelled violence. And the consequences of Hezbollah’s involvement in these far-off conflicts —which have nothing to do with Lebanon — are felt here,” Tillerson said during his visit to Beirut. The US supplies military assistance to both Israel and Lebanon and is keen to avoid a resurgence of conflict.

Hezbollah, which last clashed with Israel in Lebanon in 2006, has vowed to support its host country if the dispute turns violent. Its leader Hassan Nasrallah said: “This is a battle for all of Lebanon.”

Washington is trying to enforce sanctions against Hezbollah, including measures to cut off its financing channels

Washington is trying to enforce sanctions against Hezbollah, including measures to cut off its financing channels, as a way of curbing Iran’s spreading influence throughout the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, a key US ally in the region, has threatened to attack Lebanon for backing Hezbollah.

The US solution to the border dispute is to revive a proposed 2012 demarcation line that would give Israel one-third of the disputed triangular maritime zone, leaving Lebanon with 550 square kilometres of the total area. The contested area extends along the edge of three of the 10 blocks that Lebanon wants to explore.

Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri flatly rejected Tillerson’s proposal as “unacceptable,” arguing the border should be based on the  ceasefire agreement that ended a 1996 conflict between the countries and the UN Blue Line that marked Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.

Tillerson suggested that the dispute be resolved in the International Court, but it is unlikely this could happen without a proper demarcation of the maritime zone, which would require full cooperation from the Israelis.

The next move will be down to the Lebanese Government: observers will be waiting to see whether it authorizes drilling in Block 9 or limits   exploration to the undisputed Block 4. Lebanon fears that Israel might use the issue as justification for launching a punitive military action against Hezbollah.

When they last tangled, in 2006, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to annihilate Hezbollah, destroy its weapons and bring two captured Israeli soldiers back home alive. None of these  things happened, leaving many Israelis with a sense of unfinished business; it also contributed to Olmert’s downfall in 2009.

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