Where would the Lebanese-Israeli Maritime Conflict Lead to?

This paper estimates the legal position of the maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel, which is related to the right to use the resources in the disputed waters. This paper also considers to the possible scenarios of this conflict, in accordance with domestic and external considerations, within which Lebanon and Israel are taking their moves.

  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Jul 17, 2022

With the background of politics and fears of war, Lebanon and Israel are conducting indirect technical negotiations under U.S. auspices, to demarcate the maritime border, and resolve the legal dispute over the exercise of economic rights in the waters adjacent to the eastern Mediterranean. Such dispute has expanded from being related to sovereignty, into taking advantage of the huge reserves of gas and oil lurking on the seabed.

Since the U.S. Geological Survey published its report on the riches of the eastern Mediterranean in 2010, coastal countries have taken it upon themselves to prove their legal right to extract gas and oil from those locations. The report estimated that expected gas amounts are 3.3 trillion cubic meters, while petroleum amount is expected to be 1.7 billion barrels.

As exploration increased, the expected quantities doubled to 13.5 trillion cubic meters of gas, and 5 billion barrels of petroleum, according to some estimates. These expected quantities, in addition to the Middle East's influential position close to Europe, which is seeking to be independent from Russia in terms of gas sources, make the region a hotbed of tension besides being an energy hub. Gas amounts in the Middle East can cover the global consumption for three and a half years. (Global gas consumption in 2020 was approximately 3.8 trillion cubic meters).

These resources were, therefore, a motivation to reshape the Eastern (Mediterranean) relations, even that such resources shaped the nature of Eastern (Mediterranean) relations, and redefined the region in geopolitical calculations.

Lebanon and Israel were not away from the competition to occupy a sovereign position in the international gas production and transport map, as the two states shared disputed waters awaiting resolution.

In October 2020, the former U.S. President Donald Trump administration of began a "common framework for maritime discussions" to resolve the dispute, via holding indirect talks under U.S. auspices, and under the UN flag, so that these talks would not become a cause of domestic accusations that a party may challenge the credibility of another rival party.

Lebanon and Israel have a different perspective on the talks, as Lebanon, which is experiencing a worsening economic crisis, considers this file a sovereign "economic", while Israel considers it a sovereign "security" file.

Despite this fundamental difference, states will place all the power papers they hold at the negotiating table, using legal arguments that enhance the legitimacy of their claims.

The assessment of the following position provides a brief legal reading of the Lebanese-Israeli maritime conflict. The brief attempts to anticipate its scenarios in accordance with domestic and external considerations, within which both states are takin their moves.

Interpretational Contradictions

The international system is described as "anarchy" for there is no supreme authority that imposes its binding and comprehensive legal articles on various aspects of interactions. Unlike domestic law, in which the three authorities of a state are not disputed by any other party. There is no consensus on the legal articles of the international system. The interpretations of these articles may contradict even by states that have declared their acceptance and adopted them.

The international; Maritime Zones and Maritime Delimitation law reflects this ambiguous situation. After centuries of the development of international custom and coded charters, international practice has settled on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, drafted in 1982, and formally adopted in November 1994. According to the UN treaty website, 158 countries signed this law.

While Lebanon has joined this Agreement, Israel didn’t', although it has participated in drafting it, the matter which is understood that Israel adopted it even if it did not been ratify it. Should Lebanon and Israel had adopted this Agreement as a reference, the file would have criteria that would become the base of the solution. Should the solution could not be resolved, arbitration could be used through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, or a consensus to appoint a neutral body to resolve the dispute could be reached.

In this context, the 1982 Convention sets forth the right of a state to exercise manifestations of sovereignty (e.g. economic rights, inspection, transit control, judicial, and customs procedures) up to 12 nautical miles from the periphery of its coastline, grants a non-sovereignty economic right to explore and benefit from the resources up to 200 nautical miles, this may reach up to 350 nautical miles in cases of an extension of the continental shelf, i.e. an extension of that state's topography up to that distance, etc.

The essence of the Lebanese-Israeli dispute lies in the degree to which the baseline (coastal) is tilted, from which perpendicular lines are drawn toward the sea. According to an analytical article, published by the Washington Institute in May 2021, "Different interpretations of this theoretical line can result in different directions". For example, if it is confirmed that the coastline, between Israel and Lebanon, extends from Tyre to Acre, the direction of the border/exclusive economic zone will be 290 degrees. But if the coastline extends from Beirut to Haifa, the trend will be 295 degrees -a big difference in determining how oil and gas reserves are distributed off the coast. What complicates the calculations, to a greater extent, is that Lebanon has sometimes argued that the maritime border should be an extension of the (disputed) land border, which registers 270 degrees at the coast, or tends to the west."


