Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Lebanon-Israel boundary dispute goes to UN, while Turkey boosts regional naval presence

On 5th September Lebanon filed a formal complaint with the UN over its maritime dispute with Israel, warning that the Israeli proposal for the border line “puts international peace and security at risk” and urging the UN “to take all necessary measures to avoid conflict."

The Foreign Ministry in Beirut has sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon rejecting the northern boundaries of Israel's claim, which was submitted to the UN in July. Some weeks earlier, the Lebanese parliament approved a draft law which demarcates the country's maritime borders, following a formal proposal to the UN last year.

Lebanon's case is that over 860 km2 of its exclusive economic zone, in which a state has 'sovereign rights' over marine resources, is infringed by the Israeli claim. The area in question contains significant quantities of oil and gas, and US-listed explorer Noble Energy has already begun developing large gas fields in the Israeli sector of the Mediterranean.

Lebanon's decision to file a formal complaint raises the stakes further, although by moving the ball into the UN's court it maycommit both parties to arbitration and reduce the risk of conflict. Pursuing the case through arbitration would also help to marginalise the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, which has threatened reprisals if Israel begins drilling in disputed waters.

There have been further signs of tension in the Levant over the past few days, however. On 4th September, Lebanon accused Israeli jets of violating its airspace: a common enough refrain over the past few years, but one which takes on additional significance when relations between the two sides, still technically at war, are so strained.

The collapse in the Turkey-Israel relationship is also adding to tensions in the Levant. On 2nd September the Israeli ambassador in Ankara was expelled after Israel again refused to apologise for the Gaza flotilla raid in May 2010, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed.

On 6th September Turkey's blunt-talking Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced that all remaining ties with Israel would be cut, and Turkish warships “will be seen more frequently” in the eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan has cast himself as the champion of the Arab world, and a greater naval presence could tempt Turkey into intervening in the Israel-Lebanon spat. Given the disputed nature of the region's maritime borders, the chances for accusations and miscalculations are likely to increase even further.

Sources: AFP, Daily Star, Reuters

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