The negotiations around the delimitation of maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel will enter a critical phase in 2022. The United States has declared that it will end its mediation just before the Lebanese legislative elections, which were scheduled for March 2022 but have been recently pushed to May 2022. Simultaneously, Lebanese media reported that the French company Total will not start drilling for gas in Lebanon’s territorial waters until an agreement on its maritime borders with Israel is reached.

In addition to these pressures, the sword of US sanctions is still hanging over the heads of Lebanese politicians, raising fears that these officials give up Lebanon’s rights over territorial waters (and their gas fields) to shield themselves from US actions.

Lebanon’s gas and oil wealth is estimated at no less than 96 trillion cubic feet of gas and 900 million barrels of oil.

According to preliminary studies, Lebanon’s gas and oil wealth is estimated at no less than 96 trillion cubic feet of gas and 900 million barrels of oil, i.e., an estimated US$ 600 billion in gas revenues and about US$ 450 billion in oil proceeds. These considerable incomes, if put to good use, could be the only hope for Lebanon, which is facing an unprecedented economic collapse, considered by the World Bank among the world’s worst since the 19th century.

[Israel May Benefit from Lebanon’s Economic Crisis and Growing Criticism of Hezbollah]

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Indeed, Lebanese citizens are facing widespread poverty and hunger, as the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) estimates the percentage of people living in multidimensional poverty at an incredible 82 percent of the population in 2021.

The Disputed Maritime Borders

Most of Lebanon’s oil wealth is concentrated in blocks in the southern portion of the country. These blocks are the subject of a dispute between Lebanon and Israel. The land and sea borders between Lebanon and Israel, which have been at war since the creation of Israel in 1948, have never been demarcated.

On land, the Blue Line drawn up by the United Nations separates the two nations, without either of them recognizing it as an official border, and no one thought of demarcating the maritime borders before the discovery of oil and gas fields. Today, the two sides need to draw these borders to be able to take advantage of these natural resources, especially the Karish and Qana (also spelled Cana) fields.

No one thought of demarcating the maritime borders before the discovery of oil and gas fields.

Both Lebanon and Israel have delimited maritime lines claiming to represent their borders at sea, creating a disputed area more than 2000 square kilometers. To understand the Lebanese-Israeli conflict over these zones, it is necessary to delve into the definition of the negotiated maritime lines.

Map showing all the lines at stake in the past and current U.S. mediations source Institute for Natural Resource Governance.

Map showing all the lines at stake in the past and current U.S. mediations (Source: Institute for Natural Resource Governance).

Line 1 has been drawn by Israel and gives it the maximum amount of seawater it requested, including potential gas fields such as the Qana field (discovered by Lebanon) and the whole Karish field (discovered by Israel), where Israel is aiming to start production and exploration by March 2022.

Conversely, line 29, which has been adopted by the Lebanese army at the negotiating table but without any subsequent legal process, grants Lebanon most of its claimed seawater and access to gas fields. However, the Lebanese government adopted line 23 in 2011, reducing its maritime aspirations, which still has been rejected by the Israeli government.

Today, line 23 is still the line of the Lebanese government, although it is deemed “invalid” by the Lebanese army and therefore by the Lebanese delegation, as it gives Israel the whole field of Karish and part of the Qana fields. In addition to these three lines, there is also the Hof line, which was drawn by American mediator Frederic Hof back in 2011 and was rejected by all Lebanese parties.

Map showing the different lines and the Qana and Karish fields

Map showing the different lines and the Qana and Karish fields. (Source: the Institute for Natural Resource Governance)

In an interview with Inside Arabia, sources from the Lebanese delegation assert that line 29 preserves Lebanon’s economic rights. They explain that “line 29 is not new, since it existed before the 2011 decree defining line 23, and it first appeared in the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO) study months before this decree.” The sources insist that “the Lebanese army created a hydrographic department which came to the conclusion in 2018 that the 29th line should be claimed by Lebanon.” It is, according to them, the only line that is based on international law and internationally adopted maritime delimitation principles.

These sources made it clear to the Israelis that they plan to claim line 29 and that they were ready to hear any remarks based on international law.  However, the indirect talks that were held on a regular basis in Naqoura between the Lebanese and Israeli delegations via a US mediation have been suspended since the last meeting on May 4, 2021.

The Dubious International Law Validity of Israeli and American lines

According to Laurie Haytian, Senior Middle East Officer for the Institute for Natural Resource Governance, the Israel line is not valid, as it “deviates northward to connect with the so-called point 1 which is the common starting point of the two maritime border lines separately agreed between Lebanon and Israel with Cyprus,” she told Inside Arabia. However, the treaty between Lebanon and Cyprus was not approved by the Lebanese parliament and is therefore invalid.

As for line 23, “a part of it was drawn at random by the Lebanese government and does not follow any of the legally and technically acceptable demarcation techniques,” Haytian explains adding that “the many technical errors in the delimitation of the Lebanese line 23 cast doubt on the competence and the capacities of the members of the Lebanese delegation [in] 2010-2012.”

The Israeli line lacks a legal basis as it goes beyond what is permitted by international treaties.

Haytian concludes that the Israeli line lacks a legal basis as it goes beyond what is permitted by international treaties. Conversely, the Lebanese line 23 is also illegal as it does not follow any recognized demarcation technique and extends far below what is appropriate under international law.

