Hundreds of Lebanese citizens, including lawmakers, have been demonstrating against Israel’s decision to move a gas production ship into the offshore Karish gas field, which is partly claimed by Lebanon.

The protest was arranged in the southern Lebanese border town of Naquora merely days ahead of U.S. Special Envoy Amos Hochstein’s arrival to mediate in the maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel. At the protest, Lebanese and Palestinian flags were waved.

“We absolutely refuse to neglect Lebanon’s maritime resources, which belong to all Lebanese,” said lawmaker Firas Hamdan, who was reading from a joint statement from 13 independent parliamentarians, most of whom were newly elected in Lebanon’s latest elections.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati warned last week that Lebanon views Israel’s gas exploration plan in the disputed offshore field as an act of aggression.

“Any exploration, drilling or extraction carried out by Israel in the disputed areas constitutes a provocation and an act of aggression,” read the statement released by Mikati’s office. 

Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar dismissed the Lebanese claims to the gas field.

“It’s not even (above) the southern line that Lebanon submitted to the United Nations. Even according to the United Nations, it’s not in Lebanon,” Elharrar argued. 

The vessel at the center of the controversy is operated by the London-listed company Energean PLC and arrived on behalf of Israel into the disputed Karish gas field last Sunday.

In an official statement, Mathias Rigas, CEO of Energean, described the gas extraction operation as an important event that contributes to the energy security in the Eastern Mediterranean region. 

“I am delighted to confirm that the Energean Power FPSO has arrived on location in Israel,” Rigas said. “This marks a major step forward in delivering first gas from Karish which remains on track for Q3 2022. We look forward to continuing our progress through Karish first gas, the commercialisation of the newly defined Olympus Area and contributing to energy security and competition of supply for the region.” 

Lebanon and Israel are technically at war, but agreed to resume maritime border negotiations in 2020. The Lebanese initial claim concerned some 860 square kilometers of territorial water. However, the border negotiations became more complex after Lebanon extended its claim to an additional 1,430 square kilometers, including parts of the disputed Karish gas fields. The gas field could potentially become a gamechanger in a Lebanon plagued by a severe financial crisis.

The powerful Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah recently threatened to use military force against Israel if Jerusalem moves ahead with the gas exploration plans in the disputed offshore gas field. Hezbollah and its local allies suffered significant losses in the Lebanese parliamentary election. Many Lebanese increasingly accuse Hezbollah of serving the interests of its Iranian patron at the expense of Lebanon’s national interests. Some, therefore, believe that Hezbollah is exploiting the gas field dispute with Israel as an opportunity to regain its influence in Lebanese society.

“The real goal of its authorities, after seeing how Hezbollah’s allies performed badly in the last elections, is to cling to power through threats of conflict with Israel,” wrote Seth Frantzman, an analyst for The Jerusalem Post.

Frantzman further views the Hezbollah threats as directly linked to the Iranian regime’s growing malicious influence in the region. 

“This is part of their populist plot, and it is likely being encouraged by Iran to create a casus belli, meaning an excuse for conflict that will enable Hezbollah to claim it is ‘resisting’ Israel. This is part of the narrative that Iran has used for years: getting Hezbollah to create fake excuses for the need to keep stockpiling Iranian-supplied weapons,” added Frantzman.

Hezbollah attacked Israel in 2006, triggering the Second Lebanon War that lasted for a month. While the border between Lebanon and Israel has been largely quiet since 2006, Hezbollah – with Iranian support – has accumulated a vast arsenal of at least 150,000 rockets that are capable of reaching any point inside Israel. 

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