Hezbollah has threatened Israel with war if Lebanon is not allowed to exploit its share in the Karish gas field. Now, the Palestinian resistance may do the same over their “stolen gas” off the Gaza Strip.
By Yousef FARES
The maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel over the Karish gas field is reminiscent of the stolen gas fields in Palestine’s Gaza Strip. With the naked eye, Gazans can only stand by and watch the Occupation’s gas drilling platforms a few kilometers off their own coast.
This situation could change though, and may depend on the way in which the resistance in 23 handles the conflict over Karish.
That scenario may encourage the Palestinian resistance to follow their northern neighbor’s example in threatening to target Israeli platforms if Palestinians are denied their rights to the “Gaza Marine” field.
So long as Palestinians are deprived of basic living condition rights (electricity, fuel, food and medicine shortages) by their Israeli occupiers, they would be foolhardy to ignore the game-changing potential of gas extraction off their own coastline.
However, Lebanon’s current dispute is not the only issue that has led to the Palestinian claim resurfacing. Indeed, there are other factors related to the energy crisis, and it involves the Europeans.
Not Israel’s gas to export
On 15 June, it was announced in Cairo that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) had been signed to export Israeli (stolen Palestinian) gas to the European Union (EU) through Egypt.
The MoU, which Israel and the EU described as a “historic agreement,” extends over three years and is automatically renewable for two further years. It includes transporting gas from Israel to liquefaction stations in Egypt (Idku and Damietta in the north), then shipping it to Europe, which imported 155 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas from Russia last year.
In light of the EU’s faltering standoff with Moscow over Ukraine, Europe is seeking – among other sources – “Israeli gas” to compensate for about 10 percent of this amount, while Israel for its part is eager to increase its production of natural gas to 40 bcm (billion cubic meters) annually.
Experts estimate that most of this quantity will come from Palestinian gas extracted from “Gaza Marine 1” which is adjacent to the Strip, and “Marine 2” which is located within the maritime border area between Gaza and Israel.
Not the PA’s right
Understandably, news of the MoU angered the Palestinian resistance, especially since the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah did not take any practical steps to demand Palestinian rights in this matter.
Informed, anonymous sources have told The Cradle that the EU has bought the silence of the PA by giving it a 4 percent share of the value of the extracted gas, while most of the agreements signed between Ramallah and the extraction companies, in the past two decades, stipulated a ratio ranging from 10 percent to 27.5 percent.
There are also accusations that the PA will only collect some taxes on monthly production, in addition to accelerating EU aid to the Palestinians.
On 12 June, the European Commission approved a new aid package for the Palestinians worth 224.8 million euros, as a ‘bribe’ for the PA, with a verbal pledge to support Palestinian rights and confront Israeli policies that undermine the two-state solution, particularly in Jerusalem.
The EU also pledged to press for the allocation of part of the extracted gas for Palestinians at preferential prices in order to operate the power plants in Gaza and Jenin.
In return for these gestures, the PA committed to the charter of the “Eastern Mediterranean Gas Countries,” and will not object to any steps in the region’s energy file, specifically with regard to the start of exploration and extraction of natural gas from the Gaza Marine field and the Rantis field west of Ramallah. The PA further agreed not to raise the issue of Palestinian rights to energy in the areas under its “control.”
In this context, Israel tried to indirectly buy the restraint of the resistance in the Gaza Strip by increasing work permits for Palestinians in the occupied territories to 20,000.
Located in Palestinian territorial waters 36 km west of the Strip in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Gaza Marine gas field was first discovered around 1999 by British Gas who were contracted to develop it.
Despite its discovery, gas has not been extracted from the area despite the PA’s conclusion of several agreements with foreign companies, which were aborted because Israel refused to allow the operations to proceed.
Significantly, the Gaza Marine includes approximately 8 adjacent fields and is estimated to contain 12 trillion cubic meters of gas, at an attractive depth that makes the cost of extraction low.
Pirates of the Mediterranean
Israel controls the gas fields in Palestinian waters in the north of the Gaza Strip and in the eastern Mediterranean, including the so-called Yam Tethys fields, which were proven to be Palestinian property according to maps submitted by the state of Palestine to the United Nations.
In 2019, an investigation conducted by Al-Jazeera showed that Israel drained the “Mari B” gas field in the Gaza Sea (it contained enough gas for the Strip for 15 years). An investigation by Middle East Eye concluded that the Palestinians could claim 6,600 square kilometers of marine area, five times the area they now own.
Lebanon and the Gaza Strip face similar economic difficulties brought about through different foreign tools of economic besiegement. In the case of Gaza, the blockade is direct, as Israel controls the factors impacting their standard of living and welfare. As for Lebanon, it faces US sanctions and diktats that have contributed to the country’s economic meltdown.
The way in which Lebanon’s resistance movement Hezbollah manages the Karish field file will be interesting as it is likely to influence how the Palestinian resistance choose to go about protecting and reclaiming their rights.
With gas revenues estimated at $4.5 billion annually, Ramallah’s budget – which in 2021 was set at $5.6 billion, of which $3.9 billion was provided by internal revenues – could achieve self-sufficiency. Additionally, these resources could provide a radical solution to the fuel and electricity crises in the Strip.
