When Lebanese Armed Forces commander Gen. Joseph Aoun asked what his troops should do if Israel violated Lebanese waters, Prime Minister Saad Hariri promptly responded, “You shoot at them.” The maritime dispute with Israel is dominating Lebanese politics as the US State Department’s David Satterfield continues his three-week shuttle diplomacy between the two countries to reach a common ground, or at least prevent the dispute from spiraling out of control.
Hariri’s forceful statement should be viewed through a Lebanese lens and seen as a rejoinder to last week’s speech by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who offered his armed group as a guarantee that Israel will not intrude in Lebanese waters in the southern border area. Lebanon worries that Israel could use its operations in the Karish gas field to perform directional drilling that would beat Lebanon to the exploration of the adjacent and contested Block 9. Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone map, published in March 2013, includes a small triangular area contested by the two countries, and Beirut prioritized Block 9, which juts into the contested zone, in the first round of offshore licensing. After Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Jan. 31 called Lebanese exploration of Block 9 as “provocative,” the two sides began to trade threats.