BEIRUT: The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) said Wednesday it was not responsible for delineating a maritime border in the south, following the U.N.’s refusal of a Foreign Ministry request that Israel be prevented from exploiting Lebanese fossil fuel reserves in the eastern Mediterranean.
Foreign Minister Ali Shami, in a letter to New York late Tuesday, called for the U.N. to “exert every possible effort” to deter Israeli designs on oil and gas resources in the region. But Unifil deputy spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said the force was not mandated to deal with Lebanese-Israeli disputes arising over maritime boundaries.
“The line of buoys in the area of Naqoura was installed unilaterally by Israel following its 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon,” Tenenti told The Daily Star. “The line has not been recognized by the Lebanese government and we don’t have a mandate to monitor the line. A maritime boundary in that area was never established.”
Lawmakers have voiced fears that Israel could exploit its status as a state at war with Lebanon to circumvent U.N. jurisdiction and begin extracting oil and gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, billions of cubic meters of which are thought to lie within Lebanese coastal territory.
U.N. spokesperson Martin Nesirky said Tuesday that the organization could not intervene in delineating the border.
“The mandate [of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701] is very specific on what Unifil does including its maritime component, and it is also fairly specific that it does not include delineating lines – maritime lines,” Nesirky told reporters in New York.
“The mandate [of Unifil’s Maritime Task Force] is limited to assisting the Lebanese Navy at the request of the Lebanese government in preventing the entry of unauthorized arms or other materials to Lebanon,” he said. “The mission, in accordance with 1701, is to prevent hostile activities of any kind and Unifil is concerned about the number of incidents along the line of buoys.
“All these incidents have the potential to escalate tensions between the parties and Unifil has raised this issue during tripartite meetings.”
Last week, Noble Energy announced the Leviathan gas field, located offshore from the northern Israeli city of Haifa, contained an estimated 450 billion cubic meters of natural gas – a boast which prompted Minister of State Adnan Qassar to suggest oil and gas stocks in Lebanese waters had “a much larger storage amount” than those found by Israel.
Timur Goksel, a former long-term Unifil adviser and political science lecturer at the American University of Beirut, said that the U.N. would be unable to form maritime borders even with both governments’ approval.
“The stakes are so high and it’s not something the U.N. wants to get involved with,” he told The Daily Star. “Practically, it cannot work to delineate borders. The U.N. doesn’t delineate borders; it only provides an atmosphere in which delineation can occur. It’s highly specialized work, not something peacekeeping forces can do by themselves, even if they were asked to do so.”
Beirut claims its official offshore economic zone was identified by maps and coordinates sent to the U.N. last year, although Qassar said the government had “done nothing” to stake a legitimate claim to Mediterranean fossil fuel supplies.
Israel, on the other hand, “is preparing the legal background [for claiming natural gas and oil] and they are far ahead of Lebanon,” Goksel said.
“I don’t understand what Lebanon has done about this other than issuing statements. There has been no activity at all and it is not enough to write to the U.N. asking for it to keep an eye on [Lebanon’s] waters,” he added.
Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc issued a statement Wednesday in which it said demarcating the maritime border and exploiting oil and gas stocks represented a “national duty and an urgent economic task,” but failed to detail the party responsible for the thorny mission of border demarcation.
Garabed Kazanjian, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Mediterranean, said the oil and gas dispute risked both political and environmental fallout.
“Apart from the environmental issue, politics seems to be the engine driving this issue forward. It seems we fear we might run out of time and resources will be exploited by the enemy,” Kazanjian told The Daily Star. “The majority of the fuel [in the eastern Mediterranean] is natural gas and while from an environmental perspective this is a better choice [than drilling for oil], it is still a fossil fuel and it is still a bad option. The region has quite a capacity to produce renewable energy resources.”