Accordingly, the dispute in determining the lines between Lebanon and Israel "technically" is not at the distance, but at the angle of inclination. The dispute course is mainly in the area situated between lines 23 and 29, where Lebanon considers that it has economic waters up to line 29, while Israel refuses to do so, and seeks to reserve what it sees as its share of the disputed waters.

To augment its negotiating position, a decree of the Lebanese Caretaker Government -unilaterally- amended the maritime border, in April 2021, to make the disputed area approximately be 2,300 square kilometers, not 850 square kilometers, moving from line 23 to the south towards line 29.

Since the decree has not yet been ratified presidentially, it has not been filed in the General Secretariat of the United Nations, which means that the Lebanese decree is legally ineffective, and that is merely a bargaining card in border negotiations, that Israel has been accustomed to conducting since it was founded.

This controversy about the lines was deepened with the announcement of the huge discoveries in the 150-square-kilometer Karish field, which has reserves ranging from 42-56 billion cubic meters of gas. Karish field is located south of Block 8 and 9 and several kilometers from the water, that Lebanon sees as a purely economic right (Line 23), making draining from the field affect the Lebanese reserves.


A Greek production and storage ship -not an oil exploration or exploration ship- contracted with the Israeli government, arrived to Karish field in June 2022, amid Lebanese protest and rejection. The international law excludes the disputed resources well from conflict if a state takes advantage of it, which means that Israel's stable practice of benefiting from Karish makes such field not be an issue of a dispute.

Israel may, therefore, work keenly to strengthen its right in Karish field. Besides the Greek ship, it was noted that the tripartite memorandum of understanding for the export of Israeli gas to the European Union, signed in June 2022, places Karish field as one of three potential fields for Israel's export of agreed quantities, large quantities -not specified in the initial memorandum of understanding-. EU countries are partly counting on such amounts to ease their dependence on Russian gas.

The Greek ship's arrival, and the signing of the memorandum of understanding, coincided with the return of the U.S. Energy Security Administration Coordinator and head of the U.S. delegation to indirect negotiations, Amos Hoxstein, to Beirut, in order to complete the pending border negotiations. In his meetings, Hoxstein heard a unified position rejecting Israel's "provocation" and upholding Lebanon's water rights.

Returning to Lebanon's failure to file a decree expanding its borders at the United Nations and improving the negotiating position, press sources quoted a Lebanese proposal submitted to Hoxstein, that 1,200 square kilometers of disputed water should be allocated as Lebanon's economic right, i.e. between lines 23 and 29, giving Lebanon Qana field entirely, and completely excluding the Karish field from Lebanese territorial waters, without recognizing Israeli sovereignty, since there are no formal diplomatic relations between the two states.

The fundamental technical question remains, if an agreement (Qana for Karish) is reached, whether the fields will prompt the Lebanon and Israel to agree on a mechanism for sharing expenditures and revenues.  Such technical question would be turned into to a political dimension, related to some kind of coordination between the two states, which may, over time, pave the way for de facto "normal" dealing, despite the state of official hostility. This development subject to demarcation scenarios, and the circumstances of the regional and international environments, which both states move are moving therein.

Potential Scenarios

It is difficult to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, the course of many Middle Eastern issues. When it comes to a file in which Lebanon and Israel are at odds, the degree of uncertainty increases, due to the nature and past of the relationship between the two states, reflecting the lack of confidence and the apprehension of future steps by both states.

Concerning demarcating the sea borders, the options are almost limited to:

First: Intransigence and Gridlock

In order for a government to conclude a sovereign agreement, such agreement should be based on a solid ground of local political stability, so that the agreement would not aggravate the already turbulent situation. The caretaker governments in Lebanon and Israel, after the resignation of Netvali Bennett and Yair Lapid assumed the presidency until the elections in late October or early November 2022. As for Lebanon, there is no government with full competent until late June 2022.

