The lie of the land in Lebanon

The lie of the land in Lebanon

It hasn’t received much attention in Australia’s media but Israel is set to become a player in the energy production sector.

The discovery of vast gas deposits off the Israeli coast in 2009 – adjudged to be that year’s largest global find – puts into context the stakes at play.

Indeed, according to Israeli business journalist Amotz Asa-El, commercial output would eventually amount to 5% of Israel’s GDP.

So the news that Lebanon’s government has hired a Norwegian firm to “conduct a seismic survey on the border of Israel’s exclusive economic zone” in the Mediterranean Sea has the worrying potential to trigger new confrontation between the two countries.

Lebanese MPs have already fulminated against Israel’s alleged theft of their country’s natural resources.

And with the nascent Hezbollah-controlled government having had its numbers tested on the floor of the Lebanese Parliament this week and surviving a no confidence motion, the prospect for the issue to be exploited as a cynical casus belli by Hezbollah or its Iranian masters must be taken very seriously.

Unfortunately Hezbollah has form.

Following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of its troops from its security zone in south Lebanon in 2000, the United Nations verified that Israel no longer occupied any Lebanese territory.

Hezbollah disagreed and claimed that Israel was still occupying Lebanese territory in the area of the Shebaa Farms bordering Lebanon, Syria and Israel.

No one outside of Lebanon takes Hezbollah’s claim seriously. Although Syria has been happy to play along with Hezbollah’s propaganda, it has never officially agreed with the territorial claims made.

In 1974, the UN recognised Shebaa Farms as a part of the Golan Heights that Israel had captured from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War.

It is also important to note that this 1974 UN statement of fact was made years before Israel occupied Lebanese territory.

As part of the ceasefire negotiation process after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war the US reportedly wanted Israel to hand over the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon.

Israel demurred on the basis that it would hand Hezbollah an unjustified reward for having caused the war in the first case.

Oil has long been used as a weapon in the Middle East. During the 1970s the Arab states tried to ratchet up the pressure on the West to abandon Israel with their oil shock therapy.

One might hope that Hezbollah and the Lebanese government might conceivably follow their better instincts and realise that the Mediterranean’s natural resources could mutually benefit both Israelis and Lebanese but don’t hold your breath.