July 12, 2010
Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 624

Internal Conflict in Lebanon Over Control of Oil and Gas Resources

By: H. Varulkar*

Introduction

The recent discovery of a large natural gas field off the Israeli coast, near Haifa, sparked an intense conflict in Lebanon between the camps of Prime Minster Sa'd Al-Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri – an ally of Hizbullah – over the control of Lebanon's potential oil and natural gas resources, which could generate enormous profits for the country.

At the same time, accusations began to be heard, especially from Hizbullah and its political allies, that Israel is stealing Lebanon's natural resources and that the gas reservoir it has discovered extends into Lebanon's exclusive economic zone.[1] Senior officials from Hizbullah and the opposition warned that the organization would not hesitate to use every means, including its weapons, to defend Lebanon's natural riches. Figures in the March 14 Forces stated in response that Hizbullah was simply looking for another excuse to hold on to its arms.

It should be mentioned that, following the Israeli gas discovery, Lebanon expedited the process of appealing to the U.N. to officially demarcate its exclusive economic zone and to delineate its maritime borders with neighboring countries, except for Israel.[2] The presidents of Syria and Lebanon decided on June 15, 2010 that the two countries would begin demarking the maritime border between them even before completing the demarcation of the land border, in order to settle the question of their respective rights to offshore oil and gas.[3]

Who Will Lead the Legislation of Lebanon's Natural Resources Bill?

A few days after Israel announced the discovery of an enormous gas reservoir at the Leviathan drilling site off the Haifa coast, Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri launched an attack on Israel, accusing it of stealing Lebanon's gas and oil deposits, and of ignoring the fact that the gas reservoir extends into Lebanese waters. Berri stressed that "the discovery of [this] gas reservoir obligates Lebanon to act quickly in defense of its rights," and called on the Lebanese parliament and government to declare a campaign of "economic resistance" in defense of the country's natural resources.[4]

Concurrently with the attack on Israel, Berri launched an attack on Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri and his government, whom he accused of delaying the passage of a law to regulate the management and exploitation of Lebanon's natural resources.[5] Moreover, Berri had his political advisor, MP 'Ali Hassan Khalil, prepare a draft law on this issue and submit it to the parliament.[6] This was seen as an attempt to circumvent the authority of the government, which in March 2010 appointed a committee of ministers, headed by Al-Hariri, to draft a natural resources bill.

These developments sparked a conflict lasting several weeks between Al-Hariri's ministers and associates, on the one hand, who argued that the government was the one that should lead the formulation of the law, and Nabih Berri and his associates, on the other hand, who continued to accuse the government of foot-dragging and even of promoting the interests of Israel.[7] For example, Hizbullah's official in charge of South Lebanon, Nabil Qaouq, said that that "the delay in ratifying the law... serves Israel."[8]  Some even claimed that the U.S. had instructed Al-Hariri to delay the passage of the law.[9] After much mutual mud-flinging, it was decided that Al-Hariri's committee would accelerate its deliberations and submit its draft law to the parliament within two weeks, and the latter would combine it with the proposal of MP Hassan Khalil.[10]

The Struggle between Al-Hariri and Berri over the Control of Lebanon's Oil and Gas

Though superficially and on the rhetorical level, the struggle between Al-Hariri and Berri revolves around the issue of who will draft the natural resources bill, Lebanese dailies and analysts assessed that, in essence, it is a struggle between political forces in Lebanon over future control of the country's natural resources and drilling rights, which could generate huge profits.

The daily Al-Diyar stated: "The political establishment has begun to take an interest in Lebanon's natural resources, and to plan their distribution among [the various forces]. Beneath the surface, there seems to be a struggle between Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri over who will control the oil affairs..."[11]

Talal Salman, owner of the pro-Syrian Lebanese daily Al-Safir, wrote in a more sarcastic vein: "The reaction of Lebanon's political leadership [to Israel's gas discovery] was strange, worrying, and even suspicious! The top officials started squabbling over the division of the loot – believing that they have the privilege to extract and exploit [the resources] – before the [purported oil and gas finds] were even 'in the bag.' As usual, they sought to incite sectarian strife. [But] what sect do the sea and the waves belong to? What is the religious affiliation of oil? Or the sectarian affiliation of gas?

