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Dispute over maritime borders between Israel, Lebanon impedes energy development

 (Eqtsad)- A row between Israel and Lebanon over maritime borders is hampering energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean and risking exacerbating tensions between the two countries.

After months of deadlock in US-mediated talks, Beirut on Sunday warned against any activity in the disputed area in response to the arrival of a ship to develop a gas field for Israel. 

Lebanon said the Karish field is in disputed waters but Israel denies this.

Here's what you need to know about this confrontation:

What is at stake?

Lebanon and Israel are located in the Levant Basin where a large number of undersea gas fields have been discovered since 2009. Israel already produces and exports gas but despite Israel's push forward, the hopes of the Lebanese in energy production faltered due to political paralysis.

The French company Total said that the only Lebanese attempt to drill, which was an exploratory well in 2020, found traces of gas, but no reservoirs were found. Total formed a consortium, together with Italy's Eni and Russia's Novatek, which obtained Lebanon's first license for offshore oil and gas exploration in 2018.

Gas discovery would be a huge boon to Lebanon, which has been facing a financial crisis since 2019. Such a discovery could eventually remedy Lebanon's longstanding failure to produce enough electricity for its residents.

Israeli officials have previously said they hope the negotiations will take only a short time and the agreement will boost the economies of both countries.

But although the two sides could benefit from any agreement, the issue could risk conflict if it is not resolved.

The heavily armed Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran in Lebanon, had previously warned Israel against drilling in the disputed area. Hezbollah has previously fought many wars with Israel.

What is the dispute?

There is a dispute between Lebanon and Israel over the borders separating their exclusive economic zones.

Israel claims the border extends more north than Lebanon accepts, while Lebanon claims it extends more south than Israel accepts, leaving a triangle of disputed waters.

After indirect negotiations that began in 2020, Lebanon expanded its claim. Then Israel did the same.

Laurie Haytayan, a Lebanese oil and gas expert, said Karish became part of the area contested by Lebanon after Beirut expanded its claim.

On Sunday, the Lebanese presidency said in a letter to the United Nations that Lebanon had made it clear that Karish was located in the disputed area.

Israel says the Karish field, which was discovered more than ten years ago, is in its exclusive economic zone. Israeli Energy Minister Karen Al-Harrar said the Lebanese narrative was "completely far from reality."

What does Hezbollah think?

Hezbollah has been Israel's archenemy since it was founded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in 1982. Hezbollah has said the talks are not a sign of peacemaking and has threatened action if Israel violates Lebanon's rights.

But Hezbollah is more involved than ever in the affairs of the Lebanese state and wants Lebanon's marine energy resources to develop. Hezbollah did not stand in the way of the indirect talks brokered by the United States and said it would agree to whatever the government approves.

Is there a risk of conflict erupting?

The last major war between Israel and Hezbollah broke out in Lebanon in 2006. The border area has remained largely calm since then. Analysts believe that both sides want to avoid another conflict.

But Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said last year that Israel was mistaken if it thought it could act as it wanted before a solution was found, and that Hezbollah would "act on that basis" when it found Lebanon's oil and gas in danger.

Lebanon said in the wake of the latest spat that it would invite a US envoy to resume negotiations to prevent any escalation, and the Israeli defense minister said it was a civilian problem that would be resolved diplomatically.

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