A meeting of minds in Beirut
Informed sources have told The Cradle they have credible reason to believe the Palestinian resistance factions will take advantage of the battle that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to ignite if Israel continues to ignore Lebanon’s right to its gas fields. Nasrallah has set a deadline – the start of September – for this access to be provided.
The sources also say that Hamas’ Political Bureau Chief Ismail Haniyeh discussed the gas file with Nasrallah during their meeting in Beirut on 23 June, and suggested that the resistance in Gaza would likely participate in any future war, especially in the face of Israel’s continued theft and deprivation of natural resources.
Haniyeh spoke of “Lebanon’s right to extract gas from its maritime borders, and to stop Israeli piracy.”
However, there are calculations which must be taken into account before the Palestinian resistance gets involved in any war. This is related to the scale of the hypothetical war and the Israeli reaction to it, as well as to the logistical capabilities of the resistance at the naval level.
Yet it is the Palestinian silence on both the official and resistance level which has angered Lebanese authorities. The Director General of Lebanon’s General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, demanded that Palestinians take a coherent political stance towards what “Lebanon is negotiating regarding the gas that is in the Palestinian waters occupied by Israel.”
A military response
However, well-informed sources in the Palestinian resistance tell The Cradle that their factions have now placed the military option relating to Gaza Marine on the table, triggered by the signing of the tripartite gas agreement (between Egypt, Israel and the EU) in June.
Political analyst Ismail Muhammad believes that the Haniyeh-Nasrallah meeting resulted in a preliminary agreement, which could be implemented at the military level if necessary.
Speaking to The Cradle, Muhammad explained that “the resistance cannot miss such regional circumstances to remind of its right to Palestinian gas which has been stolen before its eyes. Just as Lebanon’s economic future depends on the extraction and sale of gas, Palestine in general, and Gaza in particular, needs such income to end the economic dependence on occupation and to liberate its political decision-making.”
Muhammad refers to the expected strategic results of any victory in the battle over the Karish and Gaza Marine fields, not just the potential economic outcomes. Extracting the right to one’s energy resources, whether by military force or by an agreement, effectively ends the Israeli-US economic blockade in both Gaza and Lebanon.
This presents “a victory for the resistance, which increases its political influence and reduces the influence of external dictates,” he added.
“This is a major battle. Winning it against the Israeli-American-Arab alliance will change the future of the region.”
There is near unanimity that there is as much a chance of a gradual military escalation as there is of reaching a fair solution to the Karish field dilemma. There are three scenarios for the role of the Palestinian resistance in the event that Hezbollah is forced to resort to force:
First, that Hezbollah initiate a gradual escalation using a qualitative weapon to strike the British/Greek drilling ship in Karish. This will deprive all parties of benefiting from the field, and return the gas file to square one.
On the other hand, Israel absorbs the blow and responds in a limited manner that does not lead to an all-out war. In this case, it is expected that the resistance in Gaza will maintain its readiness without providing guarantees of non-interference, which means that Israel will have to occupy thousands of its soldiers, along with a few squadrons of its aircraft and at least a tank battalion, to contain any reaction in Gaza.
Second, that Israel ignore Nasrallah’s threats to strike the gas platforms in “Karish and beyond Karish,” which effectively means to paralyze the entire Israeli energy sector by expanding the range of targets to include the fields of Athens, Tanin, Dolphin, Leviathan, Dalit and Aphrodite.
These fields represent the cornerstone of the energy sector, on which Israel relies to secure its gas and oil needs and provide it with financial revenues. The fields located off the shores of occupied Ashkelon and Gaza, such as Kirin, Nawa and Marin Bay – about 190 km from Gaza – also fall within the scope of Nasrallah’s “beyond Karish” equation.
Sources in the Palestinian resistance who spoke to The Cradle suggest that this scenario means a comprehensive regional war. In this case, their decision would be to “directly participate” in such a war. Although their logistical capabilities do not allow for “accurate point” hits to the gas rigs, the fire intensity provided by the suicide drones and missiles will put these fields out of action.
One source points to the Palestinian resistance’s success in targeting the Tamar natural gas field off the shores of Ashkelon and the Eilat-Ashkelon gas pipeline, which was hit by about twenty missiles, during Operation Sayf Al-Quds (Sword of Jerusalem) in May 2021.
“Israel will not be able to launch a large-scale operation against the Strip. It will not venture into an irregular war on two fronts at the same time, especially since the priority is for the Lebanese front, where there is a huge stockpile of weapons and advanced capabilities. Most probably, it will be satisfied with conventional air strikes against civilian and military targets in Gaza,” he says.
Third, the resistance also takes into account the scenario of a comprehensive war in which all the components of the Resistance Axis can participate; in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
In such a conflict, the Palestinian resistance will spare no effort in igniting all the fronts, in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem, and even in the 1948 occupied territories, as it will be an opportunity to change the “map of the region” and hit a “historic blow to the entire Zionist project,” even though the current international circumstances make such scenario unlikely to happen.
It is evident that the resistance in Gaza views the gas crisis between Lebanon and Israel as an opportunity that must be exploited to demand legitimate Palestinian rights. The continuation of difficult living conditions in the Gaza Strip in particular, hostage to conditional Israeli facilities, is something worth sacrificing to change.
Therefore, Gaza’s participation in a war between Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israel stems from the existence of a common interest, and not just a mutual foe.