Jun 8, 2022 - World

U.S. deeply concerned as Israel-Lebanon maritime dispute intensifies

Israeli navy vessels are pictured off the coast at the border between Israel and Lebanon on June 6. Photo: Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli navy vessels are pictured off the coast at the border between Israel and Lebanon on June 6. Photo: Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. is deeply concerned about rising tensions between Lebanon and Israel over their maritime border dispute in the Mediterranean Sea, Axios has learned.

Driving the news: The dispute over a potentially gas-rich area that Lebanon and Israel both claim intensified after a ship operated by gas exploration company Energean arrived Sunday to begin drilling in an area Israel says is within its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone.

  • The arrival of the ship was known long in advance, and Israel had notified the Lebanese government through third parties about its intention to start drilling, Israeli officials told Axios.
  • But when the ship arrived, it generated furious political reactions in Lebanon.

What they're saying: Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati claimed the presence of the ship was “an invasion of Lebanon’s natural resources” and warned it could lead to an escalation.

  • Lebanese officials have touted potential oil and gas exploration as a way out of the country's deepening economic crisis.
  • Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem told Reuters the organization is ready to take action "including force" against Israeli gas operations in disputed waters once the Lebanese government adopts a clearer policy on the issue.
  • Lebanese President Michel Aoun invited State Department energy envoy Amos Hochstein to come to Beirut urgently to resume talks over the maritime border, which have been frozen for several months

The other side: Israel fired back at the Lebanese reaction, with officials accusing the Lebanese government of contradicting its own past position that this area is Israeli waters.

  • In a joint statement today, the Israeli ministers of energy, defense and foreign affairs said the Karish rig "will not pump gas from the disputed territory."
  • They added that Israel prioritizes the protection of the rig and is prepared to defend it in accordance with its rights.
  • "At the same time, we call on Lebanon to accelerate negotiations on the maritime border," they said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is expressing concern about the escalating tone and rhetoric being used around the issue, Axios has learned.

  • The U.S. is also urging Lebanese parties to refrain from using the issue for domestic gain.

The big picture: The fresh tensions over the maritime border dispute come several weeks after the Lebanese elections, which slightly weakened Hezbollah’s political power in parliament and strengthened that of its rivals.

  • Hezbollah only recently became more involved in the dispute both in private and in public.

What to watch: According to Lebanese media reports, Hochstein is expected to ask Lebanese officials for a formal unified written response to the U.S. proposal that was given to Lebanon but was never answered.

  • Separately, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is expected to present his organization’s position on the dispute in a speech tomorrow night.
  • Hochstein is expected to arrive in Beirut on Sunday, the Lebanese government added.
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