“The message was delivered.” This is how, in a brief statement issued Saturday night, Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the three reconnaissance drones sent toward the disputed Karish offshore gas field.
Although the three drones, which were shot down by the Israeli army, were unarmed, everything seems to indicate that this sequence of events has opened a new page in the indirect maritime border demarcation negotiations between Lebanon and Israel.
But what message did Hezbollah send? “Our position has always been clear: the Zionist state has no right to start operation in the disputed Karish field until Lebanon gives its consent,” Mohammad Afif, head of Hezbollah’s communication office, told L’Orient-Le Jour.
“This operation was therefore tantamount to a first warning,” he added, without excluding an escalation of tensions if Israel continues to exploit the gas field reserves in the absence of an agreement with Lebanon.
Similarly, Tel Aviv warned that it is ready “to defend the country’s infrastructure” against any aggression. “The terrorist organization, Hezbollah, undermines the Lebanese state’s ability to reach a maritime border agreement, which is vital for the Lebanese economy and its citizens. This is despite Israel’s intentions to move negotiations forward to resolve the problem,” said Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Rare official Lebanese criticism
Faced with this risk of escalation or failure in the talks over the maritime border, the Lebanese government entered the fray.
Caretaker Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib and Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati criticized Hezbollah’s operation after a meeting yesterday, saying that “any action taken outside the state’s responsibility and the diplomatic context in which the negotiations are happening is unacceptable and exposes Lebanon to unnecessary risks.”
“We call on all parties to display a sense of national responsibility and to respect the fact that everyone, without exception, is under the state’s leadership in the negotiations,” the statement added.
It is an extremely rare criticism leveled by the Lebanese government at Hezbollah, without, however, naming it. This position is all the more surprising when taking into account that both Mikati and President Michel Aoun (to whom Bou Habib is close) are perceived as conciliatory towards Hassan Nasrallah’s party.
“As long as the dispute has not been resolved, one would expect security incidents to happen. That is why we call for a rapid conclusion of negotiations and self-restraint so as to avoid further complications in the situation,” an MP close to Mikati told L’Orient-Le Jour.
L’Orient-Le Jour reached out to Baabda Palace for comment on Saturday’s operation, but it refused to.
The operation comes at a time when the Israelis are not very enthusiastic about the Lebanese proposal for the demarcation of the maritime border. Beirut made an offer during a meeting in June with US mediator Amos Hochstein. The offer would give Israel control over the entire Karish gas field, in exchange for Lebanese sovereignty over the entire Qana field, further north, a barter that the Hebrew state does not seem ready to endorse.
The Lebanese government “renewed yesterday its support for US envoy Amos Hochstein in his efforts to reach a solution that clearly preserves all national rights and called to speed up negotiations,” which reached an “advanced” stage.
The officials also called on Israel to halt “its ongoing maritime, land and air violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty.”
This stance was welcomed by Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, a party in direct opposition to Hezbollah. “It turns out that even governments dependent on Hezbollah can no longer ignore its actions,” the LF press office wrote in a statement. “It seems once again that Hezbollah wants to confiscate the strategic, security and military decisions of the Lebanese state,” added the statement, which stated that these actions “undermine the interests of the Lebanese people.”
But why did Hezbollah decide to take this action now? In Hezbollah’s official circles, it is said that the operation was planned in advance and has nothing to do with the recent developments on the political or regional scene.
“We pulled the rug out from under those who do populist one-upmanship at the expense of the resistance and accuse us of standing idly by while Israel violates our sovereignty. Besides, why don’t they congratulate us for our operation?” said Afif.
Some of the protest movement MPs had in fact decried the inaction by both Hezbollah and the Lebanese state in the face of Israel’s exploitation of the Karish field in early June.
For his part, Joe Macaron, a Middle East analyst, said,” Hezbollah is reinforcing the Lebanese official position that exploring gas on the Israeli side has to wait for the conclusion of negotiations. It is a soft warning attack that is not provocative enough to prompt Israeli reaction or halting the maritime talks. The timing is crucial as Lebanon awaits the Israeli response to the offer they relayed through the US mediator.” “I don't see the limited impact of unarmed drones having a significant impact on the already difficult maritime talks,” he added.
“Thanks to our operation, the position is stronger, and the negotiators know that they can count on the resistance to tip the balance in Lebanon’s favor,” Afif said.
Faisal Abdel Sater, an observer close to Hezbollah, expressed the same opinion. “The Americans and the Europeans, who need gas to be extracted as soon as possible in order to become independent from Russia, are now aware that it is necessary for an agreement to be reached very quickly, or else the extraction of gas will not take place,” he said.
Furthermore, the observer said it is possibly no coincidence that the operation was carried out just after the Arab foreign ministers’ meeting in Beirut, held in preparation for the Arab Summit in Algiers.
“Yes, the resistance may have wanted to also deliver a message to the Arab countries, which have normalized relations with Israel and equated the Arab interests with those of Israel,” he said.
Last year, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries denounced Hezbollah’s “stranglehold” on Lebanon, before severing diplomatic relations with Beirut, thus isolating it from the Arab world. These relations were restored several months later thanks to a Kuwait mediation.
Abdel Sater also recalled that Hezbollah’s operation coincides with Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s visit in Damascus to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Iran is clearly consolidating support for its allies, in Syria as in Lebanon, in the face of the Zionist project,” said the analyst.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported in recent months that several Israeli strikes in Syria hit positions and arms depots belonging to Hezbollah.
Speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour, Nicholas Blanford, a researcher with the Atlantic Council, said that Hezbollah’s operation is more related to regional dynamics.
“The Iranians are feeling increasingly uncomfortable with Israeli operations in Syria, and even in Iran. That’s why Hezbollah conducted this operation. As for the maritime border, I don't think the operation will not have a significant impact on it,” he said.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury