BEIRUT: The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon clarified Friday its position regarding its role in assisting the country’s offshore oil and gas exploration efforts following remarks attributed to UNIFIL commander Gen. Paolo Serra in the Al-Akhbar daily.
“UNIFIL has nine vessels and will offer all the logistic capabilities to aid Lebanon in the drilling process,” the publication quoted Serra as saying.
“But until now we did not receive an official request from the Lebanese government so everything remains pending until a political solution [among Lebanon's rival groups is reached],” Serra’s comments continued. The commander is also said to have added that once the political solution is reached, UNIFIL would also use its nine naval units to help ensure the security of Lebanese waters.
Speaking to The Daily Star Friday afternoon, UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti however explained that while the force has “every good intention to assist” Lebanon’s efforts its activities are strictly governed by its U.N. mandate.
“We are obliged to operate within the scope of the 1701 mandate,” Tenenti said, adding that there is “no room for speculation in the mandate.”
Resolution 1701 was signed in August 2006 following the July war with Israel.
Under the mandate, the Lebanese Navy requested UNIFIL’s assistance at sea in preventing the unauthorized entry of arms into Lebanon, the spokesperson said. He also pointed out that the mandate allows UNIFIL to assist the Lebanese Navy with training and capacity building. Beyond this there is no scope for UNIFIL involvement in offshore exploration.
In south Lebanon, UNIFIL is mandated to patrol the land border between Lebanon and Israel, but Tenenti pointed out that there is no “agreed maritime border” between the two states.
But Tenenti went on to point out that if a “maritime security line” was agreed between Lebanon and Israel, then if requested to do so the force could work to prevent violations of that line.
No such security line exists at present, and while Tenenti says UNIFIL has raised the matter with both sides and at tripartite meetings of Lebanon, Israel and the peacekeeping force no decision has been reached.
Tenenti did however point out that maritime border discussions do “indirectly relate” to offshore gas exploration.
Earlier this year, Lebanon officially launched its first oil and gas licensing round with 46 international energy companies prequalifying to bid for offshore exploration contracts, but progress on awarding the contracts has stalled.
Decrees demarcating 10 maritime oil exploration blocks and establishing a revenue-sharing model require Cabinet approval before oil and gas contracts can be awarded. Caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil has called on the caretaker Cabinet and Parliament to hold extraordinary sessions to approve the oil sector decrees, but caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the Future Movement argue that only a new Cabinet is entitled to address the oil issue.
Meanwhile, Bassil said earlier this year that Lebanon's ongoing dispute with Israel over its maritime borders won’t affect the exploration progress as " Israel is drilling in a location far from the Lebanon’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and their operations don’t affect us."