Furthermore, the failure to draw land borders is a pressure on the demarcation of maritime boundaries. Maritime boundaries are usually drawn between states whose land borders were determined, where the latter would be the basic point of understanding. However, in the Lebanese-Israeli case, the opposite case is the reality. This, there are both states may have concerns that the expansion of the other state's economic waters, may be a legal justification for expanding the land border once discussed.

Tel Aviv will consider the Lebanese proposal "Qana for Karish" from all aspects that are potentially relevant to the maritime border. Israel will be keen to show a consistent position with the Convention on the Law of the Sea, even though Israel is not a member to it. Israel is keen on its legitimate image, especially since 158 signatories signed that convention, making the Convention a customary law, which its articles are binding by the virtue of the stability of working thereunder over a long period of time, according to adopted legal jurisprudences.

It should be noted that the issues of demarcation of the border are highly technically and strategically sensitive. A document issued by a state can have weight in determining sovereignty. For instance: in the case of Shebaa farms, over which Syria and Lebanon claim sovereignty on; experts argue using a map on an old Lebanese currency, that did not place this spot within Lebanese geography. Due to the fact that a currency is considered an official document, it then weakens the legal status of The Lebanese Shebaa.

Second: The Success of the U.S. Mediation

Contrary to the first scenario, the instability of the local environment could be a catalyst for the success of U.S. mediation, as Lebanon is in an economic crisis that all political spectrum agrees is unprecedented.

The Israeli government is looking for a regional breakthrough, in order to strengthen its upcoming electoral position against former Prime Minister; Benjamin Netanyahu.

A joint statement by three Israeli ministers (foreign affairs, security, and energy) sent a message of calm to the Lebanese side, ensuring that the Greek ship and the attached platform would not pump gas from the disputed area.

Hezbollah's approach to border demarcation is based on leaving the file to the Lebanese state and its official institutions. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said, in a speech in October 2021 "demicrating the maritime borders is up to the state". He again reiterated on June 9, 2022, that "Lebanon has the right and the strength of the army and the resistance to prevent Israel from exploiting the oil field".

The reason for this is that the military and state institutions, mainly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have links with external actors who can interact and send messages related to this file. The official state's involvement in the negotiations reduces the political consequences and responsibility, that may reflect on Hezbollah, particularly among its grassroots.

On the other hand, the Hezbollah's local political situation is pushing for concessions and facilitations, which contribute to easing the regional pressure on the party, and in raising the chances of Hezbollah's allies to assume positions being prepared.

The most important of these positions is the presidency, which Hizballah is seeking to present a name or a set of names close to it, in order to exclude and compete with the presence of the Lebanese Forces Party led by Samir Geagea, whose recent parliamentary elections have confirmed that he has a political presence in the local structure. 

Third: The Wide-Scale Military Engagement

The demarcation of the border will be added to the flaring issues between Lebanon and Israel, which had high sensitivity following Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian crisis, and the Israeli army's execution of high-precision operations, in addition to destroying Hezbollah locations and arms corridors.

The Hezbollah-Israel duality cannot be addressed without viewing the regional landscape, as both sides are involved in conflicting foreign policies, that make the bilateral relationship part of a wider cycle of entanglements and complexities. Hezbollah will not stand doing nothing once a major regional war breaks out against Iran's nuclear program, which Israel fears it will cross the "nuclear threshold" as nuclear negotiations falter.

It is true that mutual deterrence and the rationality of political decision-making keep war away, but the political history in the Middle East suggests that the spark of war is not subject to rational calculations. The possibility of a Lebanese-Israeli war is not limited to the hypothesis that a "calculated and considered" political decision by one of the parties may start; rather, it might be "War by Accident".

A politically unintentional incident, such as an offensive platform may fire due to a technical failure, or a fighter's rebellion targeting the military assets of the opposite party, could exacerbate by a succession of "response-to-response" up to the participation of various military formations in the clash. The psychological charging of combatants, and the degree of logistical readiness, are increasing fears of war outbreak by mistake.

In a sign of the possibility of a series of "responses-to-responses", Hezbollah announced in early July 2022, that three unarmed drones were conducting a reconnaissance tour over the Karish field, with which the Israeli navy had to pursue through a naval piece, after the marches managed to penetrate radars and maneuver aircraft operating in the area, according to a report published by the official Israeli broadcasting organization; KAN.

The unofficial media tackled this escalation from the point of view of Hezbollah's success in penetrating advanced levels of Karish's defenses, without being intercepted by the navy forces.