Haytian argues that the validity of the Hof line proposed by the American mediator is also questionable, as it considers the presence of the abandoned rock Tekhelet on the Israeli side, which pushes the equidistance line northward and deprives Lebanon of an area of 1,800 square kilometers. According to her, giving full weight to abandoned rocks as if they were actual islands, is contrary to international legal standards: “Far from being a win-win solution to the conflict, the Hof line was a hard and lost scenario, as Israel got more than the maximum it could legally target, and Lebanon ended up with less than the minimum it could get under international law.”

From Haytian’s perspective, the Hof line cannot constitute a solution to the maritime dispute between Lebanon and Israel, nor can it be a starting point or basis for future negotiations between the two parties. The only workable settlement will have to deal with what constitutes the core of the dispute at stake: the effect of the rock of Tekhelet on the delimitation line. Here is where compromises might be found and accepted. Otherwise, the conflict is likely to last forever to the detriment of the economies of both states and the stability of the region.

The core of the dispute is the effect of the rock of Tekhelet on the delimitation line.

Lebanese Officials Agree on Abandoning Lebanon’s Economic Rights

Lebanese President Michel Aoun was the sponsor of the Lebanese line 29 until the start of the indirect negotiations in Naqoura in October 2020. But when the time came to send the decree officializing the adoption of line 29 instead of line 23 (rejected by the army and the experts) to the United Nations, President Aoun suddenly withdrew his support, refusing to sign the executive decree.

This refusal of the more advantageous line 29 was followed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri as well as Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who consider that there is no official Lebanese line other than line 23. As for Hezbollah, it distanced itself from this question entirely, since its secretary-general declared that he will “leave it to the State to determine the borders of the country.” This evasion of responsibility comes at a time when Hezbollah holds a major influence over the State apparatus, such as the Parliament (where it retains the majority of seats with its allies), the Council of Ministers, and the Presidency of the Republic.

The disagreement between politicians on the one hand, and the Lebanese army’s specialists on the other, leads to decision-making that runs counter to the position of the Lebanese negotiating delegation. Line 29 claimed by the Lebanese delegation “is based on solid technical and legal elements supported by the recent decision of the International Court of Justice in the border dispute between Somalia and Kenya,” the negotiating delegation sources told Inside Arabia.

The Hague ruling issued on this matter emphasized the same constants that the Lebanese negotiating team adheres to, especially the fact that small islands and rocks shall not be taken into account in the demarcation of maritime borders if they have a disproportionate impact on them (1800 sq. km in the case of the Israeli rock Tekhelet).

There might be a “hidden” tripartite agreement between Lebanese President Aoun, PM Mikati and Speaker Berri, to withdraw all support for line 29.

According to a source close to the negotiations, there might be a “hidden” tripartite agreement between Lebanese President Aoun, PM Mikati and Speaker Berri, to withdraw all support for line 29 and exchange the Qana field for the Karish field, which is tantamount to abandoning the Karish field for nothing in return. This means putting an end to all the claims made by the army and the Lebanese delegation.

This maneuver aims at fulfilling the American conditions for the return of its “active” mediation in the negotiations since Washington has requested the abandonment of line 29. American mediators also first proposed an agreement on a common exploitation of the gas fields between lines 1 and 23, which constitutes an entry point for economic normalization with Israel. The common exploitation idea was subsequently abandoned by the new US administration.

The Lebanese delegation sources told Inside Arabia that “the danger today is that what we have achieved with scientific and legal studies will be lost in politics,” adding that they asked the Lebanese president to sign decree 6433 to approve line 29. The source specifies that “if the decree modifying the maritime borders of line 29 is signed, the negotiations will be completed within a month because Israel will have to respond to our demands in order to be able to start drilling in the Karish field.”

The source believes that if the decree approving line 29 is signed by the Lebanese president, Israel will face significant “legal pressure, but also material [pressure] because it cannot delay exploration in the Karish field.” Likewise, Israel will face “an important security issue, as Hezbollah has pledged to target Israel’s drilling activities in the waters within whatever is officially considered Lebanon’s maritime borders.”

However, on October 21, 2021, the Jerusalem Post reported that the negotiation process had stopped when Lebanon expanded its disputed area demands from 869 sq. km to 2,300 sq. km, which would “include the Karish North natural gas field, in Israeli economic waters, where drilling is already taking place.”

Lebanon’s Opposition Condemns the Political Establishment

In addition to the disappointment of the Lebanese army and the negotiating delegation, the Lebanese opposition is raising its voice in the face of the abandonment of line 29. Lebanese political activist and founding member of the Political Bureau of Social Democratic Party – (LNA Lebanon opposition party) Halima Kaakour, told Inside Arabia that “there is no confidence in Lebanese officials to protect maritime rights.”

She believes these developments are “signs of a political settlement with the Americans, which could include the lifting of sanctions against the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, and against other individuals close to Berri and other officials.” Kaakour also points out that “Hezbollah’s silence may mean that it is part of this agreement with the Americans,” stressing that such an agreement is “a neglect of Lebanon’s economic rights and a violation of its sovereignty.”

Kaakour thinks that “Lebanon can negotiate from a position of strength based on public international law and its rules, but today it is negotiating from a position of political weakness.” She noted that “Lebanon is witnessing a complete collapse at the level of its state because of its political authority, a position of weakness which makes this authority incapable of protecting our gas and our borders.”