UN Middle East envoy warns of tensions in Lebanon as Israel and Hezbollah clash over gas field
UNITED NATIONS — The UN special envoy to the Middle East warned on Thursday of tensions in southern Lebanon, as Israel and the Hezbollah terror group traded threats over a disputed offshore gas field.
Tor Wennesland, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, told the Security Council during a regular briefing that “heightened tensions persisted” in the South Lebanon border area administered by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
At least four firing ranges have been seen in regular use in the area in recent months, in “flagrant violation” of UN Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, a- he declared.
Wennesland said there had been “an increasing number of incidents” restricting UNIFIL’s freedom of movement, which he said was essential to the implementation of the peace accord.
The nature of the firing ranges and incidents restricting UN movement was unclear, but Hezbollah controls the border area inside southern Lebanon. A UN spokesman said he had no further information immediately.
Wennesland also said Israel’s “regular and continued violations of Lebanese airspace also remain of concern” and constitute violations of Resolution 1701.
The warning came as Israel and Hezbollah threatened each other over a disputed gas field in the Mediterranean Sea.
Israel and Lebanon have been engaged for more than a year in rare US-brokered talks aimed at resolving a dispute over rights to offshore fields believed to contain natural gas riches, and the sides are reportedly set to settle. come to an agreement.
Both countries claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon also claims the Karish gas field is in disputed territory under ongoing maritime border negotiations, while Israel claims it is within its internationally recognized economic waters.
Hezbollah has stepped up its rhetoric in recent months as Israel and Lebanon engage in talks. He remains fiercely opposed to any concessions with Israel. Tensions rose in June when an Israeli-chartered production vessel arrived near the Karish offshore gas field.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has constantly threatened to target Israeli offshore installations. In July, the IDF said it shot down three unarmed Hezbollah drones launched at a gas platform in Karish.
On Monday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned Hezbollah that any attack on its gas assets could spark a war, after the terror group threatened to “cut off” Israel’s hands if it exploited the disputed offshore field.
Gantz’s warning came after reports that Israeli security forces were on high alert near the northern border, fearing Hezbollah could attack in order to sabotage the negotiations.
The dispute over the maritime boundary dates back more than a decade. In 2012, Lebanon rejected a US offer to receive 550 square kilometers (212 square miles), nearly two-thirds of the area, while Israel would have received the remaining third.
Lebanon and Israel last fought a war in 2006, have no diplomatic relations and are separated by the UN-patrolled ceasefire line.
Lebanon badly needs a maritime border deal in the Mediterranean as it hopes to exploit offshore gas reserves to try to alleviate what has become the worst economic crisis in its modern history.
“In Lebanon, the lack of progress in reforms, the stalemate in government formation and the growing pressure on institutions, including the Lebanese armed and security forces, continue to weigh heavily on the authority of the state,” Wennesland said.
Much of the Wennesland Security Council briefing on Thursday focused on the brief conflict between Israel and the Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza last month. He criticized both sides for their conduct during the fighting and hailed the ceasefire for ending the violence, but said “the underlying drivers of the conflict remain unresolved”.
He said deadly explosions in Gaza that Israel blamed on failed rocket launches had “not yet been verified” and expressed concern about Israeli airstrikes in densely populated areas that caused casualties.
“Israel must respect its obligations under international humanitarian law, including the proportionate use of force and take all possible precautions to spare civilians and civilian objects,” he said.
He condemned “the indiscriminate launching of rockets by Palestinian armed groups from densely populated neighborhoods in Gaza into centers populated by civilians in Israel”, which he said violates international humanitarian law.
Hezbollah leader Nasrallah met with Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad Nakhaleh in Lebanon on Wednesday to discuss regional developments.
Wennesland also expressed concern about violence in the West Bank, the Israeli home demolitions and settlements, calling the communities illegal and a “substantial obstacle to peace”.