"Israel treated this wealth from the bottom of the sea as a matter of the sovereign [state], and published charts showing the location of the find... But in Lebanon this issue took on a completely different character [and sparked an argument]: Is it the government who is responsible for [this] future wealth... or the parliament, some of whose members have already submitted [draft] laws on this issue?... Each side deployed its mouthpieces, both oral and printed... and declared that it had been the first to think of this matter and to initiate [legislation]. All this is happening when the reports [about gas finds] come [only] from Israel, whereas in Lebanon nobody has even conducted an initial exploration for this potential wealth, or assessed [its extent]... It seems that Lebanon is ruled by a flawed and corrupt leadership, and the citizens' blood is the cheapest commodity on the market..."[12]

Lebanese columnist Malek 'Aqil, who writes in Al-Safir and on the news website www.lebanonfiles.com, wrote: "In practice, behind the intense conflict among political forces over which authority should manage Lebanon's oil and gas affairs, there lies an issue much more important than the legal debate... A former [Lebanese] minister put it very simply, saying: ...What we are facing here are preparations for the greatest division of capital that the Lebanese regime has ever known throughout its history... Lebanon is facing [the issue of] oil profits, [which will spark] a prolonged internal struggle for control of [this resource]..."[13]

Websites affiliated with Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri or critical of the Lebanese opposition contended that Nabih Berri was effectively trying to take control of Lebanon's oil and gas affairs and to secure the future profits for himself. The website www.metransparent.com, known for its criticism of Hizbullah and its allies, reported that Berri's associates have already started looking for companies to drill in Lebanese waters, and that the companies chosen will be ones that agree to cooperate with the forces controlling South Lebanon, namely Hizbullah. According to the website, murmurs have begun to be heard in the country that "the oil of the South belongs to the South," and that the forces controlling South Lebanon will be the ones to manage any resources discovered. In fact, the website stated that Nabih Berri wants these resources to be managed by the Council of the South, controlled by his Amal movement.[14]        

Participants in Lebanese internet forums voiced similar suspicions. A participant in the official Al-Mustaqbal forum wrote: "[Berri's] plan is to take personal control of all oil affairs... In other words, he... plans to profit from this bounty and seize the revenues for himself and his cronies..." Another participant wrote that Berri and his associates have already "begun to rub their hands together in anticipation of stealing the people's money," and that they will surely demand that all oil dealings be managed by the Council of the South.[15]   

Hizbullah and Its Allies: Hizbullah's Weapons Are the Means to Defend Lebanon's Resources

The reports on Israel's gas find not only sparked a squabble for control of Lebanon's resources, but also rekindled the years-long debate about the legitimacy of Hizbullah's weapons. Hizbullah's leaders, its political allies, and the papers associated with them accused Israel of stealing Lebanon's resources, and argued that Hizbullah's weapons are the best means to defend these resources. They stressed that Israel's discovery only clarifies how important it is to let Hizbullah keep its arms, and promised that the movement is poised to counter any hasty move on Israel's part.

Hizbullah Official: "The Resistance is Standing By to Repel any Foolish Action the Enemy Government May Take"

On June 8, 2010, a few days after the discovery of the natural gas in Israel, a front-page article appeared in Al-Safir under the headline "Israel Planning to Steal Lebanon's Offshore Gas Fields." It said: "The Israelis are ignoring the fact that the [Leviathan] gas reservoir stretches beyond the approximate borders of their territorial waters and, according to their [own] charts, extends into Lebanese waters – something that presents Lebanon with a new challenge and defines a new issue of contention..." The article went on to claim that most of the drilling Israel had done in the Leviathan reservoir had been off the Lebanese coast, and predicted that "the area will soon become a new zone of conflict between Israel and Lebanon, [and] it can be assumed that [the latter] will defend its rights at sea..."[16]

As mentioned above, similar claims were made by both Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and senior Hizbullah officials. Hizbullah official in the South Nabil Qaouq said Lebanon must "expedite drilling for oil, and defend its rights against Israel's piracy." He added: "The neglect and disregard of this matter are much more than a national error, as Israel is posing a threat, and even demonstrating its hostile intentions, with the hope of establishing facts on the ground..."[17]

Hizbullah deputy secretary-general Na'im Qassem declared that his organization would defend the natural resources and oil fields discovered in Lebanese waters, stating that "the resistance is standing by to repel any foolish action the enemy government may take." According to Qassem, "Lebanon has the right to assert its authority over its natural resources, and Lebanon and its resistance [i.e. Hizbullah] have the right to defend those resources by any and all means." He further warned Israel against "any reckless move aimed at taking over Lebanon's [natural] resources."[18]