In a speech in mid-July 2022, Nasrallah threatened to prevent Israel from exploiting wealth from the sea, unless Lebanon could extract and sell oil and gas. He also recalled the "Haifa and beyond Haifa" equation that he had stated weeks before the July 2006 war, when he said that his party would not stand at the Karish fields but would establish the "Karish and beyond Karish" equation.

Regardless of the realistic thinking that excludes the outbreak of war, if the opposing parties are convinced of their high destructive allies, Lebanon and Israel have special reasons to reject this realistic thinking. It is self-evident that Lebanon and Hezbollah will do everything possible to recover from the current economic destruction, that is close to ravaging the existence of the state. Even without a direct war, the question of continuity remains in doubt, unless there is an economic exit such as gas extraction from its reservoirs.

Israel, on the other hand, will use the war to destroy Hezbollah's strategic structures, and to pit Lebanon's divided political class against it. Hezbollah is an armed non-governmental group. Unless Hezbollah has a government mandate, its use of force is illegal, which allows Israel to wage a justified war, from a legal point of view. 

Fourth: Companies' Reluctance to Explore Petroleum

In his earlier speech, Nasrallah threatened the owners and management of the Greek company, which joined the line of 29, where he said they were "partners in the attack that is now taking place in Lebanon. This has consequences," adding that they "must now take full responsibility for what may be inflicted on this ship physically and humanly".

If the first scenario of " Intransigence and Gridlock " is realized, concerns about the third scenario of "large-scale military engagement" will cast a shadow over companies operating in a high-risk area, where energy facilities can be targeted with a precise security operation. In his mid-July 2022 speech, Nasrallah stressed that the aim of sending marches to the Karish field was to alert workers on board the Greek ship that it was not a safe area.

Gas platforms are likely to occupy a high position in the information bank of all actors in the region, in preparation for the major engagement. An Israeli military official revealed in June 2022 to channel "I24" that the Qassam Brigades tried to target the gas platform "Tamar" in the midst of operations that broke out in May 2021, which the brigades called "Saif al-Quds" {in Arabic: Sword of Jerusalem).

In parallel with the cost of logistics insurance for facilities, companies will also consider the high insurance fees, and the likelihood that they will incur compensatory claims if a court order violates the economic rights of another State in disputed waters.

In parallel with the cost of logistics insurance for facilities, companies will also consider the high insurance fees and the likelihood that they will incur compensatory claims if a court order violates the economic rights of another State in disputed waters.

The military and political consequences could extend to the state/states in which the companies operating in these waters are registered. The Greek Foreign Ministry summoned the Lebanese charge d'affaires to protest against Nasrallah's threats, asserting that the Greek Government had nothing to do with the ownership of the ship, and only a minority of the company's shareholders were Greek businessmen, but there were Greek sailors on it. 

Fifth: Israel sole Control Over the Area Between 23 and 29 Lines

Lebanon is suffering from domestic crises politically, economically and societally, that compete the "demarcation of borders" on the national priorities. This general atmosphere of uncertainty and accusations affects the unity and cohesion of the Lebanese negotiator; dispersing ideas and visions, and destabilizing the Lebanese negotiating position.

As mentioned earlier, Karish field is out from the disputed status once a state takes advantage of it and stabilizes it. This scenario does not appear to be excluded in Israeli calculations, although the likelihood of it occurring is low based on the importance of gas to the Lebanese economy, and the equation of relative deterrence that Hezbollah is alluring to under the banner of the state.

However, the deteriorating crises inside Lebanon, with the continuation of the economic pressures, political gridlock, and fears of a public outcry, are likely to be at the bottom of the agenda. Tel Aviv will use the opportunity to control as much disputed waters as possible.

In addition, fears of worsening relations between political rivals, such as the armed clashes in Beirut in October 2021, which left six deaths and 30 injuries, which Hezbollah accused the Lebanese Brigades Party of deliberately creating a crisis, while the Brigades responded that what happened as a result of the shipment sought by Hezbollah, to influence the course of the port explosion investigations.

Of course, everyone in Lebanon is aware of the seriousness of what happened, and seeks to avoid being dragged into creating crises. Whoever, it makes no sense to recognize the ability of the various parties to exercise restraint in moments of crisis, where such crisis may be generated by the demarcation file to overthrow the Lebanese negotiating position.

