Maritime law causes tension between Israel and Lebanon

By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
faculty member, Legal studies

In recent months, tension has been slowly but surely rising between Israel and Lebanon. Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon has threatened to open a new front against Israel, this time at sea.

In the Mediterranean Sea, Israel has been drilling for natural gas, which is in high demand in light of the European Union’s attempt to limit its energy purchases from Russia. However, Hezbollah maintains that Israel has no right to drill gas in this region.

Ultimately, the question to be resolved in this dispute is: where does Israel’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) end and where does Lebanon begin?

What is an Exclusive Economic Zone?

The term Exclusive economic zone is a concept originating from the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982. It refers to the jurisdiction of a country over the exploration and exploitation of marine resources in its adjacent part of the shelf continental. Generally, the EEZ extends 200 miles from the coast of a country.

The EEZ is an important part of the modern economy. Countries use these sea areas for fishing, mining, or drilling for oil or natural gas, which can be very lucrative.

Like the students of my maritime law class (LSTD401) know, legal definitions that initially seem dry can make or break billion-dollar deals and bring tensions between opposing parties to a boiling point. In the case of Lebanon and Israel, this heated legal disagreement concerns maritime law, economics and international politics.

Defining the Lebanese-Israeli maritime border

The the contested area is triangular in shape and includes 339 square miles of the Mediterranean Sea. According to ReutersThe Lebanese armed group Hezbollah released a video on Sunday showing vessels involved in Israel’s offshore oil and gas industry and warned against ‘playing with time’, underscoring its threat of military escalation amid talks demarcation of the maritime boundary.

Last month, Israel shot down Hezbollah drones flying next to an Israeli gas drilling rig. Israel will soon begin a major drilling operation in the Karish (“Shark” in Hebrew) natural gas field, which is partly in the EEZ.

However, it seems that Lebanon hopes to find a reservoir of natural gas in the Qana gas field, which is also partly in the EEZ. If this natural gas is found, it will help the crippled Lebanese economy.

US envoy Amos Hochstein mediating between Israel and Lebanon

The United States mediated between Israel and Lebanon, and American envoy Amos Hochstein traveled between Beirut and Jerusalem. According to the Jerusalem Post, the two countries were close to an agreement in the past.

According to the Jerusalem Post, “Israel initially agreed to split the area 58% to 42% in favor of Lebanon. The talks broke down after four rounds of talks in 2021, when Lebanon sharply increased its demands to almost triple the disputed area to 2,300 km2. [square kilometers]adjoining the Israeli Karish gas reservoir.

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Prior to Hochstein’s visit to Beirut, the State Department was optimistic that a deal could be reached between the two countries. According to The Times of Israel, the State Department said, “Reaching a resolution is both necessary and possible, but can only be achieved through negotiation and diplomacy.”

The Times of Israel also reported that “Hochstein would provide Israel’s response to a Lebanese proposal for full control of the Qana gas field, which straddles the areas and is called Sidon in Hebrew, in exchange for giving up its claims to the field of Karish”.

Hochstein has a proven track record in negotiating energy deals since his time in the Obama administration. He played a decisive role in the Israeli-Jordanian energy agreementshuttling 14 times between Jerusalem and Amman until he brought a $500 million deal to the finish line.

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Could an Israeli-Lebanese agreement lead to other positive developments in the Middle East?

If Israel and Lebanon reach an agreement, could this lead to other positive developments in the Middle East? Perhaps the rationale for the Abraham Accords has potential in the Middle East. What is good for business is good for peace.

As long as Iran – through Hezbollah – continues to dominate Lebanon, we are unlikely to see any positive changes. But an agreement through US mediation will send a message to other Middle Eastern nations that mutually beneficial deals for everyone can be reached.

In time, Sunni forces in the Middle East will see what is potentially achievable. As Iran and its terrorist organizations continue to threaten Sunni-ruled countries, it makes geopolitical sense to link up with Israel.

Likewise, Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority, is aging. If Palestinian politics changes after his eventual death, a new relationship between Sunni Middle Eastern countries and Israel could prove very important in reshaping the Palestinian Authority. This agreement between Israel and Lebanon is just another example that anything is possible in the Middle East.