Hizbullah Executive Council chairman Hashem Safi Al-Din claimed that "Lebanon's need for resistance has doubled in light of the Israeli threats to plunder its oil resources," and therefore called upon the Lebanese people to stick by the resistance. He added: "If we in Lebanon need hundreds and thousands of missiles and [other military] capabilities in order to stand up to enemy and to protect our sovereignty, honor, and waters, then in the future the need to defend our oil resources will compel us to strengthen our resistance capabilities [even further]. If it is true that Israel plans to take over the oil estimated to be found in this region... it proves that Lebanon needs the formula [comprising] the military, the people, and the resistance in order to protect all of its capabilities and resources... All the developments merely prove that the way of resistance is the right one, and that there is no chance to ensure any rights or to deter the Israeli enemy, other than through the power of blood, arms, and victory."[19]

Hizbullah's Allies: Hizbullah's Weapons Now More Crucial than Ever

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who over the last year has become a close ally of Hizbullah and a keen supporter of the resistance against Israel, addressed the issue at a dinner he held in his home in honor of the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon. He emphasized the importance of keeping Hizbullah armed, and of using this armament to full effect in defending Lebanon and liberating its occupied lands: "Now more than ever, we understand the importance of these arms in defending our national resources discovered at sea. If we do not defend them, there is no doubt that the Zionist enemy will steal them, just as it stole other resources, and just as I believe it is stealing... the oil and gas off the Gaza coast."[20] Similar statements were made by Nabil Nicolas, a Lebanese MP from the Change and Reform bloc headed by Michel 'Aoun, in an interview for the Lebanese channel New TV.[21]

Youth and Sports Minister 'Ali 'Abdallah, of Nabih Berri's Development and Liberation bloc, said: "We will not agree to disregard our rights [to our natural resources], nor will we agree to any haggling over this issue of sovereignty. We will lie in wait for the enemy, because the era of obedience and submission is over. If need be, we will pay in blood..."[22] Qassem Hashem, an MP from the same bloc, pointed out that the resistance was Lebanon's source of power and that "only it is capable of restoring the Lebanese occupied lands and of defending our oil resources."[23]

Al-Akhbar, which is aligned with Hizbullah, claimed that Lebanon needs to employ a two-pronged strategy in countering Israel's threats against its natural riches: First, it needs to begin drilling for oil and gas in its own economic waters and harvesting its resources, even before the U.N. determined the boundaries of its exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean, because Lebanon "does not have the luxury of waiting until its rights are approved by international bodies..." Second, Lebanon "must establish a clear link between its gas and oil drills and the capabilities of the resistance [i.e. Hizbullah and its weapons]... [and make it clear] that if Israel threatens Lebanon's drill sites, Lebanon can threaten Israel's drill sites; and if Israel damages these sites, the resistance has the capacity and the will to respond in kind..." The daily also stated that as soon as insurance companies felt Israel's rigs face a clear and present danger, such as the possibility of a military attack by Hizbullah, they would refuse to insure Israeli drilling projects.[24]

March 14 Forces: Hizbullah Seeking another Excuse to Keep Its Weapons

These statements by Hizbullah and its allies aroused concerns within the March 14 Forces. The Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai reported that this movement "feared that the issue of the oil resources would replace or supplement the issue of the Shab'a Farms, and be used by Hizbullah as another pretext for keeping its weapons."[25] In fact, Hizbullah's leaders have already drawn a parallel between the oil resources and the Shab'a Farms. Hizbullah official in South Lebanon Nabil Qaouq stressed that "Lebanon has the right to defend its national sovereignty and all the oil [fields] along its shores, just as [it has the right to defend] every grain of soil of the Shab'a Farms..."[26]

The head of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, expressed puzzlement at the timing of the debate over the oil resources, and said that "some [elements in Lebanon] are looking for [a] new Shab'a Farms..."[27] Another member of his party, MP Antoine Zahra, stated that the issue of Lebanon's offshore oil is just another item "in the endless list of excuses" meant to justify the continued existence of Hizbullah's arsenal.[28]

Similar claims were made by Al-Hariri's Al-Mustaqbal movement. MP Riad Rahhal of the Al-Mustaqbal party said: "Does [Hizbullah now] want to transform from a military resistance [movement] into [a movement of] economic resistance in the field of oil? Are they looking for another excuse to hold on to [their] weapons, in case Israel decides to withdraw from [the village of] Rajar [thereby removing one of their present excuses for remaining armed]?"[29]

