Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Continuing tension along the Israel-Lebanon borders

Lebanon has filed a complaint against Israel at the UN after a border incident on Monday (1 August) which involved an exchange of fire. An Israeli Defence Force (IDF) patrol is alleged to have entered Lebanese territory at Wazzani. Reports vary, but the extent of the incursion is put at a matter of metres (between 15 and 70).

Reports also vary as to the supposed sequence of events. Some sources claim that the presence of IDF soldiers on Lebanese territory prompted Lebanese forces to fire at them; others counter that Israeli forces were not on Lebanese territory but that they did return the fire of the Lebanese forces.

Neither side sustained any casualties during the incident. In its complaint Lebanon argues that the the Israeli incursion represented a violation of its sovereignty, a breach of international law and the Charter of the United Nations. Moreover, Lebanon argues that the incursion breached UN Security Council resolution 1701 which ended the month-long war of 2006 end extended the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) mandate.

Israel made its own complaint to the UN, on Tuesday (2 August), about shots fired (by a Lebanese soldier at an IDF patrol) from across the border. Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to the UN has argued that incidents such as this potentially threaten the ceasefire that currently holds between the two states; another similar event has allegedly taken place in the last two weeks.

This notwithstanding, the low-level conflict that characterises the formal ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon has been interpreted in news sources as indicative of comparative calm along the land border. The focus in recent weeks has been on the maritime border between the two states, and a disputed area of approximately 850 square kilometres which, potentially, is rich in oil and gas deposits.

Neither side is willing to modify its stance, the Lebanese claiming a maritime boundary that runs several kilometres to the south of the line approved by the Israeli cabinet on 10 July. International parties are pushing for a negotiated settlement to the dispute, but as the states are technically at war they will not negotiate. Compounding the problem is Lebanon's non-recognition of Israel. It has therefore proposed that the UN resolve the matter. The UN, for its part, says it cannot because UNIFIL holds no mandate to deal with maritime boundaries. Therefore, perhaps the most satisfactory course of action is for both parties to permit a mediation process to begin—face-to-face negotiations are, at best, unlikely and probably impossible—while the states explore for oil and gas outside of the disputed area. It has been argued that the continued uncertainty over the maritime boundaries will cause international investors to stay away from the Levantine Basin but, arguably, this is not clear cut. Energy companies are, for example, involved in exploration and exploitation activities in a number of disputed areas including the disputed waters off Morocco and Western Sahara.

Indeed, both parties are free to explore areas of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) that are undisputed. However, Lebanon, which perhaps has the stronger case in international law, has not yet begun any exploration of its own. Hezbollah plays an important role in the new Lebanese cabinet; its leader, Hassan Nazrallah, has warned Israel—which has carried out exploratory work—to stay away from Lebanon's offshore resources.

Sources: Channel News Asia, Daily Star (Lebanon), Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post

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