Israel risks crossing Hezbollah ‘red line’ as it prepares to connect to disputed gas field

Energean's drill ship drilling at the Karish natural gas field offshore Israel in the east Mediterranean (Ari Rabinovitch - Reuters)

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  September 20, 2022

The Karish maritime reservoir, part of which is claimed by Lebanon, is estimated to hold 2-3tn cubic feet of natural gas.

Israel is preparing to connect a disputed Mediterranean gas field to its national gas network, a development helping the country cement its new role as a supplier to Europe at the risk of inflaming tensions with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The Israeli energy ministry said last week that it would conduct tests on the rig and natural transmission system in the Karish maritime reservoir, part of which is claimed by neighbouring Lebanon. The work is expected to begin on Tuesday, and London-listed company Energean, which has licensed the field, has said that it is “on track to deliver [the] first gas from the Karish development project within weeks.”

Discovered in 2013, the relatively small Karish field, together with the nearby Tarin field, is estimated to hold as much as 2-3tn cubic feet of natural gas and 44m barrels of liquids. While what can be immediately exported is a fraction of what is needed to ease the global energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the operation is nonetheless viewed as welcome by Israel’s western allies as prices soar and Europe searches for alternatives to Russian gas sources.

But Lebanon, which is still technically at war with Israel, claims part of the Karish field as its own. Events took a dramatic turn over the summer, after Energean brought a production vessel into the field in June despite protestations from Beirut that the reservoir should not be developed until US-mediated maritime border negotiations which began in 2020 are completed.

Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shia movement allied with Iran, responded to the Energean move by launching unarmed drones towards Karish on 2 July, which were shot down by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

The group has repeatedly threatened attacks if Israel proceeds in the disputed area. On Saturday, Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a televised speech that Israeli extraction of gas from Karish was a “red line”, but that he wanted the US-brokered maritime border talks to succeed.

“We are following up on the negotiations … our eyes and missiles are locked on Karish,” the cleric said. “As long as extraction has not started, there is a chance for solutions.”

Energean has previously said it has received security assurances from the Israeli government, which has dealt with threats against its offshore gas installations before from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israeli media has reported the Greek-founded hydrocarbon exploration company is contractually obliged to begin supplying gas to customers, and has accrued significant debt by developing the project.

“If Nasrallah wants to try and harm and to complicate this process, he is welcome to do so: the price is Lebanon,” Israel’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, said last week. “I hope for his sake that he won’t do this. We are prepared to defend our interests.”

“Israel doesn’t regard anything in its economic exclusive zone as a matter that needs to be negotiated with the Lebanese, but it can be argued that they are being provocative by going ahead with this. The Israeli side of things is verging on the undisciplined, because there’s only a caretaker government in place at the moment,” said Simon Henderson, the director of the Washington Institute’s Gulf and energy policy program.

“It’s a geopolitical game of bluff. Hezbollah doesn’t actually want to confront Israel. Israel wants to assert what it sees as its right. And the US, right before the midterm elections, doesn’t want a Middle East war.”

Karish is marginal in terms of global supply, but represents a significant economic boon for Israel and Lebanon. Beirut licensed a group of international companies to carry out the country’s first offshore energy exploration in two other blocs in 2018, but stymied by the maritime border dispute, unstable government and financial collapse, has been unable to make significant progress.

Israeli gas production, meanwhile, is up by 22% so far this year as a result of Europe severely reducing its dependence on Russian energy.

In June, Israel signed a trilateral memorandum of understanding in which gas will be shipped to Egypt, and then on to the EU, for the first time.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian