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U.N. ready to intervene in dispute over maritime border
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BEIRUT: The United Nations is ready to get involved in the dispute over Lebanon and Israel’s maritime borders as tension over who gets to claim vast oil and gas reserves in the east Mediterranean basin continues to rise, according to a senior diplomatic source.

The source said Thursday that high-ranking U.N. officials were “open” to the idea of intervening in the demarcation of a sea border between Lebanon and Israel, in order to allow each country to legitimately commence fossil fuel exploration.

“The point of getting a border in place is to avoid sources of conflict. And this is the major source of conflict,” the source said.

Geological surveys have suggested there are extensive oil and gas reserves under the sea bed off Lebanon and Israel’s eastern shores. Reports from occupied Jerusalem suggest Israel is far closer to being ready to extract the fossil fuels – and reap the economic windfall such action would spark. In August 2010, Lebanese lawmakers passed a law authorizing exploration and drilling of offshore oil and gas fields, although little headway has been made since.

The issue of maritime border demarcation resurfaced following the formation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government, which has put the dilemma high on its agenda. Lebanon is mulling approaching the U.N. to complain about Israel’s recent claim to territory in the east Mediterranean, which ministers in Beirut say infringes on 860 square kilometers of Lebanon’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon said it was working with Lebanon and Israel to try and establish a maritime security zone close to the Blue Line in order to avoid fresh conflict between the two warring states.

“This will help maritime security and prevent hostile activities,” UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti told The Daily Star.

Tenenti added however that any UNIFIL involvement would be related to matters of security and not that of natural resources.

“UNIFIL has no mandate to demarcate the line. A boundary is for the states to decide,” he said.

Lebanon has enlisted the help of Iran, signing a Memorandum of Understanding with Tehran Wednesday that would allow it to assist Lebanon in fields of gas and oil exploration. It is thought the cooperation agreement was worth $50 million.

In an interview with Al-Akhbar newspaper Thursday UNIFIL Force Commander Major General Alberto Asarta Cuevas said his organization would look into acting “as a mediator between Israel and Lebanon in an effort to demarcate the maritime security line, even though it’s outside the scope of its mission.”

He revealed that commanders of the UNIFIL Maritime Task Force had broached the subject during a recent tripartite meeting with Lebanese and Israeli military officials.

Under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which was drafted in the wake of the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, UNIFIL is only mandated to help demarcate the land-based Blue Line. This is the boundary of Israeli military withdrawal from south Lebanon, not an internationally recognized border.

As for the maritime boundary, Israel unilaterally erected a line of buoys stretching west from Ras Naqoura, although Lebanon and the U.N. do not recognize this.

The source suggested that U.N. officials would be willing to ask the MTF to help out with formulating border lines that could be used as internationally accepted boundaries and allow each of the two states to legally drill for its respective share of fossil fuel reserves, should Israel and Lebanon be unable to reach an agreement. – Additional reporting by Brooke Anderson

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 22, 2011, on page 2.
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