Lebanon in the Middle East Energy Equation

The Eastern Mediterranean has become a hotbed of tension and energy, not only in terms of the huge gas reserves estimated at the beginning of this report, but also for its location adjacent to southern Europe. Energy geopolitics are as important as reserves and production capacities. Europe is well aware of this fact in its quest to diversify energy sources away from the Russian hidden "monopoly."

Against such emergent "opportunity" Lebanon finds itself in an unfavourable position to take advantage of such opportunity, as Lebanon's regional relations do not qualify it to integrate into energy-linking paths. In addition, companies are averting extracting gas and oil even from its uncontested waters. Lebanon is under an undeclared "Caesar Act" which hinders its goals concerning solving its economic crises.

It is noteworthy that relations between the Eastern Mediterranean countries, at this stage, are witnessing processes of probing the intentions, in order to build confidence and overcome the past disputes, Turkey's relations with both Egypt and Israel are improving in terms of political meetings and coordination in some areas, such as economy and energy.

The Egyptian-Israeli interdependence in this file is a cornerstone of any upcoming cooperation. The memorandum of understanding for the export of Israeli gas to Europe, through Egypt, represents "an umbrella for a new set of agreements," according to Egyptian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tarek al-Mulla.

As previously stated in explanatory contradictions, the disputed Karish field is likely to be one of the sources of gas exports to the EU, which means that Lebanon's tensions in the eastern Mediterranean are not limited to Israel.

Syria has also not resolved its maritime borders with Lebanon. Lebanese parties denounced the granting of the Syrian government, in March 2021, to a Russian company the right to survey and explore block 1 of Syrian waters, that intersect with Block 1,2 of Lebanese waters. The area of the intersection is estimated at 750 square kilometers.

Although the unagreed-upon area with Syria is not much different from that disputed with Israel (Lebanese claims were limited to 1,200 square kilometers), the nature of the demarcation of Lebanon's maritime border with Syria and Israel varies according to political, security, and military considerations. The army manages the southern border file, while north with Syria is handled by ministries and institutions with jurisdiction and coordination with the army, Lebanese sources tend to call what is happening south of the as "border conflict", while calling what happening in the north as "maritime dispute".


Lebanon's ties with Arab countries, in the field of energy, include the promising project to export electricity from Jordan through Syria, as well as the signing of a final agreement in June 2022 to supply Egyptian gas to Lebanon.

It is hoped that Jordanian electricity and Egyptian gas will ease the power outage crisis in Lebanon, where the Lebanese Electricity Company barely provides more than two hours of electricity. This period is expected to rise to 10 hours a day.

If the demarcation of the southern and northern borders is resolved, Lebanon then will begin extracting gas in few years - if the production and distribution process is better managed – and Lebanon will be able to phase out electrical and gas interconnection.

In addition to Lebanon's economic gains from the demarcation of its maritime borders, economic coordination is supposed to contribute to regional de-escalation. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum could be an area for building common interests, as it is not closed, i.e. new members can join it, such as Lebanon and Turkey, which consider the Forum a platform that undermines its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The paper does not want to raise the expectations of talking about a peace forum, which requires time and strategic steps that bring positions closer and do not investigate any party, including the Palestinian National Authority participating in the forum as an observer.

No one will lose, unless one party wants to maximize its gains at the expense of the rights of the other. No one will gain strategic gains beyond the material dimension, unless a wealth-sharing formula is agreed upon in the Eastern Mediterranean, that goes beyond the complexities of politics and the balance of power, based on the basis of respect for state sovereignty and "relative" equality among state. Then talk of "economic peace" can be realistic and logical, rather than merely be empty theorizing.

To conclude, no country can address an external threat without a unified or minimally divided interior. Aside from the polarization between the parties -or partners- the demarcation of Lebanon's maritime borders should be a unifying factor in efforts to strengthen Lebanon's negotiating position, in order not to miss the opportunity for Lebanon to emerge from its economic impasse.

It is in the interest of the Lebanese state to create an administrative environment, so it would deal with the extraction of the resources inherent on the seabed, and not only to deal with the demarcation of the border from a political security point of view. Without following the standards of good governance in the management of these resources, they will be subject to the logic of quotas, that investigate one party or the other. Since the Taif Agreement, most political elites in Lebanon recycle files according to consensus, that will not benefit Lebanon altogether, but rather elites that lead sub-identities that support them, and depend thereupon to achieve triumph in their side battles.


Policy Analysis Team