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Karish gas field: Are Lebanon and Israel preparing for war?

Hezbollah is mobilising its troops in southern Lebanon pending Israel's response to Lebanon's demands regarding gas extraction from disputed fields in the eastern Mediterranean
Energean Israel Gas
London-based Energean’s drill ship begins drilling at the Karish natural gas field offshore Israel in the eastern Mediterranean on 9 May 2022 (Reuters)

Not since 2006 has the risk of war between Lebanon and Israel been so high.

Since Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah threatened to use force to prevent Israel from unilaterally extracting gas from certain eastern Mediterranean fields, there has been open and secret diplomacy to avoid a conflict whose consequences would be incalculable.

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On 13 July, for the first time, Nasrallah explicitly threatened Israel with war if it went ahead with its plans in early September to start operating the Karish gas field, located on the edge of the Lebanese Exclusive Economic Zone.

These threats, repeated several times in recent weeks, were preceded by the launch of three surveillance drones towards the Karish platform on 2 July.

This was followed by the broadcast of a video as part of that psychological warfare, showing a launch pad and Iranian land-to-sea missiles of the Nour type (a modified version of the Chinese C-802 missile) and infrared images of Karish and Israeli production and extraction floating units around the platform, with their geographical coordinates.

The military option

At the end of July, Hezbollah operatives, dressed in khakis but without weapons, marched along the Lebanese-Israeli border, a few metres from the Israeli soldiers posted on the other side of the fence.

Nasrallah's threats peaked on 10 August. Addressing the crowd during the commemoration of Ashura, which marks the martyrdom in 680 of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, the leader of Hezbollah asked his supporters to "be prepared for any eventuality... The hand that will touch our wealth will be severed," he insisted.

"By putting the military option on the table, Hassan Nasrallah actually wants to relaunch negotiations on the demarcation of the maritime border at a time when gas extraction in the eastern Mediterranean is becoming a global issue in the context of the confrontation between Russia and western countries," a former Lebanese foreign minister, who requested anonymity, told Middle East Eye.

Lebanon-Israel maritime border dispute

"Eastern Mediterranean gas, including that from Lebanon, is today one of the elements of the global confrontation," Charles Abi Nader, a retired Lebanese general, told MEE. "If enough gas is extracted to partially replace Russian gas, it could change the international equations. Russia managed to turn gas into an effective weapon that has caused cracks in the western camp."

Hezbollah's critics, for their part, do not hide the possible negative repercussions on Lebanon of what the media now call "the Nasrallah equation".

"Hezbollah's leader behaves like an actor in the game of nations. But we must stay out of this game. Mr Nasrallah should try to save us from a war. If war happens it would cause mutual destruction," warned Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Addressing Nasrallah during a recent interview, Jumblatt added: "You can send drones and launch missiles, but try to think about the response even if you believe in military deterrence."

The 'Nasrallah equation'

Nasrallah's approach, however, has its defenders.

"I think this equation can serve the interests of Lebanon at all levels," argues Abi Nader. "If Lebanon did not have assets and deterrent capabilities that make it strong, Israel would not have resumed the process of indirect negotiations [suspended since October 2021]."

'This is the largest mobilisation seen since the 2006 war. Thousands of fighters are involved'

- Lebanese security official

"If [Israel] did not take into account the fact that there exists in Lebanon enough forces capable of preventing the exploitation of the Karish field, which the UN considers a non-Lebanese exclusive economic zone, Israel would already have started extracting gas," said the expert in military and strategic issues.

For him, "even if the drones were shot down over the Karish area, that was a message to the Israelis showing the seriousness and determination of Hezbollah to oppose Israeli goals. If unarmed drones managed to approach the platform, it means that armed devices could do the same."

Nasrallah's verbal threats are accompanied by concrete measures on the ground. Sources close to the party, corroborated further by Lebanese security officials, tell MEE that Hezbollah has put its forces in Lebanon and Syria on high alert. Elite units of the al-Radwan brigade, deployed for years around the city of Aleppo against armed Islamist groups, have been redeployed to southern Lebanon and reserve units have been asked to stand by.

"This is the largest mobilisation seen since the 2006 war," a Lebanese security official told MEE. "Thousands of fighters are involved. Members of Hezbollah who live abroad have been recalled, and manoeuvres have been discreetly organised to test the effectiveness of command and control posts as well as the telecommunications network installed by the party throughout Lebanon."

Drums of war

Israel, too, is preparing for war. The Israeli army put its forces on the border with Lebanon on high alert, and the Iron Dome, in its land and naval versions, was deployed in the conflict zone. The Israeli Navy has also reinforced its presence around the Karish field.

Despite this massive military deployment on both sides of the border, Abi Nader thinks that "war is unlikely". "When deterrence becomes effective, the likelihood of a war between the protagonists decreases," he explained. 

"We saw this during the Cold War or between India and Pakistan, both of which became nuclear powers. The other reason that keeps the spectre of war away is the western search for some stability in the Near and Middle East, as a conflict would jeopardise efforts to exploit gas resources."

Members of Hezbollah pose with their group's flags at a camp in the Janta region in the east of the country on 19 August, 2022 (AFP)
Members of Hezbollah pose with their group's flags at a camp in the Janta region in the east of Lebanon on 19 August 2022 (AFP)

However, the former head of Lebanese diplomacy interviewed by MEE does not share this analysis. "The risks of war and agreement are equal. Many parameters come into play and no one can predict the course of events with certainty," he said.

The belligerents, therefore, have their finger on the trigger pending the outcome of the negotiations, which resumed through the US envoy Amos Hochstein. In mid-June, the state department's senior adviser for energy security resumed his diplomatic shuttles between Lebanon and Israel.

The final response

Israel's final response to Lebanon's demands - namely, a maritime route based on Line 23, the entire Qana field, the refusal of any joint project with Israel and the payment of financial compensation, and more generally, the right for Lebanon to exploit its gas resources as long as Israel does the same - has still not been officially conveyed to the Lebanese authorities. However, this week, Israeli Channel 12 reported its content, citing unofficial sources.

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Israel would offer to fully retain the Karish field yet cede the entire disputed area to Lebanon, including the Qana field, in return for financial compensation for the entangled areas, which are one-third the size of Qana. But Lebanon refuses to pay any financial compensation.

Israel also proposes that the work in the Lebanese and Israeli gas fields be entrusted to the same company, in this case Energean, responsible for extracting the gas from Karish. However, for Beirut, which refuses any form of normalisation of relations with Israel, having joint projects with the country is out of the question.

Israel's Channel 12 also reports that gas extraction, which was due to begin in early September, will be postponed until October for "technical reasons". Thus, Hezbollah no longer has a pretext to attack Israeli gas infrastructures in the immediate future.

The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, close to Hezbollah, believes that the Israeli response includes concessions, but also "many pitfalls that Lebanon will not be able to accept".

Lebanese authorities are currently waiting for Hochstein to officially convey Israel's response. The subsequent sequence of events will depend on Hezbollah's assessment of it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.  

This article has been translated from the MEE French edition.

Paul Khalifeh est un journaliste libanais, correspondant de la presse étrangère et enseignant dans les universités de Beyrouth. Vous pouvez le suivre sur Twitter @khalifehpaul Paul Khalifeh is a Lebanese journalist, correspondent of the foreign press and teacher in the universities of Beirut. You can follow him on his twitter account: @khalifehpaul
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