Another party member, MP Ziad Al-Qadri, accused Hizbullah of "trying to take certain decisions regarding the resistance without consulting the other forces [in the country]." He explained that "Hizbullah is trying to find another function for its weapons – one having to do with oil – and is therefore taking unilateral decisions on a crucial matter that impacts the fate of the state, [which] is unacceptable..."[30]      

The website www.metransparent.com, known for its criticism of Syria and Hizbullah, likewise claimed that Berri had raised the oil issue in order to "find a pretext for prolonging the conflict with Israel, [especially since] U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has announced that an initial agreement has been reached regarding Israel's withdrawal from the Lebanese part of Rajar village. [This] deprives Hizbullah of some of the cards it has been playing [to justify] its continued armament, making it necessary to find a new pretext..."[31] The site claimed that another reason for raising the issue is Berri's desire to portray the March 14 Forces, represented by Prime Minister S'ad Al-Hariri, as ignoring and even neglecting the rights of the Lebanese people, in contrast to the opposition and resistance forces, which are defending these rights.[32]

Lebanese journalist Maha Aoun wrote similarly: "The question being asked is: Why all the fuss and feathers? Why all this noise, and [why] the rush to prod the government into passing a law [regulating] gas and oil drills in Lebanon's waters – on the pretext of stopping Israeli piracy – to the point of accusing [the Lebanese government] of laxity and of neglecting its duty to defend national resources?... The strange thing about this matter is the surprising awakening of the Oil Minister [referring to Energy Minister Jubran Basil, who belongs to the opposition] and of the entire March 8 bloc [referring to the opposition forces], and the sudden beating of the war drums with the aim of exploiting this issue politically. It seems that the idea of exploiting [it] politically [came to their minds] since the issue of the Shab'a Farms has exhausted itself, leaving no choice but to [find] another pretext..."[33]

* H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:


[1] Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is a sea zone over which a state has "sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources... such as the production of energy." The EEZ stretches 200 nautical miles from the state's coast. If the waters of another country lie within this range, the two can appeal to the U.N. for arbitration.

See http://www.un.org/Depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/part5.htm

[2] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 3, 2010; Al-Nahar, Al-Safir (Lebanon), July 6, 2010.

[3] Al-Safir (Lebanon), Al-Hayat (London), June 16, 2010; Al-Safir (Lebanon), July 5, 2010.

[4] www.march14.org, June 8, 2010; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 9, 10, 2010.

[5] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 10, 2010; Al-Safir (Lebanon), June 28, 2010.

[6] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 10, 2010.

[7] Al-Diyar (Lebanon), June 23, 26, 2010; Al-Safir (Lebanon), June 23, 28, 2010; www.alintiqad.com, June 24, 2010; Al-Ittihad (UAE), June 26, 2010; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 23, 26, 27, 28, 29, 2010.

[8] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 26, 2010.

[9] Al-Diyar (Lebanon), June 26, 2010; Al-Balad (Lebanon), July 2, 2010.

[10] Al-Mustaqbal, Al-Safir, Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 29, 2010.

[11] Al-Diyar (Lebanon), June 27, 2010.

[12] Al-Safir (Lebanon), June 28, 2010.

[13] www.lebanonfiles.com, June 28, 2010.

[14] www.metransparent.com, June 29, 2010.

[16] Al-Safir (Lebanon), June 8, 2010.

[17] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), June 29, 2010.

[18] www.almanar.com.lb, June 29, 2010.

[19] www.almanar.com.lb, June 12, 2010. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 13, 2010.

[20] Al-Hayat (London), June 20, 2010.

[21] Al-Intiqad (Lebanon), June 26, 2010.

[22] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 28, 2010.

[23] www.moqawama.org, June 25, 2010.

[24] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 28, 2010.

[25] Al-Rai (Kuwait), June 26, 2010.

[26] SANA (Syria), June 25, 2010.

[27] Al-Safir (Lebanon), July 1, 2010.

[28] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 26, 2010.

[29] www.march14.org, June 26, 2010.

[30] www.psp.org.lb, July 1, 2010.

[31] In a June 24, 2010 interview for the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that the Israeli government had agreed to his proposal to withdraw its troops from Rajar, and that he hoped the withdrawal would be effected soon. www.naharnet.com, June 25, 2010.

[32] www.metransparent.com, June 29, 2010.

[33] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), June 30, 2010.


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