image Photo: Flash90

Hezbollah repeats threat to Israel over sea borders

The latest warning from the  heavily armed, Iran-backed terror group comes amid Washington’s attempts to mediate a resolution to the maritime dispute between Jerusalem and Beirut.

By Erin Viner

Hezbollah’s so-called “War Media,” charged with disseminating images of military operations and battles, released a video highlighting a portion of a recent speech by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, underlining the threat of a military escalation by warning Israel that “playing with time is not useful” on the maritime matter.

A rare glimpse of Hezbollah weaponry was also revealed in the video, aired yesterday on the Iranian proxy’s Al-Manar TV station. A senior correspondent for the network asserted on Twitter that, “the message is a serous threat.”

Also included was footage of ships involved in drilling and extracting hydrocarbons as part of Israel’s offshore oil and gas industry, along with what was said to be their coordinates. Featured sites included the London-based Energean Power hydrocarbon floating production and storage vessel and Stena IceMax drillship at Israel’s Karish gas reservoir about 80 km (50 miles) west of Haifa. The day after the Energean deployment in June, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qassem declared, “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.”

While Hezbollah “urged the government to hurry up” and set a deadline for a “a decisive decision” on the matter, Naim stressed that Hezbollah would act “no matter the responses” even if it led to a broader conflict. The terror group is believed to posses an arsenal that exceeds that of the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati have both warned Israel against operations in Karish, prompting fears of a violent escalation over the issue.

The IDF has so far thwarted three attempted Hezbollah attacks on the Karish rig with Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war in 2006 and have exchanged fire on multiple occasions since that time but have avoided a large-scale confrontation.

The United States has been trying to mediate indirect maritime border demarcation talks between the two sides in a process that began in 2000, to determine which oil and gas resources of the eastern Mediterranean Sea belong to which country and pave the way for more exploration. Israel proposed a 58:42 division in favor of Lebanon when negotiations were resumed last year, but an impasse was reached after Beirut nearly tripled its claim by around 1,400 square km (540 square miles) above the initial Decree 6433 Lebanon submitted to the United Nations in 2011. The new Lebanese claim angles farther south, placing an 860-square kilometer triangle in the Mediterranean (amounting to about 2% of Israel’s economic waters) at stake, including the northern end of the Karish field which Jerusalem firmly maintains is part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Lebanese officials have expressed optimism that the current round of talks can result in a deal after years of on-and-off indirect negotiations, but Hezbollah has continuously warned that it is ready to prevent Israel from extracting hydrocarbons should Lebanon not be allowed to do so.

The video was released just hours before United States Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut to hold meetings with Lebanese officials. A statement on Saturday by the US State Department said Hochstein would “discuss sustainable solutions to Lebanon’s energy crisis, including the Biden Administration’s commitment to facilitating negotiations between Lebanon and Israel on the maritime boundary,” while stressing that “reaching a resolution is both necessary and possible but can only be done through negotiations and diplomacy.”

Israeli Energy Minister Karin Elharrar said that Hochstein would present “a good, serious proposal for Lebanon,” and called on the Arab Republic to “take what is a very significant step for them towards becoming a country that produces gas, in order to solve their economic and energy crisis.”

An Israeli official speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity said that the new proposal that “includes a solution that would allow the Lebanese to develop the gas reserves in the disputed area while preserving Israel’s commercial rights,” that would also facilitate Beirut to engage in “some drilling there.” The source underscored that the offer that has been relayed “can transform Lebanon from a country of economic ruin and energy crises to a natural gas-producing country, by enabling it to cultivate this resource.”

Following a briefing by officials and an overflight of the Karish natural gas platform on 19 July, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid commented that the reserves “have the potential to contribute toward a solution for the global energy crisis.” Stressing that, “Lebanon could also benefit from developing the reserves in its economic waters,” the Israeli leader called for the immediate conclusion of the maritime negotiations “forthwith.”

Israeli Prime Minister Lapid toured IDF Northern Command and the Lebanese border the same day with Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The two held an operational assessment and spoke with senior commanders. They were accompanied by National Security Council Director Dr. Eyal Hulata, IDF Deputy Chief-of-Staff Maj.-Gen. Herzl Halevy, Commander of the IDF Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Amir Baram, the Prime Minister’s Military Secretary Maj.-Gen. Avi Gil, the Defense Minister’s Military Secretary Brig.-Gen. Yaakov Dolf and other senior officers.

“The State of Israel is prepared to act against any threat. We do not seek confrontation but whoever tries to attack our sovereignty or Israeli citizens – will learn very quickly that they have made a serious mistake,” warned Prime Minister Lapid.

While “Israel is interested in Lebanon being a stable and prosperous neighbor that is neither a platform for Hezbollah terrorism nor an Iranian tool,” he went on to assert that “the activity of Hezbollah endangers Lebanon, its citizens and their wellbeing. While we have no interest in escalation, Hezbollah’s aggression is unacceptable and is liable to lead the entire region into an unnecessary escalation, just when there is a genuine opportunity for Lebanon to develop its energy resources. The State of Israel is taking action against all of Iran’s proxies in the region and beyond and will continue to do so. Iran is the largest exporter of terrorism in the world. We will act on our own and in tandem with other countries in the region to prevent Iran from undermining regional stability.”

Defense Minister Gantz underscored that, “Israel is ready to do much for its neighbors’ prosperity and is prepared to take action at any time to protect its citizens. We are prepared in all areas – land, sea, air and cyber. We see the crisis in Lebanon, which is hurting its citizens. Lebanon and its leaders know very well that if they choose the path of confrontation – they will be hurt and get burned severely. If they choose the path of stability – they will be helping the Lebanese people.”