Dispute over gas field adds to tensions between Lebanon and Israel

Tel Aviv to dispatch warships and a naval version of its Iron Dome missile defence system to protect drill ship

Tel Aviv is set to dispatch warships and a naval version of its Iron Dome missile defence system to protect a drill ship which has entered an offshore oil and gas field partly claimed by Lebanon.

The drill ship, operated by Greek-owned company Energean, has been contracted by Israel to develop the field.

Israel announced its military deployment following a threat by Hizbullah’s deputy head Sheikh Naim Qassem who said the movement is prepared to take action if the Lebanese government formally accuses Israel of violating Lebanon’s maritime rights and even if Hizbullah’s intervention resulted in a general conflict.

“When the Lebanese state says that the Israelis are assaulting our waters and our oil, then we are ready to do our part in terms of pressure, deterrence and use of appropriate means – including force,” Sheikh Qassem said, calling on the government to “hurry up [and] set a deadline for itself”.

Both Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun and caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati have also warned against operations in the disputed Kirish field by Energean, thereby boosting tensions with Israel, which it has been at war with since 1948.

Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz said the dispute would be resolved through US mediation but argued that the vessel is “entirely in undisputed territory”, making it clear that its operations will commence.

Aoun’s adviser on international co-operation, Elias Bou Saab, has asked Washington’s envoy Amos Hochstein to set a date for the resumption of talks which have been stalled since last year.

Beirut is reportedly wary of US mediation due to its close relations with Israel, while Hochstein is not seen as a neutral arbiter since he is a dual US-Israeli citizen who was born in Israel and served in the Israeli army.

“Poor governance, an inability to strategise and implement a vision for the sector has hampered prospects for Lebanon to develop an oil and gas industry that would, at least, cater for the country’s domestic energy needs or even position it as a possible export for Europe which is seeking alternatives to Russian gas,” Sibylle Rizk of Lebanon’s Kulluna Irada advocacy group told Al Jazeera.

Due to political stasis Lebanon has failed to exploit its offshore gas reserves or even develop a coherent policy governing these resources. According to a map deposited with the UN in 2011, negotiations initially focused on an 860sq km disputed area covering a narrow triangular portion of the Kirish field. However, in 2020, Lebanon added 1,430sq km to the original claim.

However, Aoun has not signed the decree providing for the expansion of Lebanon’s offshore economic zone. He has now come under pressure from Hizbullah and 13 newly elected independent deputies. The latter insist that Beirut must deliver an updated version of the decree to the UN, lodge a complaint with the Un Security Council and warn Energen about the risks of operating in a disputed area.

If Israel continues with exploitation the field is expected to come online in the third quarter of 2022. Its reserves are said to amount to more than 1 trillion cubic feet of gas.