Maritime border: Hezbollah’s calculations

Hezbollah wants to use this map as part of a regional settlement or turn the disputed maritime area into a Shebaa-style sea dispute

Maritime border: Hezbollah’s calculations

Hezbollah's number two, Naim Kassem, on June 6, 2022. (Credit: Aziz Taher/Reuters)

Hezbollah does not seem to want to be on the forefront of the maritime border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel.

Naim Qassem, the party’s no. 2 man, confirmed this approach on Monday in an interview with Reuters in which he urged the Lebanese state to take action so the party can in turn act accordingly.

“When the Lebanese state says that the Israelis are assaulting our waters and our oil, then we are ready to do our part in terms of pressure, deterrence and use of appropriate means — including force,” he said.

What is the goal behind this? To push the Lebanese state to clarify its position in its maritime claims, to obtain political cover for possible action, but also to gain time.

The docking of the Energean floating gas production rig in a disputed area, but not officially by Lebanon, prompted Hezbollah to act.

This was not only an opportunity to place the “resistance” back at the heart of the public debate, but also to use this card in an extremely shifting regional context.

Hezbollah has always considered the issue of maritime border demarcation as part of its “resistance” strategy.

It fears that any agreement to this effect would constitute the first step in some sort of normalization with Israel, which would cause it to lose its legitimacy.

It fears even more that it would be in a position where it would be very difficult to justify the possession of its military arsenal. Therefore, it is in the party’s interest for the moment to go down that road.

This is why, since the beginning of the negotiations, Hezbollah has been calling for maximalist demands, encouraging the state to claim Line 29, which crosses the Karish field: If Israel gives in, Hezbollah wins; if not, Hezbollah positions itself as the party who would defend Lebanon’s legitimate rights.

The party has long remained on the sidelines on the issue, even when its ally President Michel Aoun refused to amend Decree 6433, whereby Lebanon could officially claim Line 29.

But in the run-up to the elections, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been much more vocal on the subject.

He made haphazard statements that he rejected the American mediation, called on the state to call on companies ready to drill for oil — meaning Russian or Iranian — and pledged to protect them, and went as far as to threaten to take military action against Israeli gas infrastructures.

Should these threats be taken seriously?

“In Lebanon, crises are most often resolved through battles and wars,” a senior Hezbollah official who requested anonymity told L’Orient-Le Jour.

On the face of it, neither of the two players want things to deteriorate to this point, but the risk of an uncontrolled escalation cannot be completely ruled out.

“Israel does not want war but is playing with fire,” the source said.

In the eyes of Hezbollah, Israel is trying to impose a fait accompli by starting the exploitation of the Karish field in order to push Lebanon to accept a “discounted” offer.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, is ready to intervene. L’Orient-Le Jour learned from a militia source that Hezbollah is establishing new military posts hidden on the Lebanese border.

“The objective is to be able to intervene on Israeli soil in case of confrontation,” the military source said.

Regional solution

In recent years, Hezbollah has acquired solid experience in the use of armed drones.

Circles close to the party say that Hezbollah could make overflights in the disputed area or even carry out a strike against the floating production unit.

But Israel has already warned that any attack against its sites would be considered a declaration of war.

In the current context, both internal and regional, Hezbollah does not seem to be able to afford to run such a risk. It is subject to much greater hostility than in 2006 (during the July war) on the local scene.

At the regional level, it can no longer count on the support of Arab powers, starting with the Gulf monarchies. However, the party may be pushed to escalate for reasons that go beyond Lebanon.

Its Iranian sponsor may indeed consider it a card to be used in the arm-wrestling between Tehran and Washington today.

But, on the other hand, any diplomatic solution could also come from there.

For Hezbollah leaders, negotiations with Israel can only take place within the framework of a regional settlement, involving its Iranian patron, which would officially give it another status on the Lebanese scene.

“We are still far from that. The war in Ukraine, the tensions between Iran and the United States over the nuclear issue and the desire of some Gulf countries to ally themselves with Israel make any such negotiation impossible today,” the same senior party official said.

The return to the nuclear deal, which was supposed to be a mere formality, is still uncertain, as the US refuses to remove Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its blacklist.

“The agreement on the Lebanese maritime border is intimately linked to the nuclear agreement with Iran,” said an Arab diplomat who requested anonymity.

He added that an American concession could help break the deadlock.

“Iran is currently asking to be able to sell oil without being subject to sanctions. If they get their way, there is a good chance that Lebanon will sign the agreement with Israel,” the source said.

But another regional development could complicate matters. US President Joe Biden is expected to visit Saudi Arabia soon.

In exchange for clearing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s name in the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, he could seal a rapprochement deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

If this is the case, the Iranians would undoubtedly be led to outbid each other, especially on the Lebanese terrain.

According to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the American mediator Amos Hochstein is expected in Beirut in the next few days. However, a US representative said there are no current plans for a visit by Hochstein.

If Lebanon accepts his proposal, which is unlikely, Hezbollah would lose the game. If the state formalizes its claim to Line 29, the party will see it as a legitimization of its possible actions.

In its eyes, the disputed area would become a sort of “Shebaa-on-the-sea,” a territory in the hands of the ‘enemy,’ which justifies keeping its weapons until it is liberated.

“The summer will be hot,” Hezbollah's top executive said.

Israel threatens to destroy infrastructure in case of war

The commander in charge of Israel’s northern border, Amir Baram, threatened yesterday that in the event of war with Lebanon, Israel will destroy all infrastructure in areas, villages, and neighborhoods where Hezbollah has activities in southern Lebanon, according to remarks reported by the Arabic-speaking spokesman of the Israeli army, Avichay Adraee, on his Twitter account.

“We will destroy all the infrastructure at the blue line, to the last stone! This will be the fate of all facilities in villages or towns used by this terrorist army,” said General Baram, referring to an “increase in the past period of outposts” of Hezbollah in the border villages of South Lebanon.

“We are tracking down the active members of Hezbollah on the border ... They will pay the price, they and those who sent them, their community as well as the village that allows them to use it as a military base for terrorism.”

He added: “It seems that Lebanon will remain inside the dumping ground of Hezbollah and Iran ... And we, the army, will continue to work in Syria and Lebanon, whether it is by providing daily security or through a hidden battle to undermine all terrorist efforts.”

This article was originally published in French on L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

Hezbollah does not seem to want to be on the forefront of the maritime border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel.Naim Qassem, the party’s no. 2 man, confirmed this approach on Monday in an interview with Reuters in which he urged the Lebanese state to take action so the party can in turn act accordingly.“When the Lebanese state says that the Israelis are assaulting our waters and our oil,...