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Lebanon's Hezbollah has escalated the Mediterranean race for offshore gas and oil, threatening Israel and saying America is "not an honest broker." At issue is Lebanon's offshore search, which is disputed by Israel.
Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Iranian-backed movement Hezbollah, urged Lebanon's government Friday to stand firm against Israel, with force if necessary, to assert access to an anticipated energy windfall.
Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus skirt the Levant Basin in the eastern Mediterranean, where big sub-sea gas fields have been identified since 2009. Israel and Cyprus agreed on maritime boundaries in 2010.
"This is Lebanon's wealth and hope," Nasrallah said, referring to Lebanon's otherwise weak economic growth and high debt-to-earnings ratio, and adding that the US was "not an honest broker."
"If you [Israel] prevent us, if you bomb us we will bomb you, and if you hit us we will hit you," said Nasrallah in televised remarks from a Hezbollah rally.
His threat follows further rumblings from Israel and Thursday's visit to Beirut by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said Lebanon also stood to prosper from natural resources development "in agreement with all its neighbors."
Offshore exploration tenders granted
An energy consortium, comprising France's Total, Italy's ENI and Russia's Novatek, last month won a tender from the Lebanese Petroleum Administration (LPA) to begin drilling offshore next year in two blocks, including one disputed by Israel.
Since last week, US Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield has been meeting with officials in Lebanon on the issue.
Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri on Friday said a Lebanese-Israeli maritime border should be determined by a committee, similar to one that produced the UN-demarcation Blue Line Border used to guide Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.
Late last month, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described as "very provocative" Lebanon's call for offshore exploration tenders, saying participating firms would be making a "grave error."
"This is very, very challenging and provocative conduct here," Lieberman told an international security conference in Tel Aviv.
Mediterranean exploration accelerated
Total has said its first drill will avoid the Israeli-disputed "Block Nine," saying that one covered only 8 percent of Lebanon's total offshore exploration area.
It comprises Lebanese coastline waters as well as its larger maritime Exclusive Economic Zone of 22,700 square kilometers (8,765 square miles) further offshore.
The Lebanese Petroleum Administration has delineated 10 blocks in all, spanning the Mediterranean seabed that lies up to 2,064 meters (6,770 feet) below the surface.
Eastern Mediterranean nations, including Cyprus, have accelerated exploration in recent years, spurred further by ENI's discovery of Egypt's Zohr gas field far off Port Said in 2015. Production began last December.
Last week, Turkish warships blocked an Italian drilling vessel seeking to begin drilling for gas off Cyprus.
Cyprus has been divided into a Turkish north and a Greek south since 1974. The internationally recognized government is on the Greek Cypriot side. Only Turkey recognizes the breakaway north.
ipj/cmk (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)